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At last – a plaque for the man who proved that the English made “Champagne” first

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 26, 2017
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IT COULDN’T have been better timed. This week a long-awaited plaque was unveiled in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire at the birthplace of Christopher Merrett. It was Merrett who in a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 recorded that what came to be known as the méthode champenoise – ie secondary fermentation in the bottle – was actually invented by wine coopers in England decades before it was attempted by Dom Perignon. Most French people still, erroneously, believe that it was all due to the Dom, not the Pom.

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

It was a memorable occasion – with lovely wines supplied by Paulton Hill, which introduced us to its first sparkling, and Lovell’s vineyard which markets the fine Elgar range and is the nearest vineyard to the birthplace of Christopher Merrett.  It was well timed because the English and Welsh wine revival seems to have entered a new period of growth. It is not just that a million new vines are expected to be planted this year – most of them for sparkling  – but our still wines are starting to win serious prizes. 

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

A fascinating example is the northernmost vineyard in North Wales, Conwy, (@conwyvineyard) which I visited two years ago and was told that New Zealand legend Kevin Judd, the man behind Cloudy Bay,  on a visit to promote his new venture had noticed some grapes growing on a hillside as the train came into Llandudno station. He commented that it was a great position for a vineyard and he would love to come back for a tasting. Well, if he does he will find that Conwy, owned by a delightful couple Colin and Charlotte Bennett has just won one of only two silver medals awarded for UK still wines at this month’s International Wine Challenge. The other silver was awarded to LondonCru, which operates London’s first winery for centuries. Oh, and Conwy also won a bronze for its Solaris. Not bad for a vineyard of barely an acre in an area of Wales where most people would be amazed to find grapes growing at all.

The plaque at Winchcombe was unveiled by Mike Read, best known as a DJ but who has written 36 books, many on historical subjects, and is a founder of the British Plaque Trust. Mike boldly entered the controversy about what to call the  indigenous  sparkling wine discovered by Merret. He suggested English Royal which has a lovely prestigious ring about it – with hidden notes about Charles II who espoused the Royal Society – but I am not sure how it would go down in North Wales! But it is a lot better than the headline a bright sub editor wrote on an editorial I wrote about Christopher Merret’s discovery 20 years ago in the Guardian. It was “Champagne Pom” I was much moved by the warm reception a packed church gave to me for my talk on Merrett – including this poem . .

In praise of Christopher Merrett

(from my fifth poetry book LondonMyLondon published on Kindle this morning!)

 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? 

Why, in folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France. 

But wait: hear Christopher Merret’s scientific view, 

Which he wrote in sixteen hundred and sixty two 

Without any mock Gallic piety, 

He told the newly formed Royal Society, 

He’d discovered this oenological advance 

That let wine ferment in bottles first, 

That were strong enough not to burst. 

T’was Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France

Decades before they gave sparkling a glance

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 Champenoise 

But What should have been called Merrettoise. 

So, 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.

Me preparing to meet the audience

Me preparing to meet the audience

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Brexit good for vineyards? Don’t bank on it

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 04, 2016
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There is a wave of euphoria going the rounds of some vineyards about how Britain’s wine industry will benefit from Brexit. I hope this is right but it won’t happen if we only look at the benefits and not at the other side of the balance sheet. Sure it will make our exports cheaper as long as it lasts. But remember, the reason the pound has gone down is that the financial markets think Brexit will be bad for economic growth partly because foreign-own industries such as motor manufacturing and financial services – which came here to be inside the tariff barriers – will switch new investment and people to Europe. This will lead to higher unemployment in the UK and a big blow to confidence and spending power which may lead to fewer purchases of the more expensive domestic wines.
Devaluation makes exports cheaper but also imports more expensive. Virtually all of the machinery to pick and process grapes – like the massive press that arrived at Rathfinny this week – comes from abroad as do the vines themselves and many of the gangs that pick them.
It is all very well to presume that Brexit will lead to the Government reducing tax on English and Welsh wines but this is unlikely at a time when there will almost certainly be a rising deficit that the Government is pledged to eliminate albeit over a longer perion than previously thought.
In these circumstances the Chancellor would have to be barmy to reduce the duty on wine when 98% of the proceeds would go to importers who dominate the market. And if he decided to reduce the duty on UK made wines alone in a discriminatory way then that would be sure to trigger a retaliatory trade war abroad.
There could be unexpected benefits. If agricultural subsidies are eventually reduced sharply then that might persuade more farmers to invest in a growing indigenous industry rather than farming subsidies.
I remain bullish about the revival of the UK wine industry and it will be improved by a lower pound. But the irony is that if Brexit succeeds (very unlikely in my view) then the pound will once again strengthen thereby removing a competitive advantage that arose from expectations that it would fail.

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Will still white wines be the next big thing for Britain?

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 27, 2016
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Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

THE AMAZING resurgence of UK vineyards in recent years has overwhelmingly been the story of sparkling wines which have been so festooned with gold medals that even French champagne makers have woken up to it. But is the same success about to happen to our still white wines which have languished in the shadows for so long? You could definitely draw this conclusion from the recent English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition where an astonishing 20 out of 32 gold medals awarded went to white wines of which no less than 11 were made from the appropriately named Bacchus grape (after the god of wine) which is emerging as the UK’s still wine of choice for consumers. Several other non-Bacchus wines also struck gold including chardonnays from Chapel Down’s Kits Coty vineyard and from the long-established New Hall in Essex.

This competition was blind tasted by Masters of Wine judged, it is claimed, to international standards which means that there ought to be no national bias. The trouble is that at the more recent Decanter blind tasting – which includes wines from everywhere and not just England and Wales – there were no golds for Bacchus or indeed any other still wines from the UK though there were three silvers (plus a few more for other still whites). This is par for the course for international competitions. So what on earth is going on? There are various explanations. It could be that domestic Bacchus producers did not enter in sufficient numbers for Decanter. Maybe there a subconscious patriotic preference for home producers by the judges. Not at all unlikely. Or , just possibly, the success of Bacchus in domestic competitions is a lead indicator of what is to come in international blind tastings. After all, our sparkling wines were hailed at home long before they started winning prizes in international competitions. Or, perish the thought, wine tasting is a much more random operation that its participants like to admit.

Either way, there are lessons here. Maybe the new vineyards being planted here which are overwhelmingly of the three varieties that make up classic Champagne wines – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – should look to plant more for still wines. Of course, if the market changes, it is easy to produce still white from Chardonnay vines and still red from Pinot Noir, which is gradually improving in quality in this country. But Bacchus, which is a cross between hardy Germanic varieties Mullar-Thurgau and Sylvaner x Riesling, is clearly emerging as the cheer leader for UK wines with a name to conjure with.

Bacchus wines are not cheap being mainly priced around the £14 mark though at the time of writing you could get a Brightwell Bacchus at £9.99 from Waitrose and a 2014 from Chapel Down for £11.50 from the Wine Society. Waitrose is the best place to look for English and Welsh wines if you are not buying from a vineyard, not least because they occasionally have special offers with cuts of 25% or more and they have over a 100 English and Welsh wines on offer. The choosey Wine Society (lifetime membership £40) has a much more limited but high quality list including a couple (non Bacchus) at under £8. Both organisations have free delivery if you buy by the case.

So it looks as though Bacchus will be a premium priced wine like our sparkling wines. If you haven’t got the economies of scale of overseas producers it makes sense to sell on quality. The name Bacchus can be used by anyone but the way things are going it could establish itself as a distinctively branded English still wine. That would be something worth waiting for.

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Giving due Merrett to the English inventor of Champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 07, 2016
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AT LONG last Christopher Merrett, the 17th century English scientist who first established what is now called the méthode champenoise – long before Dom Perignon – is to get official recognition. Local historians have now discovered exactly where he lived in the Gloucestershire village of Winchcombe and have applied for a plaque to be put up. When I wrote about this two years ago it was thought that the house – actually a pub – where Merrett was born was on Gloucester Street on the the corner of Mill Lane. This was true. But it turns out it was the wrong corner. The actual building is the one in the picture above and not the one on the other side of the lane part of which can be seen on the left of the photo. The house has been reconstructed since the 17th century but still has the original cellar and barrel roll.
Local writer Jean Bray and folk artist Katie Morgan have applied to have a plaque to commemorate Christopher Merret’s undersung achievement. Most people (especially in France!) still believe that Dom Perignon invented champagne but he actually came onto the scene nearly 30 years after Merrett.
In Merrett’s time Champagne in France 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 furnaces able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques.
Merrett went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden which had a large vineyard in those days though it is not known whether Merrett was involved with it. He was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn.
MerretPic

Jean Bray is to give a talk entitled “The Englishman who invented Champagne” at 7.30pm on Thursday May 26 at the Chandos Hall in Winchcombe as part of Winchcombe Festival of Music and Arts. It is sponsored by Strawberry Hill Vineyard of Newent which is one of the nearest vineyards to Winchcombe (price £8 including a glass of sparkling).
It is great that Winchcombe is celebrating its most famous son but there are dozens of vineyards around the country whose success can ultimately be traced back to Christopher Merrett (picture, left) who don’t celebrate him enough. This is partly because Ridgeview vineyard established Merrett as a trade mark. This may have been a shrewd move commercially but it may also have hampered the scope of vineyards in the UK to capitalise on a name that, in truth, ought to be more widely known than Dom Perignon.

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Future rosy for English red wines

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 08, 2015
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PinotNoirPinot Noir ready for the picking at Forty Hall vineyard at Enfield, London
(Edited version of an article in the current UKvine)

ENGLISH AND WELSH sparkling wines are now acknowledged to be world class. Still whites are starting to make an impact but our reds seem destined to linger in a viticultural Limbo, the gates to Paradise steadfastly denied. In 1691 Richard Ames wrote an epic poem about his fruitless search for a decent glass of claret in the inns of London, castigating nearly all the innkeepers for the rubbish he tasted. If Ames were alive today he might have done a similar walk looking for a decent glass of English red except, of course, that hardly any pubs serve it. Maybe he would be harranging them for not.
Yet the fact is a lot of English reds taste better than the mediocrity so often served in pubs but they are either not marketed properly or, more likely, too expensive for publicans who often won’t buy for more than £5 a bottle wholesale – before they treble or quadruple the price when they sell it. Richard Ames would have had something to say about that
There is hope. The grape that gave Bergundy its charisma, Pinot Noir, notoriously moody to grow over here, is beginning to make its mark in the UK. Jilly Goolden in a recent blind tasting said of Gusbourne Estate’s 2011 Pinot Noir that it was “divine” and could not possibly be English because we struggle to make red. Wine expert Stephen Skelton said the same wine was the best English red he had tasted. Maybe we are all a bit blind to our own achievements. I purchased Sharpham’s much praised Pinot Noir and Précoce 2011 recently and they told me to lay it down for a few years. I did what I was told, totally fazed by this being the first time anyone had recommended laying down an English wine for so long. Bolney also makes a good Pinot (its Foxhole 2013 won a silver medal in this year’s International Wine Challenge) and Ancre Hill in Wales has high hopes as does brand new vineyard Jabajak deep into west Wales despite being located rather high up.
But Pinot Noir is not the only fruit. Some vineyards are having success with Regent which is relatively easy to grow and fairly disease resistant. Professor Richard C Selley in his seminal book, The Winelands of Britain said that good red wine has been difficult to produce but things were changing with the introduction of Rondo, an immigrant from Manchuria which, he observed, produces “excellent red wine in marginal climatic conditions”.

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England’s mystery grape – myth or magic?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 09, 2015
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Wrotham Pinot maturing

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Wrotham Pinot matured
IF SHERLOCK HOLMES had been interested in English wines, he would surely have tried to solve the mystery of Wrotham Pinot, an intriguing English mutation of the classic Burgundy grape Pinot Noir. It was supposedly grown in England by the Romans and later by medieval monks but has disappeared without trace from its native land though cuttings – it is claimed – taken from the UK have been grown very successfully on a two-acre site at a Yountville vineyard in California’s Napa Valley.

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If true this would be of great interest to the burgeoning UK vineyards growing Pinot Noir because this variety is claimed to ripen two weeks earlier with higher sugar content and is apparently immune from powdery mildew which afflicts the standard varieties.

Edward Hyams, one of the pioneering British viticulturists says he discovered it on a wall in Wrotham (pronounced ‘Root-um’) in Kent in the late 1940s. It was almost certainly a variety known as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ because the flour-like texture of its leaves reminded locals of mill workers after a long day’s milling. It had been grown on walls for many years having been originally discovered by the great horticulturalist Sir Joseph Banks in an ancient vineyard at Tortworth, Gloucestershire. However, I have been reminded by Stephen Skelton that Pinot Meunier leaves all have that flour-like appearance.
Hyams apparently took the vine to Ray Barrington Brock at what was to become the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, and he trialled it alongside the many other varieties he grew.
It was during a visit to Britain around 1980 that the distinguished US viticulturist Dr Richard Grant Peterson came across a wine made from Wrotham Pinot and although it wasn’t very good there was something in it that attracted him enough to take cuttings back to California, where, after meeting lengthy quarantine rules, he planted what eventually became two acres of Wrotham Pinot which still exists today and the wine from which has won prestigious gold medals. It has been described as the “most unique vineyard in the whole of the Napa Valley”. But it has yet to be established that he took the cutting from Wrotham and he has been mute on the subject when approached.
So what happened to this wonder vine in Britain? Does it join the embarrassing list of things discovered in the UK but exploited abroad? Is it still growing somewhere? Or should it be in the Loch Ness family of rural myths? It was after reading Stephen Skelton’s excellent Wine Growing in Great Britain – and an earlier book of his – which first alerted me to Wrotham Pinot that I decided to do a little sleuthing myself (though Stephen himself is now highly sceptical that Wrotham Pinot – which is an officially designated vine in the UK – is anything other than a Pinot Meunier).
In his book A Vineyard in England, Norman Sneesby chronicles his progress in establishing a vineyard on the Isle of Ely in 1973 where among other varieties he planted 100 cuttings of Wrotham Pinot. These produced 48 rooted plants which were looking healthy until they were “taken by the birds”.
A few years later Dudley Quirk grew Wrotham Pinot on his – now defunct – 65 acre vineyard at Chiddingstone near Wrotham in Kent. Some locals believe it was served at a banquet given by Margaret Thatcher for President Mitterrand but it was probably another variety from the same vineyard.
It occurred to me that it was possible that there might still be enthusiasts in Wrotham who had taken cuttings from the original vine – long since gone – on the garden wall which was supposedly somewhere along the main street. I wrote to the Parish Council and others looking for a lead. My email was forwarded to Brian Saunders of the Wrotham Allotment Society. He was very knowledgeable about the grape and not only had one growing in his garden (see pictures above, courtesy of Brian) but knew of around eight other locals who had taken cuttings from him and were now growing it themselves including one who has 12 vines growing on his allotment. Brian says he had got his from Dudley Quirk at Chiddingstone: “He gave me half a dozen cuttings around 1987… I potted them up and after a year planted one out”.
He added that the historical society established contact with the vineyard in Napa Valley and two of his neighbours visited it bringing back some bottles back for a wedding. One of them made wine from Wrotham grapes which was “passable but a bit acidy”. Brian has two bottles of the Napa Valley Wrotham Pinot which he hasn’t opened – one sparkling pink and the other an off dry white.
Whether all this is nothing more than an interesting sidebar to a curious story remains too be seen. The question is whether Wrotham Pinot – with its claimed near immunity to powdery mildew and the benefit of early fruiting – is worth re-planting in Britain given the increased interest in Pinot Noir among UK vineyards and all the improvements in technical ability and climate that have happened since it was last planted. You don’t have to swallow whole the seductive claim that it was the original variety introduced by the Romans – for which there is as yet no archaeological evidence – to accept that Wrotham Pinot, if it exists at all as a distinctive mutation, would be something special.
@BritishWino

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Britain at its most picturesque – the Wye Valley wine trail

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 08, 2015
Engilsh vineyards, Uncategorized / No Comments
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Sheep at Parva Farm vineyard in Tintern

 

THE WYE VALLEY has a strong claim to be the cradle of the tourism industry in Britain. When Continental wars deprived monied people of the Grand Tour in Europe they perforce turned homewards and the Wye Tour from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow – passing Goodrich Castle and Tintern Abbey – became the trip to make for them and for poets like Wordsworth and Thomas Gray not to mention painters such as Turner.
It is almost the last place you would think of today as a vineyard destination. That is because we define our vineyards by county or pre- defined regions and can’t easily cope with a river haven like the Wye Valley which transcends countries – Wales and England – as well as counties (Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire). But today it has a strong claim to be a vineyard destination as well.
Travelling up the Wye from Chepstow the first vineyard you come to is Parva Farm on the left of the river (open all year) stunningly situated up a steep slope in Tintern overlooking the river and, if you reach high enough, the Abbey.  Its wines have won a stack of silver and bronze medals. Marks and Spencer recently asked for as much of its Bacchus as they could spare.
A few miles up river at Monmouth you can visit Ancre Hill Estate (April to end September) a biodynamic vineyard which burst on to the scene two years ago when its 2008 (Seyval) white was voted the best sparkling wine in the world at the Bollicine del Mondo in Verona beating off competition from established champagnes. This was an astonishing achievement for a new Welsh vineyard which even my Welsh friends have difficulty in believing.  On a sunny day eating a lunch of their local cheeses, vines stretching out before you, with one of their lovely sparkling or still wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay etc) is a great joy.
Further upstream at Coughton, near Ross-on-Wye, on the site of a Roman vineyard, is newcomer Castle Brook whose delicious Chinn-Chinn 2009, made with classic champagne grapes, recently won a gold medal and was voted the best sparkling white in the whole of the South-West Vineyard Association’s area beating off the likes of Camel Valley in Cornwall and Furleigh in Dorset. Castle Brook is owned by the Chinn family, probably the biggest asparagus growers in the country. It is open by appointment but wine can be purchased online.

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Christopher Chinn of the Chinn family who have diversified from asparagus into sparkling wines

Further north, less than ten miles from the Wye with a good restaurant and accommodation is the highly regarded Three Choirs whose 80 acres produce fine prize-winning wines, including gold. The vineyard also makes wine for dozens of other vineyards. If you take into account the whole vineyard experience – including the quality of wine, the setting, the food and the atmosphere, this one is up with the very best.

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Three Choirs, one of Britain’s oldest and most successful vineyards

Strawberry Hill

Banana trees at Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill vineyard, so close to Three Choirs that you could almost use it as a spittoon, is one of the most unusual vineyards anywhere and one of my favourites.  It makes good wines (some stocked by Waitrose) partly from over an acre under glass enabling it to grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon  not normally possible in England.
It claims to be the only vineyard in the world growing commercially under glass, which no one has yet contested. As if that isn’t enough, it  has rows of flourishing banana trees – growing outside! – as well.

There are plenty of other vineyards in The Wye Valley (depending on where you draw the boundaries) including a new 3.5 acre one at Wythall in the grounds of a stunning Tudor mansion, Lullham, the wonderful Broadfield Court, also Coddington,  now under happy new ownership, Sparchall and a micro vineyard The Beeches at  Upton Bishop. This is by no means a complete list. If all these can’t generate a vineyard trail I don’t know what will. If Wordsworth were alive today, I wonder if he would have  written about Wines  a few miles above Tintern Abbey rather than  his celebrated “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” .Either way Galileo’s description of wine as sunlight held together by water has a unique resonance in the Wye Valley.

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The road to app-iness for Britain’s vineyards

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 31, 2014
Engilsh vineyards / No Comments

Britain’s rarest vineyard at Strawberry Hill, Glocs, has an acre under glass and banana trees

 

OK, it’s a new year and English and Welsh vineyards are on a roll. The challenging question is can this upsurge in popular interest be turned into a community of producers and consumers that would be mutually beneficial. One obvious route is to create a smartphone app that tells imbibers and tourists where the nearest vineyards are complete with directions how to get there and access to social networks to see what others think about the vines and wines.
There is no shortage of wine apps. I have a couple of dozen on my iPhone, about half a dozen of which I use regularly. Some, like the excellent ones from Berry Brothers and the Wine Society, enable you to search their corporate archives and buy directly from the phone if you want to. Berry Brothers even have educational videos. But they are mainly about imported wines.
If you want to employ some of the more exciting functions of a mobile phone – like identifying a wine from its label and telling you how much it costs – you will have to use an overseas app (mainly American) such as WineSearcher, Vivino or Delectable. These are very handy if you want to know in a restaurant whether you are being charged three, four or even five times the retail value of the bottle – simply point and click at the label and the price pops up on your screen often with comments from other users.
If you want to know where British vineyards are you can use the excellent UK vineyards map at http://ukvineyards.co.uk/vineyards-map/southeast/ which works best from a desktop computer.

 

 

But if you are on the move and want to know where the nearest vineyards are complete with directions how to get there you will have to use an American app like Winerypedia which in theory works around the globe. I noticed when it started that Chapel Down was on to it pretty quickly. I put up a few vineyards myself and others also started appearing. It accepts user-generated content so could be used as a UK community. It is no where near comprehensive yet but it is worth looking at because it shows what can be done with simple GPS technology. And it’s free.
The only English app I know of promoting a range of vineyards is one that was due in December from the South East Vineyard Association which represents many of the most successful vineyards in the country. I paid £2.49 for it at the online Apple Store a few days ago though it seems to have been withdrawn since. Hopefully, this will be to change it because it looks like being a sadly lost opportunity.

Entries from the Delectable app

Although there are some elegant pictures with text you can get a better (free) map from the UK vineyards offering mentioned earlier. There doesn’t seem to be a facility to see how far you are from a vineyard let alone getting directions. One of the aims is to raise money for the Association by charging £2.49  – but this simply won’t happen. Apps like this are nearly always free because of an entrenched reluctance by consumers to pay. I deeply regret this fact but it is true. Punters expect all but the most specialised apps (Hugh Johnson may be able to get away with it) to be free leaving the publisher to make money by in-app purchases, adverts or upgrades later. A vineyard app is not an end in itself but a means to promoting vineyards and selling wine. That is where the returns – and the community – will come from. It has to be free upfront.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a community-based app that gave you live directions to the nearest vineyard and enabled you to add your own comments and ratings and see what others were saying about UK wines – complete of course with a buy-button.
Ideally, such an app would be independent of any vested interests as it would obviously contain criticism as well as praise (Think Trip Advisor). Failing that the UK Vineyards Association and English Wine Producers should get together and do it in their collective interest.
It is surely better that we do this ourselves rather than yet again hanging on the coat tails of the US?

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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.

@BritishWino You can get these occasional posts directly by filling in the email slot on the right of the screen

 

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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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