When it comes to wines, one would always look to the French or Italians for some of the finest in the world. But the English? Now that’s something else entirely.
Often synonymous with pies and pudding, it wasn’t until recently that the region began to rise the ranks of winemaking. Indeed, the region has had quite a complicated history with the time-honoured libation; in 43 AD, the Romans planted precious vines during Emperor Claudius’s reign before trading began between neighbouring European countries. However, as war and plagues troubled the lands, the number of vineyards dwindled. According to the Domesday Book (a recording of life in the Middle Ages), 42 vineyards were left during the time of William the Conqueror, 12 of which were attached to monasteries. Eventually, Britons found it more profitable to lease their vineyards, especially given the fierce competition of imported wines from France.
The Coming of Age of British Wines
Today, that landscape has evolved. Beginning in the mid-40s, viticulture was once again revived under the guidance of Ray Barrington Brock, who experimented with and introduced to the United Kingdom an assortment of grape selections. With more than 600 varieties trialled–including Müller-Thurgau and Seyval Blanc–the backbone of English wines was finally established.
It didn’t truly kick in however until the advent of climate change. Perhaps the only upside to global warming (not that we’re fans of it), the rise in temperatures, particularly in the south, has brought England’s climate closer to that of the Champagne regions in France. But while this doesn’t mean Britain will start producing its own bubbly, it WILL however allow English vineyards to produce “true” Champagne varieties. Think Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
And here’s where Britain’s best-kept secret truly shines. Given the vast experience accumulated through the centuries (albeit with trial and error), English vineyards have gained prestige amongst connoisseurs, most specifically for its white varieties. In 2015 itself, British wine producers collectively won a staggering 130 awards at the Decanter World Wines Awards, where English sparkling wines have won nine trophies for Best International Sparkling Wine and six for Best Sparkling Rosé in global competitions. To put that into perspective, this accomplishment has never been achieved by any other country, and it’s worth noting that even renowned Champagne houses like Tattinger and Pommery are buying up land in the south for plantlings.
In Vino Veritas
“The change in weather is really what’s making the difference in our harvest,” said Tom Hodgetts, Head Wine “Wizard” at Alder Vineyard which I recently visited during a trip to Cornwall. “In previous years, our vines had to endure frost and [erratic] temperatures, but this time around things are definitely looking up. We’ve also started using large bougies (candles) which create heat vortexes among the vines to mitigate frost. It’s actually what helped save most of our harvests!” Indeed, during my walkabout at Alder, more than 3,500 madeline angevines (originally found in the Loire Valley of France) seemed well on their way to becoming what some enthusiasts might consider as “liquid gold”, ready to be bottled up and enjoyed in the coming years. Meanwhile, the producer’s (yes, they harvest and produce all the wine in-house!) rosé and white varieties from 2021 have all been sold out. “We’ve received tremendous response for our whites, particularly our sparkling. It was a very limited 100-bottle release featuring our Madeleine Angevine grapes, which were harvested just a little earlier than usual and we were very surprised to learn it had notes of crisp apple and grapefruit!,” Tom continued. Meanwhile, the Alder whites served as a promising substitute, as we discovered during our tasting. Off-dry and with hints of melon on the palate, the vineyard’s second vintage was a light and refreshing respite, resembling that of a Californian riesling. Its Rondo Rosé was an equal delight as well; featuring Germanic rondo grapes, the domaine’s offering was an unexpected celebration of summer berries, reminiscent of strawberries, cranberries and cherry.
Considering the region’s fruity nose, it’s easy to think of English wines as more of a summer’s tipple, which would potentially seem to fare well amongst consumers in the Southern Hemisphere. It also certainly helps to have an aromatic flavour profile, which pairs beautifully with Asian and Mediterranean dishes like paella. That said, its natural high acidity levels and ripe fruit complexity makes it a perfect aperitif, while complementing a mélange of cheeses. Like pairing halloumi and feta with a strawberry-laced London Cru rosé, or a bright Simpsons Chardonnay with delicate brie and camembert.
Perhaps in this regard, its high acidity levels are really what makes English wines truly unique. In an interview with the Financial Times, head winemaker at Hattingley Valley, Emma Rice said, “Our cool climate means that even when we obtain good ripeness, we maintain fantastic acidity. [It’s what] many growers in Champagne and Burgundy are struggling with [because of climate change].” And as if to turn the tides, studies have even predicted a production boom in the United Kingdom. In a research recently conducted by University of East Anglia (UEA), significant areas of England and Wales are projected to be warmer by 2040, expanding land suitability for Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and more “disease-resistant” varieties. In fact, the warm and dry conditions of 2018’s bumper year is already becoming more common. Said head researcher at UEA Professor Steve Dorling, “a few areas in the UK may see growing season climates similar to those that contributed to the very best recent vintages of Champagne,” and will continue to repeat themselves in at least 60% between 2021-2040.
Of course, predicting the weather can be a tricky thing to do. But if producers are anything like Adler Vineyard’s Tom Hodgetts and his ingenious use of candles, the future of winemaking seems bright. “As long as it’s carefully managed, that acidity can give a wine fineness, linearity, elegance, and great purity of fruit. It makes it vibrant and mouthwatering–and makes you want to drink another glass,” Emma concluded.
I’ll cheers to that.