Merrett

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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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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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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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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