Style Wine & Food

    Wine with a view at London's Oxo Tower

    A toast to grape Britain

    23 June 2015

    Already this summer we have heard cries of outrage from the newspapers as headlines warned us of an impending prosecco shortage. ‘A prosecco shortage? What’s a girl to do?’ they demanded. ‘What would summer be without it?’ Well, those in the know already have the answer — and it can be found closer to home than you might expect, in vineyards right across the south of England.

    But are there really English sparkling wines worth drinking? Isn’t this all just part of the fashion for choosing locally grown fare rather than imported products? Maybe, partly. But there are British alternatives to prosecco that are well worth going local for — or at least, that’s the general consensus. Nik Darlington of Red Squirrel Wine, which specialises in rare, native and alternative wines, points to Wiston, a small outfit in West Sussex who are producing ‘seriously good fizz’ with ‘packaging to die for’ and made by Dermot Sugrue (previously of Nyetimber). Nyetimber are, of course, the ones who have led the way when it comes to English sparkling wine, but many smaller businesses, such as Wiston, are now snapping at their heels. Others in the heel-snapping category include — in Darlington’s opinion — Bolney in West Sussex, Gusbourne and Herbert Hall in Kent and Jenkyn Place in Hampshire.

    Sparkling wine is the area in which we hear the most about English produce. But although it has without doubt made a name for itself, English rosés and whites have also been successful. Chapel Down, one of the most famous names, was served at the royal wedding in 2011, and its wines can be found in London bars and shops. Its recent crowdfunding campaign on the Tube is, to date, the UK’s largest such initiative, raising almost £4 million in just over three weeks.

    English-grown wine is no new phenomenon. The Romans were famously keen on viticulture, and tried growing grapes all over the UK — reportedly as far north as Lincolnshire. Monks continued the vinegrowing for communion purposes and by the time Henry VIII came to the throne there were more than 100 vineyards across the country. The first world war put paid to British wine-growing, however, and with land needed for crops and food rather than alcohol, vineyards were put on the back burner.

    But in the past few decades they have popped up again across the south of England, and in the last couple of years English wine’s popularity has grown exponentially. When it comes to supermarket sales, Waitrose has led the way. They currently have a 60 per cent market share in English wine sales as well as their own vineyard in Hampshire, and saw a 95 per cent increase in sales between 2013 and 2014. The incomparable Wine Pantry in Borough Market, south London, is the only shop to sell exclusively English wine and British produce, and has a dispensing machine that offers more than 20 different English wines on tap, allowing customers to get a taste of everything the country has to offer.

    It’s not just wine merchants and specialists singing the praises of English wines, though. Harvey Nichols have just launched their own English sparkling wine label, which will be available in their stores and at the Oxo Tower restaurant. Working with Digby Fine English Wine, they have created a product that they believe ‘competes favourably with its French counterpart’: champagne. This may well be true — after all, French champagne houses have already been busily buying up vineyard land in the South Downs since the soil, along with what seems to be an increasingly warmer climate, seems to be creating near-perfect conditions for champagne grapes including chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier.

    So what does the future hold for English wines? Is it just a flash in the pan, developed off the back of the current trend for all things local? For now its prospects certainly look rosy. English sparkling, white and rosé wines have all won numerous international competitions, and although our climate isn’t ideal for red wines, some decent pinot noirs are emerging.

    Nik Darlington says that there is a huge clamour for English wine in the UK, with investors keen to get involved and demand for the liquid itself regularly exceeding supply. One promising development is the English wine research centre at Plumpton College near Brighton, which was opened by the Duchess of Cornwall in March last year. The first place in Britain to offer an MSc in viticulture and oenology, its staff are conducting essential research into improving British wine-making — such as how to combat the more negative aspects of the British weather — as well as encouraging a new generation of English-trained winemakers.

    One of the main problems for small wineries is the large amount of capital needed upfront to start production, with little in the way of profit for the first few years. This is most likely the reason why the likes of Chapel Down, Denbies (who, based in Surrey, are the largest wine producer in the UK geographically) and Nyetimber are the names that pop up time and time again on menus and in shops. But if investors really are interested — and the popularity of English wine continues to rise — it would be no surprise to see increasing numbers of English vineyards at the international awards ceremonies in the future.