Did the English invent sparkling wine from their own vineyards?

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 16, 2014
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IT IS NOW well accepted, that the English invented what came to be known as the Méthode Champenoise thanks to Tom Stevenson’s amazing discovery of a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1662 by Christopher Merret of Gloucestershire. Stevenson’s assumption was that the English were using their sparkling wine technology to make imported still French wines fizzy.This couldn’t have happened in France because their bottles were so fragile they would explode during a secondary fermentation (and, anyway, they didn’t have corks). The English had a lead of at least 20 years in sparkling technology.

But could it be that the Brits were also producing fizz from still wine made from grapes grown in England? If so, this would mean that the current boom in home produced sparkling wine is merely a revival of something we pioneered from our own vineyards.
I have just been reading – thanks to Google scanning it – William Hughes 1665 classic, The Compleat Vineyard which strongly suggests that the Brits had been making sparkling wine out of home-grown grapes for quite a while.
Hughes admits that most of our wines were imported but he also points to
vineyards in Essex, in the west of England, and Kent, which “produce great store of excellent good wine”. Indeed the entire book is about growing grapes in England.

Among various suggestions, he says: “If the wine be not brisk, how shall we make it without the addition of Sugar, Vinegar,Vi?riol & to sparkle or rather bubble in the Glass”.

He has another suggestion for English wine: “Suppose you have a piece of Wine which naturally is too sharp for your drinking, you may draw it out into bottles, and in each bottle put a spoonful or two of refined sugar, and so set them in sand in a Cellar, and let them stand a considerable time before you drink it, and you will find it a pleasant and good Wine”
All this was contained in The Compleat Vineyard” which is a do-it-yourself manual about growing grapes in Britain. My edition was published in 1665. It must have been several years in the writing and printing and he must have been describing what were quite common practices. Isn’t it high time we celebrated this achievement more vocally to assist the success of our sparkling revival? There was an interesting conversation on Twitter recently suggesting that April 23 (St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday) should be designated English Sparkling Wine Day. It would be a shame if it bit the dust.

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Vineyards of tomorrow

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 14, 2014
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Colour changes at Bride Valley

WE HEAR a lot about well established estates winning prizes – but what about the vineyards of tomorrow? I have been looking at a few ventures still at the incubation stage and they couldn’t be more different. Bride Valley is at Litton Cheney set in beautiful Dorset countryside (above). Its sparkling wine is eagerly awaited within the trade because Steven Spurrier, who owns it with his wife Bella, is globally admired as a wine expert and is taking something of a risk in suddenly deciding to practise what he preaches by establishing his own vineyard in his seventies. It is a bit like a theatre critic deciding to write their own play.
 Among numerous distinctions Steven set up the Judgement of Paris in 1976 when wines from California, unexpectedly, beat top wines from France in a blind tasting dominated by French tasters but including himself. Now the taster is to be tasted – though judging by a rather delicious sample of  their Classic Cuvee 2011 (almost entirely Chardonnay) I had from of the few early bottles I don’t think he has anything to worry about.
Bride Valley covers 25 acres spreading across several lovely Jurassic shale hillsides. It looks equally good in summer or in Autumnal mists when the red and yellow tints can warn vineyard manager Graham Fisher of differing soil conditions underneath or nutrient deficiencies. For instance, although the land has a chalk base similar to the terrain of Champagne country too much chalk can yellow the leaves while sudden reddish tints can indicate fractured canes.  The grapes are made into wine at nearby Furleigh Estate which has won gold medals for its own wines. It is in safe hands.
   JAGAJAG in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, by contrast, is a vineyard without wine. At least, not yet. It has a fully fledged infrastructure – including fine rooms and a highly regarded restaurant – but no bottles to sell. In 2013, a good year for UK grape growers, Jagajag had to abandoned its crop as the fruit wasn’t good enough. But they persevered and with a much healthier looking crop in 2014 they are hoping to have bottles ready to sell for next year. The quality of wines in Wales, led by multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouth, has risen dramatically in recent years and it will be interesting to see whether Jagajag’s patience is rewarded.

Frank Myers at Wythall

WYTHALL, over the border in Herefordshire, is another contrast. It has grapes but no infrastructure from which to sell at the moment. However, if you are planning to attract visitors to a new vineyard then having a 500 year old mansion house is unlikely to prove much of a handicap. Frank Myers (above) has singlehandedly planted nearly 3,500 vines  on 3.5 acres at Wythall, near Ross-on-Wye which has been owned by the family of his wife (the Euro-MP Anthea McIntyre) since the early 17th century. And they have documents to prove it.
Frank –  a successful businessman in his own right – has had a dream about being involved with a vineyard ever since his childhood in the centre of Manchester where, he says, he rarely saw a tree.  The main field (above) curving off to the right looks a bit like a dog leg on a golf course. He admits he may have to cut a few trees down to admit a bit more light but is pleased with this first crop which is to be turned into wine by the highly regarded Three Choirs vineyard at nearby Newent which provides an ecosystem for dozens of growers in the area. If his plans pan out and the wine is good enough this will be a lovely vineyard to visit.
EVEN smaller is the vineyard on the Sussex/Kent borders planned by Paul Olding who has served his apprenticeship on an allotment in Lewisham, London where he has been making his own wine- up to 100 bottles of Olding Manor – for some years as a preparation to realising his and his wife’s dream of having their own vineyard. Now they have purchased land  in east Sussex at Eridge Green including 1.5 acres on which they will start planting vines in 2016 after tilling the soil for a year. It will be interesting to see how this develops and one wonders how many other enthusiasts have been starting their own small vineyards up and down the country to become part of the revival of UK winemaking. Let me know . .
LAST, but certainly not least is Rathfinny which I visited recently. Its first wine (all sparkling)  is not due for a couple of years but its plan to produce a million bottles of fizz from a planned 400 acres has already sent shock waves throughout the industry. Pessimists say there is no way they will be able to sell a million bottles without disrupting the nascent UK sparkling wine industry. Optimists point out that a million bottles is barely one percent of the UK domestic fizz market and the growing quality of English wine will see off the competition and boost exports.
THESE four examples are typical of what is happening in the UK where big growers are starting to think on a global scale while boutique vineyards are happy to service very localised – but premium – markets  from their cellar doors enabling them to retain the wholesale and retail profit margins.

Wythall, 500 years on

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager at Rathfinny

 The interesting fact is that well over 90% of all new plantings are of grape varieties that go to make sparkling – particularly the classic combo of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which is used for Champagne. I see no reason why UK wines should not go on from strength to strength. If they don’t then at least we will all be left with stocks of prize winning fizz with which to drown our sorrows.

 

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The Jurassic wines of Dorset

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 02, 2014
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Furleigh Vineyard

THE GEOLOGY of Dorset which has made the Jurassic coast an international heritage site is now helping to build a thriving new industry: vineyards. The soft rise and fall of the terrain – with a structure similar to  the Champagne area of Northern France – almost cries out for grapes to be grown. And so they have been. During the past couple of years the wines of Dorset have graduated from being merely interesting to winning top prizes. And I don’t doubt there’s more to come. Furleigh Estate, an attractive vineyard/winery hidden at the end of a long track off a remote country lane near Bridport, started the ball rolling by becoming the first English vineyard to win a gold medal at the very prestigious French wine tasting competition Effervescents du Monde almost two years ago with its Classic Cuvee 2009. Its winemaker Ian Edwards was voted UK Winemaker of the Year.

Liam Idzikowski of Langham

LANGHAM Wine Estate near Dorchester is  hidden like so many English vineyards along a maze of narrow country lanes. Earlier this year it not only won the Judgement of Parsons Green against 100 other top sparkling English wines with its 2010 Classic Cuvée – you can put down that telephone, it’s out of stock – but was also awarded 8th place with its  Reserve Blanc de Noirs. Not bad for a first year’s production and an impressive feat for its admirable Irish winemaker Liam Idzikowski (pictured, right) who kindly showed me the winery and vineyard which manages to employ modern techniques without losing the atmosphere of the farm that gave rise to it. Langham expects to produce 35,000 bottles this year, double last year not including 5,000 bottles produced for a nearby vineyard. Like so many other vineyards in Britain nearly 90% of the wine is sold locally, a good business model which enables them to retain the retail and wholesale profit margins and avoid heavy marketing and transports costs.

ALSO IN THE gold medal league, though your won’t find it on any label, is Wodetone Vineyard (bottom, left) overlooking the Dorset coast where Nigel Riddle farms 30 acres of the classic Champagne varieties that all go to nearby Furleigh for making into wine under their label. Nigel seems quite content with being a gold winner at one remove as it removes all the hassle of making, selling and marketing.
ANOTHER Dorset vineyard which we will definitely be hearing more about is Bride Valley owned by the wine guru Steven Spurrier and his wife Bella and managed by seasoned vineyard manager Graham Fisher. I intend to write more about this fascinating vineyard in my my next blog but we were treated to a glass of Bride Valley, 2011 (Classic Cuvee) from their first sparkling harvest, only available in small quantities which was delicious. It is another important factor in Dorset’s rising reputation for sparkling wine.

Andrew and Sarah Pharoah of English Oak

NOT FAR away along south Dorset’s golden strip is English Oak named after the handsome tree that stands on part of the carefully manicured 16 acre vineyard run by Andrew and Sarah Pharoah (left) who, amazingly,  prunes every vine herself. That’s love for you. I came here because my wife and I were dining in a restaurant in Dorchester last year and were surprised to find on the menu an English wine we had never heard of (in addition to our surprise at seeing an English wine at all in a restaurant). We both thought it was very good and so I was not surprised to learn during my visit that they had already won silver medals and are hoping for gold. Since they are lucky enough to have the the triple- gold winner Dermot Sugrue of Wiston – another Irishman – as their wine maker they have as good a chance of any to make this dream come true. They don’t have a cellar door but they sell almost all they produce (only sparkling) locally in Dorset. This year they have produced 20 tons of grapes which works out at about 15,000 bottles, twice last years crop following nothing at all in the nationally disastrous 2012.

Melbury Vale’s cellar door and van

AT THE OTHER end of the scale is Melbury Vale, south of Shaftestbury, (left) run by Joseph and Clare Pestell which has only two acres of its own – though more are on the way – but makes wine for eight other small vineyards locally covering 20 acres. Like so many others all its wines are sold locally either from its cellar door it to local establishments. Joseph says they will produce about 1,000 bottles this year similar to last year. It would have been twice as much except that they lost all their Pinot Noir to disease which, Joseph thinks, would have been good enough to turn into  red wine. What is happening in Dorset is not untypical of a number of other counties where almost romantic enthusiasm, combined with increasing professionalism, is regularly raising the quality of the country’s wines. Everything is going for English (and Welsh) wines at the moment except the weather. And even that has been kind for two years running.

Lovely Autumn tints at English Oak

Wodetone


 

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For English sparkling . . and St George

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 27, 2014
champagne, Chinn-Chinn, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine / 1 Comment

It started off a few days ago as a bit of banter on Twitter but it would be a great shame if it ended up in the bottomless pit of unrequited tweets. The idea was – is? – that there should be an English Sparkling Wine Day. Like most ideas, it has multiple sources. I (@BritishWino) happened to be glancing at some tweets and was totally surprised to find  that it was #worldchampagneday. Without thinking I wrote: “Apparently it is #worldchampagneday today. Remind me when it is #EnglishSparklingDay. Did I miss it . .?”
Instead of becoming instant history as most tweets do, it was picked up by others including @abecketts,  @didier_pierson and EnglishWineJobs who urged that we should pick a date suggesting November to catch the Christmas rush. Others followed including  the redoubtable Stephen Skelton (@SpSkelton) who suggested April 23 which is not only St Georges Day but Shakespeare’s Birthday as well, a double celebration of England’s best. And we can make that a triple if we include our sparkling wine which has been winning gold medals all over the world yet is under-appreciated in its own country. That date seemed to find general favour.

England, of course, is not the only place in the UK producing excellent sparkling wine. There has been a strong revival in Wales where Ancre Hill of Monmouth has won top prizes in Italy and China as well as at home. But vineyards in England seem to want to market their wine as English Sparkling just as Wales is trying to create its own distinctive brand. Maybe Wales could do something similar on the same day or at a more appropriate time.  Or else the two countries could decide on another date such as the birthday of Christopher Merrett, the Gloucestershire inventor of what the French call the methode champenoise.

Paul Langham, chair of United Kingdom Vineyards Association at his aBecketts vineyard in Wiltshire

So what next? There is clearly a lot of mileage  in a day dedicated to English fizz. If properly marketed by individual vineyards and their trade bodies like The UK Vineyards Association and English Wine Producers it would give restaurants, pubs and off licences an opportunity to test the water, sorry, the wine without undue expense – especially if they were to promote it by the glass. As it is the first time it has been done it might attract media attention, not least, social media and there could perhaps be a prestigious lecture on the history and prospects for Albion’s fizz.
What do all you vineyards out there think? Do give your views through Twitter or  email me at victor.keegan@gmail.com and I will pass on your views – or post a comment below as I have now re-opened the comment slot in the hope it won’t be spammed out of existence again.

@BritishWino

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Meet England’s new backgarden vineyards

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 17, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Uncategorized / No Comments

MARKO BOJCUN is part of tiny workers’ co-operative vineyard called Hawkwood in Epping Forest, part of the OrganicLea community. This year he lost around 90% per cent of his own grapes to wandering deer and downy mildew. That’s the trouble with having a vineyard surrounded on three sides by trees. But his artisan winery also makes wine for 26 people in the neighbourhood who brought 375 kilos of grapes to him for processing. This is enough to make 250 bottles of wine which probably makes him the second largest of the new co-operatives in London after Chateau Tooting, the crowd-sourced experiment which I last wrote about here  which hopes to make 750 bottles compared with 662 last year.

Loading Chateau Tooting’s harvest en route to the winery

 In turn this could make Marko the third largest crowd-sourced winery in the country after Eden Vale in Cumbria - one of the most northernly vineyards in Britain. Eden hopes to produce 800 bottles this year – double last year – all from grapes grown in local greenhouses and conservatories. The increased quantity was thanks to a great response to an appeal for grapes in their local paper – a move which other budding co-ops may like to follow. They tell me that 650 of these bottles will be red (though so light it could be mistaken for rosé). At the moment it is not feasible to grow grapes outside so far north on a commercial scale . Angela and Ron Barker, the proprietors, admit that they will only get a pesky two bottles from their own (small) open air vineyard. But  if global warming continues then . . . watch this space.
The question is: are these three vineyards pioneers of a new trend that will spread around the country or just isolated examples of only local significance? None of them seem to have known of the others’ existence. They have all sprung up spontaeouusly in different places like mushrooms in a field. But in theory, they have a lot going for them. There is a resurgence of interest in UK wines buoyed up by global warming and increased technical ability. Lots of people have vines growing in their gardens and they soon get caught up in the romance of contributing to a wine partly made from their own grapes. Oh, and you don’t pay tax if it is for your own consumption.
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the drinking. Imbibers, including myself, were quite surprised at the quality of Chateau Tooting’s product last year despite the fact that it was made from unknown grapes of varying sizes and quality from gardens across London which all had to be ready on the same day.
It is not only in GB. There is a resurgence of vine growing in the Paris area to complement the vineyard on the slopes of Montmartre which has been a tourist attraction for decades – but the price of land in central London and Paris rules out the prospect of large vineyards in the city centre.

Vineyard on the slopes of Montmartre in Paris

Forty Hall in Enfield from where you can see the Shard and Canary Wharf comes closest. However, space in gardens and allotments is a different matteer.  Patrice Bersac, president of L’association des Vignerons Réunis (the association of united Parisian and Ile de France winemakers) told the Daily Telegraph that the French authorities should take inspiration from Chateau Tooting’s iniitiative in London where grapes come from numerous gardens in the capital.

Meanwhile, I’d be very interested to hear about any wine cooperatives in the UK. If there are others it might make sense for them to create some sort of loosely run organsation where experiences can be exchanged.

 

 

From Forty Hall’s 10 acre vineyard in Enfield you can see the Shard and Canary Wharf

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Moment of Truth for Britain’s booming vineyards . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 19, 2014
champagne, Chinn-Chinn, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, Uncategorized / No Comments

Discussion time among the vineyard gurus

This year looks likely to be a record for vineyards in England and Wales – the second successive good year after a disastrous 2012. The question is what to do about it if, thanks to increased plantings and favourable weather, we are entering a period of surplus. So far premium sparkling wines, winning gold medals regularly have been very marketable but most vineyards exist by selling from the cellar door often at inflated – oops sorry – premium, prices because customers have been happy to pay extra for the novel experience.  I have encountered a lot of good wines as well as overpriced ones on my travels including sub-optimal English reds being sold for £20, £30 and even £50 to punters about to be hugely disappointed (including me . .). I have grown to love UK wines but they won’t be loved by the general public until prices come down a bit.
As vineyards enter the new era they will encounter not only the still prevalent psychological barrier among consumers (and merchants) against English and Welsh wine but the real barrier of price. Having spent a year drinking mainly UK wines and regularly asking dumb-struck restaurant waiters and bartenders for English and Welsh wines (unsuccessfully) I know the problem only too well. Maybe it is best summed by one gastropub owner saying: “There is no way I can pay more than £5 a bottle and hope to make a decent profit”.
So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop organised by the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) to map out a strategy for the future.
It was held in the beautiful 650-year-old Vintners’ Hall in the City of London where as you go in you pass a painting of a 17th century wine merchant Van Dorn who was famous for drinking four bottles of wine a day and looking none the worse for it, well in his painting.
Dozens of ideas were put into the pot including the need for strong governance, profitability, collaboration between growers, recognition of excellence, educating the young, a centralised web site, a single body to represent the industry, product placement, promotion by tourist boards, brand ambassadors, enforceable quality standards and sustainability (for profits as well as the environment) and so on.
There was a general feeling that the sparkling sector should develop its own personality and not ape Champagne. Instead of trying to dream up a single word “brand” everyone seemed happy to use “English Sparkling” not least because the word England is a strong selling point abroad – though Sussex likes the alliterative “Sussex Sparkling”.
 There are two big gaps. We are supposed to be living in the age of Big Data but neither the government nor the industry actually knows how may vineyards there are nor what current sales are. It is left to the redoubtable Stephen Skelton to estimate-  in the UKVA house magazine The Grape Press – that wine produced from UK vineyards in 2014 could reach 6.4 million bottles compared with a ten year average of 2.95m bottles. This sounds huge but UK production, with a good product to sell, still accounts for barely more than one per cent of the domestic market. Other industries would kill to be in that position.
 Where the industry has been painfully slow is producing an app for smart phones that could tell you how far you are from the nearest vineyard, opening times with “buy” buttons and also able to snap wine labels which are recognised and stored in a central database. The aim would be to produce a community of UK wine drinkers exchanging experiences. It turns out that vineyards in the south-west will soon have an app of their own and all credit to them. The problem is that it only works for the South-west when there should be one for the whole UK.  And, they are planning to charge £2.50 for it which, believe, me is a mistake as there is a huge reluctance to pay for this kind of app. It should have been free, funded by the vineyards who would get their payback from increased custom

That is but one example why the industry needs a single integrated entity to talk to government and the EU besides acquiring a funding mechanism through a bottle levy (discussed for years but never implemented) so the necessary investment can be made. I am a big fan of UK wines sparkling and still. Vineyards have a great opportunity to make a serious contribution to the UK economy – but they need to get their act together quickly not least by using increased output to lower prices. If they don’t do it the market will do it for them in a merciless manner.

Victor Keegan @BritishWino, @vickeegan

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The vineyards of Herefordshire . . . Herefordshire ?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 14, 2014
champagne, Choirs, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

The historic vineyard at Castle Brook


HEREFORDSHIRE – where I spend a fair amount of time – could have been forgiven for feeling it had been dealt a raw hand by Bacchus. If only the county boundary line had been drawn a couple  of miles further out  in the south-west, it could have taken in the multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouthshire. And if a few miles had been added on its north-east frontier  it would have bagged Three Choirs, one of England’s most successful operations.
Herefordshire, however, still has some interesting vineyards and could be at the start of a roll. While I was  researching this blog – an arduous task supping wine at every stop – it was announced by the South West Vineyards Association that Castle Brooks’s Chinn-Chinn 2009  had won gold and been voted the best sparkling wine in the South West, an area that includes a lot of very prestigious estates. It is probably the only wine that can get away with calling itself Chinn-Chinn because that is the family name. Chinn, who are also the biggest asparagus growers in the country, have lived here near Ross-on-Wye for centuries.  Wine is still a minor crop for them but, as I saw for myself, they take great care of their lovingly manicured five acres set in beautiful countryside in a historic part of the county which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and used to be on the path of a Roman road.
Until Chinn-Chinn struck gold, Herefordshire’s main claim to fame was not quality but quantity. Sunnybank Vine Nursery in Rowlestone is the home of the National Collection of Vines with over 450 different types  – more than the rest of Britain’s vineyards put together.  I visited it yesterday on its annual Open Day  where owner Sarah Bell explained that the collection was under the watchful eye of Plant Heritage and was mainly aimed at enthusiastic amateurs who can buy cuttings or young vines for their own use. For easy growing and disease resistance she recommends Seyval for white wines  and Regent for red.

Broadfield Court

 

Broadfield Court (left) is one of the delights of the county, a charming country house  with 14 acres of vines and a cafe/restaurant where you can linger in the open air in summer with a snack or meal over a pleasant glass of wine (£3.50 a throw for their special reserve when I last paid a visit). It is the best all-round wine experience in the county.

But there are rivals kicking at its heels. Simon Day, who comes from the family that set up Three Choirs, recently bought the wine making equipment from Coddington vineyard in Colwall and has set it up in Ledbury where he will process Coddington’s wine  for the new owners while at the same time making wine from the  16Ridges vineyard in Worcestershire processing it in Herefordshire and selling it from the delightful Three Counties Cider Shop in the middle of Ledbury. Simon is also planning in the longer term to plant 20 to 25 acres (he has already done four acres) and to build a bigger winery. Watch this space.

Ledbury is not far from Frome Valley (below, right)), another delightfully situated vineyard  for which Simon Day is also turning the grapes into wine. It has a very pleasant entrance and tasting area in an old country house and sells a range of wines starting with a very quaffable Panton Medium Dry at a reasonable £7.50. James Cumming, who manages the vineyard also has a small one of his own in the West country.

Other Hereford vineyards include Lulham Court near Madley which  produces very pleasant wines(which can be purchased from the Coop in Newent)  from their three acres but at much higher prices that shown on their out-of-date web site. Beeches at Upton Bishop is a small vineyard run by John Boyd. Among others it supplies the neighbouring restaurant, the Moody Cow with its fine wine  while on the other side of Ross-on-Wye not far from Chinn Chinn Frank Myers and his wife Anthea Stratford McIntyre the European MP started a 3.5 acre vineyard three years ago in the gardens of their beautiful 17th century house and it will be another year or two before it is producing.

There are a number of other smaller vineyards which may grow bigger as Herefordshire stakes it claim in the amazing revival of the UK wine industry.

@BritishWino

Frome Valley

 

Open Day at the National Vine Collection

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The grapes of Rath . . . Britain’s biggest vineyard takes shape

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 20, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Rathfinny’s first grapes

IF YOU want to speculate about the future of English sparkling wine look no further than the soft undulating hills of Rathfinny Estate in east Sussex, the biggest gamble in the history of this nascent industry. It has already had more publicity than most of the rest of the UK’s 400 plus vineyards put together even though it has yet to produce its first glass of wine. On a flying visit yesterday I had to content myself with a glimpse of the first grapes (see above) and I had to walk quite a long way down the vineyard even to see those. Cameron Boucher, the highly experienced vineyard manager from New Zealand (below) says they have already planted 150 acres of the 400 planned which would make it the biggest vineyard in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. He says the first of the smaller quantities of still wine will be produced next year, though it may not go out under the Rathfinny brand. It will be several years yet before its flagship sparkling has matured in bottle long enough to be released on to the market.

 

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager


 Mark Driver, who left a lucrative job in the City to plough £10 millions of his own money into Rathfinny, is in danger of giving hedge funds a good name. He is nothing if not ambitious, planning to go from scratch to selling a million bottles of English sparkling against the established giants of Champagne about 90 miles across the channel who share the same chalky geological strata as Rathfinny.
Some people think he is barmy, others that he will usher in the next stage of the English (and Welsh) wine revival as it ups its game from a niche product to a serious industry. Having in my previous career as a journalist chronicled the remorseless decline of the UK’s manufacturing base over 40 years, I find it refreshing to observe a fledgling industry with such juicy prospects.
Of what other industry in Britain could it be said that it has a world-class product yet barely one per cent of its domestic market? Most of the wine produced in Britain is sparkling and we regularly win top honours. In the recent prestigious Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships England scooped 11 gold medals and 14 Silver, more than any other country except France.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Vineyard guru Stephen Skelton (@spskelton) in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain, points out that most of the growth in sparkling wine in the UK has come from Prosecco and Cava selling at well under £10 a bottle, a market that UK sparklers shy away from and that three quarters of Champange is sold at less than £20 a bottle which won’t leave much profit for low volume UK producers.
But, if warmer summers persist, a larger output could bring unit prices down in Britain and nowhere more than Rathfinny which stands to reap economies of scale as great as any in Champagne and on land that is considerably cheaper. But two things will be crucial to its success: it has to produce wine that wins top medals and – something manufacturing industry never had to contend with – it needs a succession of good summers.

English Wine Centre

 

 

 Before visiting Rathfinny we had our first trip to the long-established English Wine Centre at nearby Berwick  (left) which combines a shop selling a huge range of English (not yet Welsh) wines with lovely gardens, a hotel and a delightful restaurant serving a high standard of food which we enjoyed along with samplings of English wines of which the Nutbourne from West Sussex and Surrey Gold whites stood out for us.
We decided to walk there from Berwick station along the Vanguard Way, a picturesque path along the slope of the downs which brings you out a few hundred yards from the wine centre. We were late as it took us a while to figure out that the path went straight through the middle of a field of closely packed with seven feet high rows of sweet corn where GPS is of limited use.

 

Follow Victor Keegan on @BritishWino or @vickeegan

His London blog is LondonMyLondon.co.uk

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A toast to the 400th anniversary of the Englishman who invented champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 25, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Merret’s house is the second one on the right

It is 400 years since the birth of Chistopher Merret (1614 – 1695), the Englishman who first set out the principles of how to make what is now called Champagne. Dom Perignon came along much later. This weekend, the place where he was born – Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – is holding a small Festival of Fizz to celebrate this little-known occasion. In Merret’s time Champagne was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired factories able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques. There was a shift to coal because wood was being prioritised for the navy because the Government was worried that a shortage of wood might affect the building of ships.
These days even the French admit that the English invented the “méthode champenoise”. Indeed the first mention of the word “Champaign'” anywhere was in English literature of the time.
While being delighted that Winchcombe is staging a festival this weekend  I am surprised that  the booming English and Welsh sparkling wine industry, which is awash with international gold medals, didn’t use the opportunity for a big marketing effort. I only heard about the festival two days ago when I read an eye-catching tweet from Oliver Chance of Strawberry Hill Vineyard (@englishbubbly) who said that Strawberry Hill was the nearest sparkling wine producer to the birthplace of the inventor: a great pitch but be careful, Oliver if you bump into @elgarwine – they could have a counter claim!

I am very grateful to Jean Bray, historian and journalist, – who is giving a talk on Merret at the White Hart Winchcombe at 6pm this Sunday (25th) – for guiding me to the house where he was born, a former pub called the Crown, on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street (see above). It is presumed, she said, that he was educated at the local grammar school – an Inigo Jones building now called Jacobean House – on the same side of the road opposite the church (just as it is presumed that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school though there is no actual evidence in either case). There are brass plates to his parents in the church on the right side wall as you enter (see, right).
Merret was a bit of a renaissance man excelling in other fields including compiling the first list of  birds and the source of fossils. The son of a mercer, he went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden (which had a large vineyard in those days) and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn where Dickens was baptised. I am sure the fizz festival will be a deserved success and I wonder whether it will spawn a bigger idea. Could it do for Winchcombe and English sparkling wine what Hay-on-Wye did for second hand books?
Meanwhile, we should all raise a glass of English fizz this weekend to toast Christopher Merret, the man who chronicled the invention of méthode champenoise before the French turned it into one of the most successful brands ever. Now is the time to bring it all back home.

The local grammar school built by Inigo Jones (above, eft)

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The Kent vineyard a French Champagne house was sniffing around

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 20, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Squerryes celebration day

Squerryes, with its grand mansion dating back to 1681, must be the nearest thing in England to a French chateau vineyard. Indeed it nearly became one as I discovered earlier toay at the launch of its first sparkling wine. About six years ago a well-known French champagne house, worried about the possible effects of global warming on its own territory, tried to buy part of the Squerryes’ estate to plant its own vineyard. Negotiations broke down after six months because the champagne house wanted to own the land and Squerryes was not willing to give up part of its heritage.
Then Henry Warde, whose family have lived in the house for so many generations, reckoned that if a French champagne house thought his land was ideal for methode champenoise wine maybe he should have a go himself. Compliments don’t come higher than that.
Which he did on 35 acres of land – and yesterday the first wine from 2010 was launched in a party atmosphere in the grounds of his beautiful house in which about 20 artisan producers were selling their products from ice cream or gazpacho soup to perfumed candles and local beer. It was a lovely occasion even though the vineyard itself, was not part of the experience as, sadly, it is about a mile away. The wine itself, made from classic champagne grapes – pinot noir, pinot meunier and Chardonnay – has already picked up several bronze medals. It has a nice nose and was very pleasant to drink on a sunny afternoon but at a price of £28 it is punching a bit above its weight against other English and Welsh premium priced sparklers.
This may not matter in the short term as Querryes is planning to sell all its wine – 8,000 bottles this year with an eventual objective of up to 80,000 bottles –  from the estate where local demand can often sustain a premium price.

Henry Warde pouring his first vintage

At the moment the prestigious winery Henners makes the wine for them but they have plans to build their own winery and eventually a restaurant as well.Some critics say that too many new vineyards are being opened producing sparkling wine in the UK and it is bound to end in tears. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is that UK fizz producers have a product that regularly wins prizes against the rest of the world yet have less than one per cent of their domestic market. There is all to play for.

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