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
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 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
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.