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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Britain leads the world in vineyards – under glass

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 10, 2014
Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

The Great Vine glasshouse backed by Tudor chimneys

ENGLAND’s wine industry may be miniscule compared with France, Spain or California but we have something they can only dream about: the biggest grapevine in the world. Take a bow Hampton Court whose Black Hamburg vine I saw yesterday which has grown apace since my last visit, er 40 years ago. It now measures 12 feet around its base with tentacles extending to approaching 120 feet. Small wonder that Guinness World Records declared it the largest in the world as far back as 2005. It could be the oldest as well having been planted in 1769 by Capability Brown except that the city of Maribor in Slovenia claims its Vine of Maribor is 400 years old. For reasons of space the Hampton vine hasn’t been allowed to grow in a straight line. Its carefully manicured branches are spectacularly spreadeagled across the inside of a specially built glass house like multiple layers of Formula One circuits. When I last visited the Hampton grape it had a rival at the Jesuit College at Manresa House in Roehampton where what was claimed to be the longest grapevine in the world was lodged in one of the largest greenhouses in the country – but it has long been lost to redevelopment. There is also a small vineyard on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire border, Strawberry Hill, which claims to be the only – and therefore the biggest – vineyard in the world growing grapes on a commercial scale under glass, a claim that has yet to be refuted.

Inside the greenhouse

Hampton Court produces about 600lbs of grapes a year which ripen at the end of August and are sold in Palace gift shops in September. You would think they would ripen a lot earlier judging by the size of the ones I saw yesterday. The vine could easily produce more that twice current output but only at the expense of subsequent harvests. The grapes were originally grown as a luxury food for the royal table but are now made available to us proles. Although Black Hamburg is an eating grape there is no reason why it couldn’t be made into wine which could be served in the Palace’s Tiltyard Cafe where no English wines are available despite their increasing reputation.
The Great Vine  is a marvellous grapey experience, Bacchus’s Cathedral and well worth a visit though it is quite pricey to get into the Palace these days even if it is just to the gardens. The roots of the vine are outside the greenhouse under the dirt patch which can be seen on the right. There is no reason why the vine should not continue for another 100 years but if it doesn’t there are plenty of offspring around. In 1818, Edward Jenner planted cuttings from the Hampton Court vine  in his greenhouse at the Chantry, Berkeley where two are still fruiting today. A cutting taken in the 1860s now forms a canopy over the conservatory at Huntington Castle in Ireland. There is no keeping a good cutting down.

Little known fact – Hampton’s Great Vine was grown from a small cutting that came from Valentine’s Park in Essex

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Enigma variations – how Elgar and Britannia’s wine hooked up

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 21, 2014
Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Cathie Rolinson tending the specially heightened vines

Lovells, tucked away in the foothills of the mouth-watering Malverns, is one of those quintessentially English vineyards that is little known outside its own area. And with good reason. It has married terroir with heritage to become part of the local community captalising on links with local industries like Morgan cars and especially Elgar, the father of modern English music, whose grave is a short walk from the vineyard in Welland.
Lovells recently added to its own five acres some 1.5 acres at  nearby Tiltridge which brought with it the Elgar brand offering lots of opportunities to hook up to tours linked to music.
As with most vineyards in England and Wales, 2012 was a bit of a disaster but last year they produced 3,000 bottles and they hope to reach 20,000 bottles from vines already laid down in a few years time, weather permitting.
I arrived just as a consignment of sparkling rosé from Three Choirs (their winemaker) was being unloaded to the cellar door, situated close to a very pleasant modern shop, with eating and tasting area recently converted from a holiday let cottage.

Part of the shop and tasting area

CathIe Rolinson, whose family runs the estate, says that over 80% of  their produce is sold from the vineyard to people who are proud of their heritage and keen to buy from the region. The rest goes to local shops, restaurants etc. This is typical of so many family run vineyards of this kind. Cathie’s husband, who is an engineer, has designed special metallic posts to accomodate the vines at a high level making it easy to pick the grapes without straining your back. That’s my kind of vine.
They can entertain group visits of up to 40 people including stag and hen parties. Interestingly, she has noticed a surprising number of people under 30. Hey, is English wine becoming cool at last?
I purchased four bottles including a pleasantly dry Promenades which has whetted my appetite for the others.
The vineyard is open Tuesday to Friday 11am – 4pm and on selected Saturdays from May to November. Outside of these hours & seasons it is best to call first 01684 310843 and they will be happy to help. There is a wine shop & tea room. Tours should be booked in advance.

No,not Chateau Mouton – just a couple of model sheep watching over the vines

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The only wine is Essex . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 22, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

THE biggest surprise from meeting vineyard owners in East Anglia yesterday is that I have been drinking Essex wines for years without realising it. It turns out that East Anglia – and Essex in particular – is a huge exporter of grapes to familiar vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley. Some estimates suggest that the multi-prize winning New Hall Vineyards alone accounts for around 25% of bottles sold in the UK. Whether this is a slight exaggeration or not, it is clear that East Anglia is a hidden hero of the UK wine revival.

So, it is no great shock to learn that East Anglia walked off with more gold medals and trophies than any other region in the English Vineyard awards this year. Thus far the region has been happy to hide its success behind a barrel as its two dozen or so vineyards have been able to selll pretty well all they make either locally or to the big boys down south. Now this is changing. Yesterday’s tasting for trade press prior to a very tasty dinner at the delightful West Street Vineyard at Coggeshall, Essex vineyard was the start of a move to project its image to the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances I was impressed with the standard of the wines we tasted especially the Bacchus based whites from New Hall, Giffords Hall and Lavenham Brook. The 2012s – stocks of which, surprise, surprise, are already running out – are inevitably less mature than the 2011s but most of the visitors were well pleased. There were some very nice sparkling wines as well such as New Hall’s English Rosé 2010 which may have helped its owner Piers Greenwood to be voted English Wine maker of the year. East Anglia is hoping to get the region designated as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) under EU rules based on how well the Bacchus vine grows in a region which claims to have a very low rainful. This could be very important in selling abroad particularly in the Far East.
West Street is one of the few vineyards in the country to sell other English wines as well as its own so I took the opportunity to buy a sparkling white from Leeds based Leventhorpe in Yotkshire and a Renushaw Hall Madeleine from Derbyshire – the first time I will have tasted wines from either county.
Meanwhile, one has to take one’s hat off to the vineyards of East Anglia which have been hiding their qualities for far too long.
Victor Keegan @BritishWino @vickeegan

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Reading between the vines . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 15, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Brian Edwards and Sarah Bell

It is not often I have the  chance of visiting a vineyard with no less than 430 different varieties  of vine on display. But yesterday was the annual open day for Sunnybank Vine Nursery run by Sarah Bell and Richard Stow. It is  home to the National Collection of Vines spread in neat formation across 0.4 remote hectares in rolling Herefordshire countryside facing Garway Hill, once owned by the Knights Templar.

I had the pleasure of being shown around by Sarah who bought the vineyard in 2008 knowing very little about vines. She has learned fast, helped by Brian Edwards, the former founder-owner (above with Sarah) , who joined us walking up and down between the rows commenting on the pros and cons of every vine within sight. I couldn’t help asking them what vine they would recommend for would-be amateur wine makers wanting to avoid complications (who could I have been thinking about?).
Interestingly, from all of the 430 varieties around them they both chose the same two: Seyval, which “ripens right up to Yorkshire”  for white wines and Rondo (“early ripening on any site”) for red.

Some of the 430 varieties

Other tips – Don’t even think of trying to grow the claret grape Cabernet Sauvignon in the UK (though Cabernet Cortis is a fair English substitute for it). Shiraz is no good  in the UK either. Seiggerrebe can make a good wine but is a small cropper Triomphe d Alsace is effectively disease resistance.
Sarah, whose day job is in the software industry,  finances the vineyard by selling roots and cuttings during the dormant season (November to March) from her website www.sunnybankvines.co.uk

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Why I have just purchased a stake in an English vineyard . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 11, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Chapel Down

First, because Chapel Down – for it is they – make good multiple prizewinning wines in a charming backwater of Kent. I am already a regular buyer. Second, it is rather nice, dare I say romantic?, to own a tiny bit – actually a very tiny bit  - of one of our oldest vineyards in the midst of the Great British Wine Revival.
OK, there’s a third reason. The perks. If you buy a minimum of 2,000 shares – which cost me less than £400 a couple of weeks ago (excluding dealing costs) –  you get a mouth-watering 33% reduction on the ex-vineyard price of their wines plus a 25% reduction on meals at the Swan restaurant attached to the vineyard.
Which is one of the main reasons we made our first visit yesterday. Four of us shared a £20 cab ride from Headcorn station ten miles away. We were not disappointed.  Chapel Down, despite being one of the largest vineyards in the country has managed to retain an intimacy which others, such as the admirable Denbies in Dorking, are in danger of losing. Battalions of vines fill neighbouring softly undulating fields, laden with sumptious fruit from this year’s bountiful crop so neat they may have been manicured.
Lunch at the Swan above the shop – filled to capacity on a September Tuesday – was delcious for me though two of my companions couldn’t finish their Dover sole which they thought was too salty and dry (and were given a rebate by the manager). This was washed down with a Chardonnay from their nearby Kit’s Coty estate which was a joy to drink though expensive with quite a steep cash markup on the price of a bottle in the shop below (as if I should care as a shareholder with a 33% discount!)
Chapel Down is one of the best managed vineyards in the country but their shares as the FT  and others have pointed out are risky as they are as much a bet on the weather as the company. But buying a small number of shares is a no-brainer – as long as you  like their wines. My purchase of the minimum number to qualify for the perks (2,000 shares) cost me £395 plus £46.98 in commissions and charges. This is money that would otherwise be sitting in a current account at near-zero interest. After one visit to the restaurant and the purchase of one bottle of Pinot Noir I have already recouped the dealing charges and if I continue to buy their wines (and count the money I save through my 33% discount as a return on my investment) then Chapel Down shares will have one of the highest dividend yields on the stock market irrespective of what happens to the share price (though it has risen over ten per cent since my purchase a few weeks ago). If you don’t fancy shares the most cost-effective way of buying Chapel Down wines is through the Wine Society (recently voted Decanter wine merchant of the year for the third year running) where they are significantly cheaper than buying from the vineyard.

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In praise of the inventor of champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 03, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, Poems, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Bride Valley Vineyard, Dorset, grower of classic grapes for sparkling wine

From Victor Keegan’s new book Alchemy of Age published this week

Champagne
What makes Champagne go full throttle
Is secondary fermentation in a bottle.
This is an invention without which
Sparkling wine would be mere kitsch.
And who made this spectacular advance?
In folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France.
But wait. hear Christopher Merrett’s scientific view,
Which he wrote in a paper in sixteen hundred and sixty two
Without any mock Gallic piety,
He told the newly formed Royal Society
He’d invented this huge oenological advance
That let wine ferment in bottles first,
That were strong enough not to burst.
Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France -
It created that country’s strongest brand.
So, let’s raise a glass in our hand,
To a great man’s invention from afar
And drink to the Methode – not Champenois
But Merrettois. Let all by their merrets be
Judged that the whole world can see
That however we may be thought insane,
We gave the French – for free – Champagne

You can buy Alchemy of Age here

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How Andy Murray’s victory could disrupt the UK economy

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 07, 2013
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A defining feature of the UK economy in recent decades has been the policy of successive governments that it doesn’t matter who owns our industries or sporting activities as long as the action stays in the UK. The Government didn’t care that all the banks  in the City were foreign-owned, that our airports were owned by the Spanish, our mass car manufacturers by the Japanese, Germans and others. Likewise our football teams and newspapers.
There was even a name for this policy which I first heard in Japan over 20 years ago: the “Wimbledonisation” of the economy. At first I thought this was a reference to my football team, Wimbledon, as in plucky players punching above their weight. But they explained it was a tennis analogy. It didn’t matter that a British man  never won Wimbledon because London hosted the tournament and shared in the huge revenues and prestige that the tournament brings. The same argument has been used to justify all the other sell-offs from utilities to football teams. But now we are on new ground. Andy Murray has become the first male to win Wimbledon for 77 years and may have brought the era of Wimbledonisation to an end.
Maybe the seismic plates were already changing and Murray merely reflecting them. The last two consumer products I have purchased were both made in the UK, a Rasberry Pi  micro computer (designed in Cambridge and production recently switched from China to Wales) and two G-Tech vaccuum cleaners made in Worcester. We are in the midst of a startling revival of our domestic vineyards led by our sparkling whites winning global prizes against Champagne and other makes. What is happening?
It has always been on the cards that physical factors like rising prices in China and the fact that increasing automation reduces labour costs as a proportion of final output would one day shift the centre of gravity of manufacturing  back towards the UK. Anecdotal evidence I have been hearing from businessmen about the advantages of having plant nearer home was confirmed in a recent survey by Business Birmingham and YouGov. It revealed that 51 percent of companies surveyed  plan to boost production capacity in the UK.  Almost a third of senior British manufacturing decision-makers who currently use overseas suppliers say their business plans over the next five years include sourcing more components from the UK.and nearly two-thirds (56 percent) of these say hiring more staff is likely.
Doubtless if this happens the Government will try to take the credit but the evidence is that if anything it is happening despite official policies that have led to banks refusing to extend loans to businesses, particularly smaller ones. It would be silly to credit Andy Murray with any manufacturing revival except that he has shown that, with determination and grit, it really is possible to bring it all back home.

A Thames sonnet

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 05, 2013
Poems, Uncategorized / No Comments

BlueThames

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thames sonnet
(after George Turberville)

You mongrel stream with often moody tide

In Cotswold hills from silken springs do rise

Meand’ring meadows where the cowslips hide

By drooping trees that cramp your flowing sides.

Flow sweetly till the furious sea you meet

Will stain your pristine flow with brackish look

And hurl you back upstream in forced retreat,

Mix salt into the sweetness of your brook.

While you your watery wars do thus pursue

You split the town in two – to north and south

Londoners know themselves by where they grew

As you can tell as soon they open mouth

But they all know what lies behind each squall

Without a Thames there’d be no town at all.

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