Most people think of Brits more as wine drinkers.. not winemakers
English Wine supposedly began with the Romans who surely needed a drink after all that pillaging
Yet the climate was cold and wet and it seems much more likely that they imported their wine from warmer climes. The Celts and Gaul’s were equally partial, but evidence suggests they supped Italy’s finest too. Bede mentions wine cultivation in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People dated 731 - so we might assume that monks were growing grapes for communion wine during the Middle Ages.
From 900AD to 1300AD, a period of warmer weather graced UK shores that created clement conditions for grapes. This was then followed by an unfortunate event known as ‘The Little Ice Age’.
Thirty-eight vineyards are chronicled in the Doomsday Book of 1086, the ultimate invader’s audit ordered by William the 1st as a receipt of conquest. There were rumours of wine from Crouch Valley in Essex being served during the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 but having spoken to the actual lips from which that rumour sprang, I’d say that’s wishful thinking. That said Crouch Valley is proving itself a leading UK terroir, the exceptionally warm microclimate is perfect for ripening grapes – more often now for still wines which need to be riper than those used for sparkling. That is why sparkling wine grapes make up the majority of plantings in England.
Battle Abbey in East Sussex - built by William the Conqueror at the site of the Battle of Hastings - an act of penance for his warmongering ways
Some 8.7m vines have been planted in the last five years - the majority of which are earmarked for sparkling wine. The area under vine has doubled in the past eight years and quadrupled since 2000. That equates to 3758 hectares not including the copious plantings of 2022. In 2020 9.3 million bottles were sold, but who is quaffing it? 28% was sold to punters at the cellar door, 22% direct to customers online, 18% to the on-trade – local restaurants, bars and hotels, 15% was sold via independent retailers and a further 13% via the off-trade and 4% is exported – the Scandinavians being particular fans.
There have been various documented attempts at serious wine making in Britain since the 1920s, but real success has undoubtedly come with a warming climate. Searing noxious acidic liquids have been transposed by wines that rival, perhaps occasionally even surpass Champagne’s finest offerings. 2018 was such a perfect year that the UK ripened Burgundian Pinot Noir clones and made red wines – of exceptional quality.
Pinot Noir is instantly recognisable and beloved by everyone – delicate and fragrant, it is hugely sought after and notoriously variable thanks to its thin skin and susceptibility to rot (the heartbreak grape). Careful handling is also required in the winery for it hasn’t the heft to carry over extraction nor too much oak. Although it is technically an early ripening variety, it really benefits from long slow maturation on the vine and low yields to preserve its subtle and refined attributes. Fruit, perfume, fresh acidity, fine tannins are the Pinot Noir trademark - so often associated with Burgundy. Pinot Noir is also one of the three varieties traditionally used for sparkling wines, though varying clones make it preferable to decide on the grape’s destination in the glass prior to planting.
The primary regions for grape growing in England are in the southeast though there are vineyards all across the country and as far north as Yorkshire. East Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Surrey, Essex and East Anglia are key regions and as previously mentioned the Crouch Valley in Essex is believed by a growing number of winemakers to be one of the very best spots we have thanks to its particular microclimate.
As British summers become warmer the likelihood of consistent still offerings grows. With every year more expertise is gained as well as a deeper understanding of terroir. A huge degree of financial confidence in this sector is evidenced by gigantic investment – some 7000 acres were planted in 2019 alone. Holdings are relatively small – averaging about 9 acres – but larger operations are also in evidence. Fast returns are not easy to achieve – planting costs are high – metal prices have gone through the roof and labour is also harder to source post Brexit and yet there is something about the romance of owning a vineyard that connects on a deep level with our psyches and deeper still with our pockets.
English Pinot Noir
The still wine sector is an exciting one – and there is a real buzz about it. Growers are experimenting with PIWIs and extended lees contact, maceration – wine making techniques that allow the best textures and flavours to evolve from UK fruit. PIWI is a German abbreviation for fungus resistant grape varieties – in a damp climate these varieties could offer the key to a more sustainable farming future. Less pesticide use is somethings all growers are working towards. Germanic crosses such as Ortega taste good and will ripen well in a cool climate. Locating the warmest sites is key.
Not so long ago, English wine was considered a bit of a joke – even today in France your average local is unaware of its progress. And yet the quality of the wines and the sales figures speak for themselves. England offers winemakers a promised land of unchartered terroir and creative freedom – anything and everything is possible.
How are English Champagne Method Sparkling wines made?
Wines made with the Champagne method undergo two alcoholic fermentations. This is a process that coverts natural sugars into alcohol and produces a bi-product – carbon dioxide and that’s responsible for the all-important bubbles. The process of fermentation also influences the flavours because of the wonderful aromas it generates – those yeasty, bready, autolytic notes that we all love.
After the grapes have been pressed, fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats or in oak, depending on the style of the wine that the winemaker is looking to make. Fermenting in oak might add nutty, toasty aromas to the wine. The second fermentation happens in bottle and is triggered by the addition of liqueur de tirage – usually a blend of base wine and sugar which will provide the trigger for yeast to ferment again in bottle producing Co2. This process can take as long as eight weeks.
The wine is then matured and rested – this can be a very long process; flavours are developing in bottle throughout this time. Once the maturation period is over, the wine will be riddled (remuage) – this is a complex process designed to remove the dead yeast and sediment from the bottle in an extremely gentle way. It takes about six weeks to do this by hand, even by machine (called a gyropallate) it’s a good week. The aim is to collect this detritus in the neck of the bottle ready for disgorgement – the unwanted matter, now at the top, bursts out when the crown cap is removed leaving the remaining wine clear and crystalline. To ensure the expulsion of the unwanted matter only, the necks of the bottle containing it are frozen – that way the frozen mass is easily expelled and there is a minimal loss of wine and bubbles.
At this point the winemaker may add something called liqueur d’expédition (LDT) – a sweet solution that will determine the final flavour of the resulting wine – this is an optional extra and many winemakers now opt to make what’s known as a zero dosage wine with no addition – others may opt for a more rounded style courtesy of LDT. The label will tell you which example you have opted for and how much sugar is present in the wine.
- Extra brut 0-6g residual
- Brut – less than 12g
- Extra Dry – 12-17
- Sec – 17 -32
- Demi-sec 32-50
- Doux – more than 50g
The name Champagne is owned by the French and rightly so – it’s a place in France – but méthode champenoise (known widely as ‘traditional method’) is universal and used to make sparkling wine across the new world and old. As we all know (hohoho), it was a British naturalist who happened on the method for producing a second fermentation in bottle via the addition of sugar and molasses to make wines ‘brisk and sparkling’ and his name was Christopher Merret. In papers archived at the Royal Society in London dated 1662 (impressively unearthed by wine writer Tom Stevenson) that pre-date Pérignon’s puberty, or at at least his monastic tenure, the Champagne method is chronicled. Initially bubbles were seen as a problem, no one had yet created a bottle to contain them and a naturally occurring second ferment in bottle meant explosive waste. An industrialised far stronger glass bottle was made by a chap called Sir Robert Mansell in Newcastle upon Tyne in the early seventeenth century and bottled bubbles were born. Dom Pérignon is cited as inventing Champagne in 1697, he certainly significantly and meticulously improved wine quality through a rigorous application of ground-breaking methodology but it is not clear if it was ever his intention to make sparkling wine.
The Southeast of England sits just above the 50 degree latitude which was, until very recently, considered too cold for vine propagation. Global warming has tipped the scale in favour for now. England’s climate is Maritime and extremely marginal – but on the right sheltered site it can be done – and well. The Southeast of England is warmed by the Gulf Stream, not only that but the very same chalk as Champagne boasts is present on England’s shores – this might serve more as a marketing exercise than anything else but many of the finest English Sparkling wines boast a chalky element somewhere about their much-touted terroirs. Chalk is thought to deliver elegance and finesse to wine – it’s also good for drainage and it warms up fast.
Parts of the Southeast are actually warmer than Champagne in September but cooler in winter. Rain levels are roughly equal – England comes off slightly wetter. Microclimates are hugely important in marginal climates – the lie of the land, the protection offered from frost, the heat retention of the soil REALLY matter.
In 2013, Cliff Roberson became the very first person to create an urban winery in the UK - since then the awards and accolades have been stacking up. All of the fruit for the wines made at London Cru is now sourced from English vineyards and success is evident in bottle. The 2019 Blanc de Noirs just received a Gold Medal at the Wine GB Awards!