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The English weather may be the butt of international jokes, but the island climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream, means that England can grow vines successfully at a latitude above 50 degrees, the normal limit for wine making. But it can be difficult to ripen grapes this far from the equator, which is why vineyards are concentrated in the warmest southern counties of Kent and Sussex and only relatively early-ripening varieties are suitable. This is slowly changing as wineries spring up further north – in York in 2005 there was only one winery, by 2006 three new wineries had sprung up!
The climate that was once considered the Achilles Heel of English grape growers is currently only 1° Celsius cooler than Champagne. But with most scientists estimating a 1° to 5°C change in climate over the next 100 years, English growers are looking forward to higher quality grapes, lower growing costs due to less disease control spraying,and yields that could double from a measly 1,400 bottles (75cl) per hectare or 567 bottles per acre. To put this into perspective the best Chateaux in Bordeaux limit their production to over 3,000 bottles per hectare and this is considered very low. Both yield and spraying costs will significantly improve economics and make wine making a far more attractive proposition.
The big change to date has been the maturing of the industry in three key areas: investment, education and the varieties of grapes that are grown.
It is the realisation that England can make and sell great sparkling wine that has been driving significant investment in the industry by well-funded individuals and consortium. These include Nyetimber’s owner Eric Heerema who increased plantings from 15ha to 60ha in 2006. Other wineries have been investing heavily in planting new vines such as Chapel Down who are overseeing 500 ha of new vineyards between 2006 and 2011. But good grapes are worthless without good winemakers and the winemakers themselves are becoming more professional. Many have been through Plumpton College’s wine making courses in the last 15 years. Others are still exploring new ways of growing grapes, with Three Choirs attempting to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Gloucestershire under polytunnels.
Either way, the present is stable and growing and the future is looking bright.
Many in the industry believe that the future of English wine is in sparkling wine. The soils (chalk & limestone) are similar to Champagne, the climate is similar and getting better, there is also an acceptance of non vintage sparkling wine which helps English winemakers maintain a consistent standard in the poor years. It is no surprise then that much of the 2006 new plantings were for sparkling wines with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir having a huge lead over other still wines.
But two relatively new grape varieties used for still wine are gaining favour; Bacchus for the white and Rondo for the red according to vine importer Stuart Smith of the Vine House. Rondo is a very early ripening variety, it produces a ruby-red wine that is also used for blending, unusually for wine grapes it has red flesh. Bacchus is a white variety producing clean crisp Sauvignon Blanc style wines.
Other still varieties (with their approximate market size) are mainly German, cool climate varieties, Muller Thurgau (13% of plantings) Reichensteiner (12%), Bacchus (10%), Schonburger (8%). The main non-German variety is the white French grape Seyval Blanc (7%), Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are also planted. According to Owen Elias from Chapel Down (and English winemaker of the year for 2005 and 2006), Riesling is also well worth experimenting with in England. England can also make some very good English Rose - this is due to the cool temperature and long growing season.
Red grape varieties are far less common, 677,733 bottles of red versus 2,691,000 bottles of white (2006 figures for English and Welsh wine), the climate is not hot enough yet to sufficiently ripen for most varieties to thrive. The main red grape is Rondo while Pinot Noir grapes are mainly used for sparkling wine and some still red wine.
With increase in demand of Rose throughout England, English wine makers have started producing very good dry examples.
Global warming may be scaring many people, but English winemakers look like one group to benefit. Some scientists predict that by 2080, the South East climate will be similar to Bordeaux. Already growers are attempting to grow the Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon in Gloucestershire, all be it in poly tunnels, normally used to assist the ripening of strawberries. But it is the scale of new plantings that show the industries confidence with over 120 Ha planted in the South East in 2006, it is York that was the surprise with the number of Vineyards in York increasing from 1 to 4.
The future for English wine has never looked brighter, climate change, a core group of professional winemakers and a burgeoning understanding of soils and varieties are all conspiring to create a young energetic wine industry.
The last couple of years has seen a steady increase in the size and maturity of the biggest wineries. Entrepreneurs continue to increase the area under vine significantly. Nyetimber's Eric Hereema, Mike Roberts of Ridgeview and English Wine Producers have a diverse ownership but are also planting in large volumes. The White family at Denbies who, for much of the last decade were the largest winery in the UK, has been replanting vineyards with a mix of vines for still and sparkling wines. But it is sparkling wines that the industry is working towards being the dominant style in terms of volume.
Unusually while white wines have quality standards, sparkling wines are such a recent phenonem that they don’t have a quality standard. The passing of new EU legislation has given new emphasis among these producers and Mike Roberts has suggested that plans may be released by summer 2010 on a new quality standard for sparkling wines. Other producers such as English Wine Producers have constructed a brand around where they are based in Tenterden. This push to a specific geographic indicator is interesting as at the moment the still wines quality standards are defined by county, e.g. Kent or Sussex. Defining sub regions by climate or soils is an important step.
I think as large producers reconstruct their vineyards based on knowledge and a steady movement to defining the key geographical and quality standards for sparkling wines, the industry is not mature by any stretch, has what most successful wine regions know.
England was introduced to vines and wine by the Romans. The extent to which vines were planted is in some doubt but sites in the Northampton area have proved beyond doubt that grapes were grown in Roman Britain. When Constantine made Christianity the Roman's official religion in 312 AD it cemented wine production in England due to its use in religious ceremonies. Wine had to be produced locally, the option to import didn't exist. However with the departure of the Romans at the end of the 4th century came the death of the vine. However around 596 AD St Augustine arrived into Britain, sent by Pope Gregory to convert the inhabitants to a Roman version of Christianity. It is thought he probably brought wine with him and with the emergence of trading across Europe wine from the continent began to be used in ceremonies. There was a modest revival of wine production in England at that time.
It was not until the 950’s, 50 years after the Vikings were defeated by King Alfred, that vineyards where flourishing again in Somerset. By the time of the Domesday book (11th Century) there were 38 vineyards sited. In the 1200’s religious orders were using wine from the southern coastal areas of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire and Somerset, Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester. However during the middle ages cheaper imports from the continent put pressure on English vineyards. The remaining vineyards disappeared at the end of the 14th Century when a relatively warm period (thought to be 1 –1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than today) came to an end and the mini ice age set in. The vines didn't disappear completely but they did not become a commercial proposition until 1951 when the first modern commercial planting was at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire.
Today there are over 400 vineyards in England. The majority are situated in the southern counties, the most notable being Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Hundreds are tiny boutique wineries with insufficient mass to afford the latest wine making equipment, and making at best drinkable, often expensive wine. However in recent years a few large well funded vineyards are starting to produce good consistent quality wine.
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