english wine

The proof of “real” wines is in the drinking

Posted by Victor Keegan on April 17, 2016
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UK tables at the Real Wine Fair
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I HAD some liquor today that was distilled in a house in Highgate using wormwood as an additive. It turned out it was all legit. Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney, who started in 2009, had to get four different licences before being authorised to set the operation up which distils its spirits under a vacuum in glassware. I stumbled across it at today’s Real Wine Fair at Tobacco Dock in London’s Docklands. I liked the the look of the bottles but said I was only really interested in English and Welsh wines. But when it was pointed out that three of the bottles were two thirds filled with wine from Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire I was hooked and immediately sampled some Three Choirs based vermouths plus a cardamon gin and a Negroni, all marketed under the Sacred label.
The three English vineyards there – Ancre Hill, Davenport and Forty Hall – are all firm favourites with me as their new wines confirmed including a liimted edition 2015 Davenport Pet Nat with an 8.5% alcohol content and very pleasant Pinot Noirs from Ancre and Davenport. Forty Hall, the 10-acre community-run vineyard in Enfield, London had their impressive 2015 Ortega and Bacchus but none of their first sparkling wine which went mainly to sponsors and helpers. Future years will be different.
England and Wales represented barely two per cent of the vineyards on show – which gives some idea of the size of the fair which attracted wines from all over the world. Hundreds of people were there creating a real buzz along the lines of tables of all kinds of wines and artisan foods. Among those that grabbed me on a whet-my- whistle-stop tour was one from Priorat in Spain made from a vine over 100 years old, a 2015 Mtsvane Pet Nat from Georgia which was left in the bottle from primary fermentation and a Loxarel from Penedès in Spain that had been laid sur latte for 10 years without even being disgorged.
There is clearly a big market for “natural” wines. Some of the people I spoke to said that after drinking natural ones they couldn’t face the additives present in the usual varieties which they noticed in a way they hadn’t before. You don’t have to go all the way with the niceties of making organic and biodynamic wines to accept that they are making some very fine wines. The proof of the theory is in the drinking.

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Can Britain make sparkling wine as well as posh fizz?

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 12, 2015
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Rathfinny (above) has gone into high quality fizz in a big way -but no-one competes at the cheaper end.

BRITAIN’S motor industry is brilliant at manufacturing custom-built premium cars but no good with volume cars (at least until overseas buyers showed us how). Is it the same with sparkling wine? English and Welsh sparkling wines have done amazingly well, regularly winning gold medals against the rest of the world including Champagne. At the recent International Wine Challenge (IWC) England won a record 14 gold medals compared with 30 by France which has hugely more vineyards.
But at the cheaper end of the market it is a different story. Prosecco, that lovely sounding – if ancestorally challenged – Italian sparkling wine has swept all before it at the £5 to £10 a bottle end of the market. It has seen off Cava, the Spanish equivalent – though made slightly differently – which once dominated the lower end of the UK market. It hasn’t seen off cheap English sparkling for one very good reason. There isn’t any.
I can’t think of a single English vineyard producing sparkling wine at under £10 a bottle. As a result, although UK sparkling is a great success story it can’t hold a candle to Prosecco in terms of quantity. According to Mintel, sales of Prosecco rose an astonishing 75% in Britain in 2014 to approaching £1 billion and overtook Champagne for the first time. Since Champagne sales also rose strongly Britain’s balance of payments on sparkling account is getting much worse despite the success of British fizz.
Why can’t we produce affordable sparkling? After all, our farmers produce lots of high volume food from peas to asparagus. Why not a British Prosecco? During the IWC tasting day I asked a number of our leading vineyards whether they had thought about moving into the sub £10 market. Only one said it was contemplating such a move. The others quoted the same reasons for steering clear: heavy investment, lack of economies of scale, lower yields per acre in the UK, changing fashions etc. Stephen Skelton, the wine expert, says in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain that the sub £10 a bottle matrket is not a price sector that uk producers “want to, or can afford to be in”.
He may well be right but this sort of reasoning does not stop us from investing in other farm products. If Britain’s farmers were faced with £1 billion imports of a cheaper form of carrot they would respond immediately. Is it just because noone has tried?
Prosecco is much cheaper to produce than Champagne-style wines which have to be matured in bottles over a number of years. It is fermented in tanks rather than bottles and can be ready to sell in a matter of months so it’s good for cash flow.
Of course, there is the major question of branding. What could we call it? Prosecco has a posh(ish) image even though it could soon lose it by becoming too cheap (I bought a bottle in Aldi recently for £5.29p of which £2.63 was duty and when you add in Vat, transport and production costs it doesn’t leave much, if anything, for profit). Other Proseccos sell for up to £10 or more so there is still a lot to play for.
Prosecco used to be the name of the grape as well as the region – so British vineyards could have marketed similar wines under that name. But Italy wised up. It is still the same grape – Glera – but since 2009 Prosecco can only legally come from the region. That’s what I mean by ancestorially challenged.
Britain’s challenge is to find someone bold enough to produce it on a big scale and then sell it under a catchy name to satisfy the exploding consumer demand for cheap Prosecco-style sparkling wines. In other words to do what Rathfinny – which is planting over 400 acres – is doing at the premium end of the market: Think big and reap economies of scale. Is there anyone out there ready to to take the risk?
(Edited version of an article in UKvine, the new magazine dedicated to English and Welsh wines)

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Vineyards of tomorrow

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

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

Frank Myers at Wythall

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

Wythall, 500 years on

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager at Rathfinny

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

 

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The 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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Britain leads the world in vineyards – under glass

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

The Great Vine glasshouse backed by Tudor chimneys

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

Inside the greenhouse

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

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

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

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

 

Cathie Rolinson tending the specially heightened vines

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

Part of the shop and tasting area

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

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

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The only wine is Essex . . .

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

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

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

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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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