It’s always been possible to grow grapes in England. The Romans probably did it and the Domesday Book records 42 vineyards. Prior to the 1980s most homegrown grapes were produced on a small scale or were sold en masse to produce fortified wine with names like ‘Tudor Rose’ and ‘Eldorado’.
More significant investment came in the 1980s and 1990s – and it’s this we’re seeing the literal fruit of now. It’s the fizzy stuff that sparkles: the chalky soil of the South Downs is like that of the Côte des Blancs. Geologically speaking, large parts of Sussex and Hampshire share with Champagne and Chablis a band of delightful limestone soil that’s really good for growing vines. A cool climate is needed to make sparkling wine, and, of course, we have that, too.
Bordeaux-style varieties tend not to flourish under those conditions, and in any case, it’s far too cold here to ripen most red wine grapes, so ‘made in Britain’ claret is definitely off the menu. For hardier white grapes, however, it’s much better, and in particular specialised clones such as Bacchus (a cross of German grapes: Silvaner, Riesling, and Muller Thurgau) have been particularly successful.
Sara Guiducci, from wine merchants Corney & Barrow, rightfully refers to it as a ‘a small scene’. There are 500 vineyards in England, but production is tiny at around five million bottles a year. The Champagne region makes about 300 million.
But gradually, England is becoming a wine-producing country. London now has its first winery (London Cru, tucked down an alleyway in Fulham – read more about it here). In East Sussex, Plumpton College offers industry training for vineyards and winemakers. And we’ve got used to eating local food; why not do the same with what we drink?
Nyetimber, at a quarter of a century, is the oldest English fizz and has benefited from astonishingly successful branding—but why not explore newer growers instead?
Albourne Estate’s 2013 Blanc de Blancs (£24.50, Bush Vines) is the first sparkling offering from this impressive boutique grower, planting just over 10 hectares between Gatwick and Brighton. ‘It’s a great bit of Sussex when Southern Trains run,’ jokes owner Alison Nightingale.
Chapel Down’s intense 2009 Blanc de Blancs (£24.99, Bush Vines) is worth a go too, off a strong vintage and creamy with a fresh acidity.
English whites are now worth trying, too. Out of Cornwall, Camel Valley’s Darnibole Bacchus (£17.95, Camel Valley shop) shimmers with crisp, bone-dry minerality; unsurprisingly it pairs perfectly with seafood. Ex-RAF pilot Bob Lindo and his wife Annie planted their first 8,000 vines in 1989, seeking a change from service life and a place to bring up their family; now their son Sam works alongside them.
Their Pinot Noir sparkling rosés (£29.95, Camel Valley shop) also ‘have quite a pedigree now’, says Lindo, modestly. By which he means, Buckingham Palace has served it up at state banquets.
And from all of eight miles from Oxford, the delicious whites from Brightwell vineyard in Wallingford benefit from the flinty, chalky soil of the Thames Valley (£9.99, Waitrose). Owners Bob and Carol Nielsen fell into planting the vineyard ‘by accident’ in 2000, when they bought a house with a vineyard attached.
Although English red are rare (only 10 per cent of English wine production is red), it is possible to find some gems. Most use the rondo grape, a frost-resistant hybrid of central Europe’s Saint Laurent and Russia’s Zarya Severa grapes.
Halfpenny Green’s Rondo (£25, shop), an award-winning red, makes a contrast to the typical white English sparkler. So does Somerby’s oaked, blackcurrant Magna Carta 1215 Rondo from Lincolnshire (£12.99, Waitrose). (Some makers, such as West Sussex’s Bolney Estate, have also dared make delicate, light Pinots—another grape which can shake off a bit of cold.)
And vineyards worth a tromp around in…
‘Are we going to see rising levels of interest in English wine? Almost certainly yes,’ says Peter Robson, from Wine Owners, a wine trading and cellar management platform.
Part of the charm of English wine doubtless is the people: a mingling of escaped urban professionals and family businesses, braving early days of an industry which is ‘still so young and finding its feet,’ says Katherine Dart MW from Berry Bros & Rudd.
Even the French are getting in on the action. Last May, M. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger personally planted the first vines in Taittinger’s new vineyard in Kent, aiming at first production by 2023.
A visit to a vineyard makes for splendid day out. Near London, Kent’s Biddenden Vineyards have free tours, and marked paths for wandering around the vineyards. Bolney has a range of paid tours and wine tastings. It is inevitable that a wine tourism route will appear around Sussex, Mrs Nightingale thinks.
Or, if you’re in London, and allergic to fresh air, the Old China Hand in Clerkenwell has an all-English wine list. And darts (which is very hard to come by in Épernay.)