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.
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.
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.
LONDON has long been an international centre for wine but none of the growing or production has happened in the capital for centuries. Now things are changing, albeit on a small scale. The latest news is that the admirable Vagabond Wines, where you can buy up to 100 wines by the glass (which would be attractive to punters wanting to try out English or Welsh wines) is planning to build a winery in London to make wine from grapes grown in this country. This means that London could soon have two wineries of its own following the pioneering efforts of London Cru in Earls Court.
Yesterday (Saturday) I added another London vineyard to my experiences when I visited one I was previously unaware of in Morden (See photo, above) at the southern end of the Northern Line in the middle of suburbia. It is quite sizeable for an urban vineyard with over 300 vines but there is no way you would know it was there as you can’t see it from the street and the owners understandably intend to keep it that way and asked me not to reveal its location.
From here they have been making white, red and rosé wines since the mid 1990s on reclaimed allotments from well tried cool-climate varietals such as Triomphe, Dornfelder and Dunkelfelder which they turn into wine at their own well-equipped micro winery. What they don’t drink they distribute to friends and relatives. They kindly gave me a bottle of white which I look forward to sampling.The terrain is not text book ideal – soft clay soil on ground that slopes the wrong way – but it seems to work. Even when you are in the house it is a bit of a maze to find the exact location but well worth the unique experience of viewing suburbia from a secret vineyard. If anyone knows of any other vineyards in London however small please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Morden it was only a few stops on the Northern Line to Tooting Bec station where I somehow managed to find my way to the vibrant Furzedown Festival to collect my annual allocation of four bottles of Chateau Tooting which makes wine from grapes grown in gardens and allotments across the Capital. You are allocated bottles in proportion to the weight of grapes you put in. This year – a rosé made into wine by the highly regarded Halfpenny Green vineyard in Staffordshire – was sweeter than last year’s excellent offering but very drinkable even though I don’t have a sweet tooth. Chateau Tooting makes north of 600 bottles and is the second largest wine priducer in London.They seemed to be doing a roaring trade at their stall yesterday.
This morning – yes, this is definitely London wine collection weekend – I trekked to Enfield in North London to the 10 acre Forty Hall (photo, left) which is emerging as the most exciting vineyard in London for a very long time. I bought a few bottles of its Bacchus, which has been well received by early imbibers plus an Ortega. Its second sparkling wine will be released later in the year probably only for patrons until production gets fully underway. Forty Hall is an organic vineyard run by volunteers, some of whom have social problems which are greatly helped by the therapeutic value of vineyard involvement. I felt a bit better just by strolling around. The wine is made for them by Davenports, the highly respected Sussex winery, and the combination of the two organisations looks like a highly encouraging blend.
Chateau Tooting’s stall at the Furzedown Festival)
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.
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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_
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.
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 email@example.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.
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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.
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.
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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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.
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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