wine

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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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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London vineyards – a weekend break

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 19, 2016
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Hillcross
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 victor.keegan@gmail.com.
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.
BacchusForty
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
Chateau Tooting’s stall at the Furzedown Festival)

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How bad are your tastebuds?

Posted by Victor Keegan on March 28, 2016
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WineTasting
A London wine tasting

I RECENTLY attended a fascinating lecture on the chemistry of tastebuds at University College London (Department of Chemistry). During the course of it the lecturer, Tony Milanowski from Plumpton College, handed around four cups of clear liquids and asked us to pass them around after writing down a) whether we smelled anything at all and b) if we did what sort of aroma it was.
The first two had no smell at all and were obviously water (who was he trying to fool?) while the other two had distinct perfumes which I noted down. At the end of the talk he revealed that he had intended to pass around a fifth cup but as it was only water he decided not to bother.
Oops! After decades of drinking wine I was unable to detect half of the smells of the liquids. It was scant consolation that most of the rest of the audience seemed to be in the same boat and the student next to me only managed one. It turned out that the last one should have tasted of asparagus to which some people have what is termed a “genetically determined specific hypersensitivity ” to it. And others don’t sense it at all.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who drink regularly do not have sophisticated taste buds and many of those who do actually fail in blind tastings.
There is no such thing as an “objective” taste in a glass of wine or any other liquid. What you are tasting is not what I am tasting. Taste depends on genetics (the multitude of receptors and sensors in your mouth and up your nose), but also on mood, temperature, place, the company you keep, expectations and even the label. That bottle of rosé that tasted so heavenly on a beach in the south of France but was quite mundane at home is not to be blamed. It wasn’t that it didn’t travel it was because the environment in which you drunk it did not travel.
If you are given a glass of Chateau LaTour in a posh restaurant it will taste different to the same wine served up anonymously in a plastic cup. All of this is highly relevant to the appreciation of English and Welsh wine. If you have it built into you that the wine is no good – as so many people in the UK still believe about their own wines – then it is difficult to detach the psychology of expectations from how you taste it.
You are not alone. In America Robert Hodgson, an academic and a winemaker has carried out a detailed analysis of blind tastings in California over a number of years by acknowledged experts. The results astonished him. Some 90% of judges didn’t have any real consistency often giving quite different marks to the same wines. About 10% of the judges were ‘quite good” – until, that is, he compared them with the following year when they couldn’t maintain their performances. When he tracked 4,000 wines across 13 competitions he found that virtually all of those that got a gold medal in one competition got no award at all elsewhere. His conclusion? The probability of getting a gold medal matches almost exactly what you’d expect from a completely random process. Ouch.
Of course, even if judges were completely consistent about a wine it doesn’t mean you will like it because your tastebuds and receptors may be completely different. Experts make a great play of detecting notes of gooseberry, raspberry, nettles and even pencil shavings in a wine though they would rapidly recoil from a wine made from those constituents. A 2011 Chateau Tooting, made from grapes of unknown parentage grown in back gardens and allotments in London, was recently given a mark of 88% in a blind tasting by wine expert Jamie Goode. In the end there is no alternative but to follow your own nose while being aware of all the flummery about wine.
All of which ought to be good for the future of UK wines as they start to break through the barrier of psychological resistance. It is already happening with sparkling wines (though how they would fare under a Hodgson analysis is an interesting point). But there is still a widespread belief that English and Welsh wines can’t be much good simply because they are English or Welsh. There is all to play for.
This is an edited version of an article in the current issue of UKvine magazine .

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Christmas lunch – two wines from London

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 24, 2015
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XmasDrinks

THIS YEAR we are going to have two wines from London (yes, London, England) and one from Wales for our Christmas lunch. If this doesn’t get us into the Guinness Book of Records nothing will. As an aperitif it will be Forty Hall sparkling, claimed to be London’s first sparkling wine for centuries. I managed to get a bottle because as a patron I was entitled to just one as output is being restricted in early years in order to boost future growth. I was going to keep it for a while as it is rather young for a sparkling but then I was offered the opportunity, again as a patron, to buy another two bottles – so that made it worth the risk of opening one for Christmas. Forty Hall is London’s largest vineyard for a very long time and maybe ever. It is an inspired community-run 10-acre project at Enfield whose grapes are turned into wine by Will Davenport, one of England’s most respected winemakers.Can’t wait.
For the turkey there is a choice. For some reason – and I am not sure where I went wrong – the rest of the family always prefers white to red. So there will be a bottle of LDN Cru, a Bacchus made at what is claimed to be London’s first urban winery in West Brompton using grapes from the family-owned Sandhurst vineyards in Kent. Purists may argue whether this is really a London wine as the grapes are grown outside the capital. But vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley always brand under their own labels even when the grapes come from Essex or wherever. For me it’s London and I look forward to a glass.
Finally, another first – a domestic red with the turkey. I am very interested in the way Pinot Noir – the grape behind Burgundy – is developing in the UK as a premium product and have already been very impressed with Gusbourne and Hush Heath Pinots this year. I also have bottles of Sharpham and Three Choirs gathering age. But this time I have decided on one from Ancre Hill in Monmouth. Their sparkling whites have been festooned with gold medals but they also have a long-term interest in producing top quality Pinot Noir in Wales. Well, that was the difficult bit. Choosing. Now it is all over bar the drinking. Happy Christmas to all.

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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
Parva1

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.

CastleBrook

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.

ThreeChoirs

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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Was the White House in Washington named after this vineyard in Wales?

Posted by Victor Keegan on March 04, 2015
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Jabajak2

The white house of Jabajak vineyard

IT IS a curious fact that the great English wine revival was really started in Wales by a Scot. The Earl of Bute established two vineyards in Glamorgan at Castell Coch and Swanbridge. From the mid 1870s until the 1914/18 war – when supplies of sugar needed for fermentation dried up – he and his son ran the only commercial vineyard in the UK. This ended the Dark Ages of UK wine production and proved to subsequent UK pioneers that if white and red wines could be successfully made in South Wales then the prospects must be good for other  parts of the UK.The Bute vineyard at Castell Coch is now a miniature golf course (below) but the revival of Welsh wine is now in full swing and gaining international attention.

The flagship is the newcomer Ancre Hill Estate of Monmouth, run by the engaging Morris family, which broke the English monopoly of gold medals when its 2008 white was voted the best sparkling wine in the world – against competition from Champagnes – at the prestigious Bollicine del Mondo blind tasting in Italy. Since then it has won a further clutch of gold and silver medals and is in the middle of an expansion which involves new acreage at a nearby farm and a state-of-the art biodynamic winery.
But Ancre Hill is merely one of a flourishing network of vineyards in Wales which are starting to make their mark in the wider world. The most interesting newbie, is Jabajak. (picture above)  (Don’t reach for your Welsh dictionary – it is an anagram of the initials of its founders). At the moment it is an anomaly; a vineyard without wine. This is because they dumped last year’s crop as not up to the standard they are seeking so their first wines won’t be ready until May. But the rest of the infrastructure is in place including rooms, 3.5 acres of vines, a carp pond and a restaurant already producing first class food including scallops which were among the best I have tasted and delicious Welsh lamb.
As if this isn’t enough they have a potentially killer selling point. It is in their lease that they must keep the main house painted white, a condition laid down when it was a farm owned by David Adams who subsequently emigrated to America and whose grandson (John Adams) and great grandson (John Quincy Adams) both became Presidents of the United States. It was during John Adams’ presidency that the President’s abode was first referred to as the White House even though this was long before it was actually coloured white. Locals in this part of Wales believe it was called the White House because of stories handed down by the Adams family that the white house in Wales was where the decisions were made. Whether you think this is a load of jabajak or not doesn’t matter: if people start believing it over the water, they may have to build a new airport here to meet demand.

CwmDeri

 

Seventeen miles west of Jabajak surrounded by the Pembrokeshire National Park is the most curious vineyard in Wales, Cwm Deri (“Valley  Oak”) Estate (picture, left).  Not only does it have four of its own shops (one at the vineyard and others in Cardiff, Bridgend and Tenby) which is  unusual for a vineyard but it also sells grape wines mixed with other fruit wines as well as conventional ones. I sampled a wild damson with  medium dry rosé  in the conservatory  restaurant overlooking the vines which tasted like I imagine a damson Kir would.
There are a number of other interesting Welsh vineyards which I have covered in previous blogs including the lovely Sugarloaf Vineyards near Abergavenny, the recently created White Castle vineyard at Llanvetherine, the surprisingly good Parva nestling above the tourist haven of Tintern and the doyen of them all  Glyndwr which has been making steadily improving wines at a blissfully secluded six acres at Llanblethian since 1982 much of which goes to Waitrose.
Among other well established vineyards Llanerch stands out as providing the best overall package with very nice food and drink with a restaurant, outside tables, shop and a local walk.
Another one to look out for is Llaethliw (“colour of milk”) in Dylan Thomas country near Aberaeron where Plumpton-trained Jac Evans, aged 24 bides his time between working on an oil rig near Aberdeen and tending  his parents’ 7 acres of vines with another 15 acres to be planted over the next two years. Last year 1,600 bottles were sold out before Christmas. This year he hopes for 6,000. Wales is on the move.

@Britishwino @Jabajak @ancrehillestate @cwmderi

CastellCoch

The golf course at Castell Coch which was once a pioneering vineyard

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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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Moment of Truth for Britain’s booming vineyards . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 19, 2014
champagne, Chinn-Chinn, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, Uncategorized / No Comments

Discussion time among the vineyard gurus

This year looks likely to be a record for vineyards in England and Wales – the second successive good year after a disastrous 2012. The question is what to do about it if, thanks to increased plantings and favourable weather, we are entering a period of surplus. So far premium sparkling wines, winning gold medals regularly have been very marketable but most vineyards exist by selling from the cellar door often at inflated – oops sorry – premium, prices because customers have been happy to pay extra for the novel experience.  I have encountered a lot of good wines as well as overpriced ones on my travels including sub-optimal English reds being sold for £20, £30 and even £50 to punters about to be hugely disappointed (including me . .). I have grown to love UK wines but they won’t be loved by the general public until prices come down a bit.
As vineyards enter the new era they will encounter not only the still prevalent psychological barrier among consumers (and merchants) against English and Welsh wine but the real barrier of price. Having spent a year drinking mainly UK wines and regularly asking dumb-struck restaurant waiters and bartenders for English and Welsh wines (unsuccessfully) I know the problem only too well. Maybe it is best summed by one gastropub owner saying: “There is no way I can pay more than £5 a bottle and hope to make a decent profit”.
So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop organised by the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) to map out a strategy for the future.
It was held in the beautiful 650-year-old Vintners’ Hall in the City of London where as you go in you pass a painting of a 17th century wine merchant Van Dorn who was famous for drinking four bottles of wine a day and looking none the worse for it, well in his painting.
Dozens of ideas were put into the pot including the need for strong governance, profitability, collaboration between growers, recognition of excellence, educating the young, a centralised web site, a single body to represent the industry, product placement, promotion by tourist boards, brand ambassadors, enforceable quality standards and sustainability (for profits as well as the environment) and so on.
There was a general feeling that the sparkling sector should develop its own personality and not ape Champagne. Instead of trying to dream up a single word “brand” everyone seemed happy to use “English Sparkling” not least because the word England is a strong selling point abroad – though Sussex likes the alliterative “Sussex Sparkling”.
 There are two big gaps. We are supposed to be living in the age of Big Data but neither the government nor the industry actually knows how may vineyards there are nor what current sales are. It is left to the redoubtable Stephen Skelton to estimate-  in the UKVA house magazine The Grape Press – that wine produced from UK vineyards in 2014 could reach 6.4 million bottles compared with a ten year average of 2.95m bottles. This sounds huge but UK production, with a good product to sell, still accounts for barely more than one per cent of the domestic market. Other industries would kill to be in that position.
 Where the industry has been painfully slow is producing an app for smart phones that could tell you how far you are from the nearest vineyard, opening times with “buy” buttons and also able to snap wine labels which are recognised and stored in a central database. The aim would be to produce a community of UK wine drinkers exchanging experiences. It turns out that vineyards in the south-west will soon have an app of their own and all credit to them. The problem is that it only works for the South-west when there should be one for the whole UK.  And, they are planning to charge £2.50 for it which, believe, me is a mistake as there is a huge reluctance to pay for this kind of app. It should have been free, funded by the vineyards who would get their payback from increased custom

That is but one example why the industry needs a single integrated entity to talk to government and the EU besides acquiring a funding mechanism through a bottle levy (discussed for years but never implemented) so the necessary investment can be made. I am a big fan of UK wines sparkling and still. Vineyards have a great opportunity to make a serious contribution to the UK economy – but they need to get their act together quickly not least by using increased output to lower prices. If they don’t do it the market will do it for them in a merciless manner.

Victor Keegan @BritishWino, @vickeegan

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The vineyards of Herefordshire . . . Herefordshire ?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 14, 2014
champagne, Choirs, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

The historic vineyard at Castle Brook


HEREFORDSHIRE – where I spend a fair amount of time – could have been forgiven for feeling it had been dealt a raw hand by Bacchus. If only the county boundary line had been drawn a couple  of miles further out  in the south-west, it could have taken in the multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouthshire. And if a few miles had been added on its north-east frontier  it would have bagged Three Choirs, one of England’s most successful operations.
Herefordshire, however, still has some interesting vineyards and could be at the start of a roll. While I was  researching this blog – an arduous task supping wine at every stop – it was announced by the South West Vineyards Association that Castle Brooks’s Chinn-Chinn 2009  had won gold and been voted the best sparkling wine in the South West, an area that includes a lot of very prestigious estates. It is probably the only wine that can get away with calling itself Chinn-Chinn because that is the family name. Chinn, who are also the biggest asparagus growers in the country, have lived here near Ross-on-Wye for centuries.  Wine is still a minor crop for them but, as I saw for myself, they take great care of their lovingly manicured five acres set in beautiful countryside in a historic part of the county which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and used to be on the path of a Roman road.
Until Chinn-Chinn struck gold, Herefordshire’s main claim to fame was not quality but quantity. Sunnybank Vine Nursery in Rowlestone is the home of the National Collection of Vines with over 450 different types  – more than the rest of Britain’s vineyards put together.  I visited it yesterday on its annual Open Day  where owner Sarah Bell explained that the collection was under the watchful eye of Plant Heritage and was mainly aimed at enthusiastic amateurs who can buy cuttings or young vines for their own use. For easy growing and disease resistance she recommends Seyval for white wines  and Regent for red.

Broadfield Court

 

Broadfield Court (left) is one of the delights of the county, a charming country house  with 14 acres of vines and a cafe/restaurant where you can linger in the open air in summer with a snack or meal over a pleasant glass of wine (£3.50 a throw for their special reserve when I last paid a visit). It is the best all-round wine experience in the county.

But there are rivals kicking at its heels. Simon Day, who comes from the family that set up Three Choirs, recently bought the wine making equipment from Coddington vineyard in Colwall and has set it up in Ledbury where he will process Coddington’s wine  for the new owners while at the same time making wine from the  16Ridges vineyard in Worcestershire processing it in Herefordshire and selling it from the delightful Three Counties Cider Shop in the middle of Ledbury. Simon is also planning in the longer term to plant 20 to 25 acres (he has already done four acres) and to build a bigger winery. Watch this space.

Ledbury is not far from Frome Valley (below, right)), another delightfully situated vineyard  for which Simon Day is also turning the grapes into wine. It has a very pleasant entrance and tasting area in an old country house and sells a range of wines starting with a very quaffable Panton Medium Dry at a reasonable £7.50. James Cumming, who manages the vineyard also has a small one of his own in the West country.

Other Hereford vineyards include Lulham Court near Madley which  produces very pleasant wines(which can be purchased from the Coop in Newent)  from their three acres but at much higher prices that shown on their out-of-date web site. Beeches at Upton Bishop is a small vineyard run by John Boyd. Among others it supplies the neighbouring restaurant, the Moody Cow with its fine wine  while on the other side of Ross-on-Wye not far from Chinn Chinn Frank Myers and his wife Anthea Stratford McIntyre the European MP started a 3.5 acre vineyard three years ago in the gardens of their beautiful 17th century house and it will be another year or two before it is producing.

There are a number of other smaller vineyards which may grow bigger as Herefordshire stakes it claim in the amazing revival of the UK wine industry.

@BritishWino

Frome Valley

 

Open Day at the National Vine Collection

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A toast to the 400th anniversary of the Englishman who invented champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 25, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Merret’s house is the second one on the right

It is 400 years since the birth of Chistopher Merret (1614 – 1695), the Englishman who first set out the principles of how to make what is now called Champagne. Dom Perignon came along much later. This weekend, the place where he was born – Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – is holding a small Festival of Fizz to celebrate this little-known occasion. In Merret’s time Champagne was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired factories able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques. There was a shift to coal because wood was being prioritised for the navy because the Government was worried that a shortage of wood might affect the building of ships.
These days even the French admit that the English invented the “méthode champenoise”. Indeed the first mention of the word “Champaign'” anywhere was in English literature of the time.
While being delighted that Winchcombe is staging a festival this weekend  I am surprised that  the booming English and Welsh sparkling wine industry, which is awash with international gold medals, didn’t use the opportunity for a big marketing effort. I only heard about the festival two days ago when I read an eye-catching tweet from Oliver Chance of Strawberry Hill Vineyard (@englishbubbly) who said that Strawberry Hill was the nearest sparkling wine producer to the birthplace of the inventor: a great pitch but be careful, Oliver if you bump into @elgarwine – they could have a counter claim!

I am very grateful to Jean Bray, historian and journalist, – who is giving a talk on Merret at the White Hart Winchcombe at 6pm this Sunday (25th) – for guiding me to the house where he was born, a former pub called the Crown, on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street (see above). It is presumed, she said, that he was educated at the local grammar school – an Inigo Jones building now called Jacobean House – on the same side of the road opposite the church (just as it is presumed that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school though there is no actual evidence in either case). There are brass plates to his parents in the church on the right side wall as you enter (see, right).
Merret was a bit of a renaissance man excelling in other fields including compiling the first list of  birds and the source of fossils. The son of a mercer, he went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden (which had a large vineyard in those days) and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn where Dickens was baptised. I am sure the fizz festival will be a deserved success and I wonder whether it will spawn a bigger idea. Could it do for Winchcombe and English sparkling wine what Hay-on-Wye did for second hand books?
Meanwhile, we should all raise a glass of English fizz this weekend to toast Christopher Merret, the man who chronicled the invention of méthode champenoise before the French turned it into one of the most successful brands ever. Now is the time to bring it all back home.

The local grammar school built by Inigo Jones (above, eft)

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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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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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Why I have just purchased a stake in an English vineyard . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 11, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Chapel Down

First, because Chapel Down – for it is they – make good multiple prizewinning wines in a charming backwater of Kent. I am already a regular buyer. Second, it is rather nice, dare I say romantic?, to own a tiny bit – actually a very tiny bit  – of one of our oldest vineyards in the midst of the Great British Wine Revival.
OK, there’s a third reason. The perks. If you buy a minimum of 2,000 shares – which cost me less than £400 a couple of weeks ago (excluding dealing costs) –  you get a mouth-watering 33% reduction on the ex-vineyard price of their wines plus a 25% reduction on meals at the Swan restaurant attached to the vineyard.
Which is one of the main reasons we made our first visit yesterday. Four of us shared a £20 cab ride from Headcorn station ten miles away. We were not disappointed.  Chapel Down, despite being one of the largest vineyards in the country has managed to retain an intimacy which others, such as the admirable Denbies in Dorking, are in danger of losing. Battalions of vines fill neighbouring softly undulating fields, laden with sumptious fruit from this year’s bountiful crop so neat they may have been manicured.
Lunch at the Swan above the shop – filled to capacity on a September Tuesday – was delcious for me though two of my companions couldn’t finish their Dover sole which they thought was too salty and dry (and were given a rebate by the manager). This was washed down with a Chardonnay from their nearby Kit’s Coty estate which was a joy to drink though expensive with quite a steep cash markup on the price of a bottle in the shop below (as if I should care as a shareholder with a 33% discount!)
Chapel Down is one of the best managed vineyards in the country but their shares as the FT  and others have pointed out are risky as they are as much a bet on the weather as the company. But buying a small number of shares is a no-brainer – as long as you  like their wines. My purchase of the minimum number to qualify for the perks (2,000 shares) cost me £395 plus £46.98 in commissions and charges. This is money that would otherwise be sitting in a current account at near-zero interest. After one visit to the restaurant and the purchase of one bottle of Pinot Noir I have already recouped the dealing charges and if I continue to buy their wines (and count the money I save through my 33% discount as a return on my investment) then Chapel Down shares will have one of the highest dividend yields on the stock market irrespective of what happens to the share price (though it has risen over ten per cent since my purchase a few weeks ago). If you don’t fancy shares the most cost-effective way of buying Chapel Down wines is through the Wine Society (recently voted Decanter wine merchant of the year for the third year running) where they are significantly cheaper than buying from the vineyard.

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