Wine drinkers' new taste is... (gasp) English
It may be global warming or a trend, but UK vintages are no longer a joke, writes Tim Bryan
Which famous action star named himself after the best-ever English wine? Vin Diesel. Name two English vintages: Chateau Paraffin and Vin e'Gar. What's the world's shortest book? Guide To Award-Winning English Wines.
Very droll. But have you heard the latest joke, the one about the English sparkling wine that trumped all the French champagnes to win the gold medal at the industry's Oscars? Yes, it was the Greenfields Sparkling Cuvee 2003 - grown by Denbies in Dorking, Surrey, England's largest wine producer with 300,000 vines over 107 hectares - just 48km south of London. At GBP18.99 (HK$290) a bottle, it beat Dom Perignon (GBP90), Veuve Clicquot (GBP44.95) and Moet & Chandon Vintage (GBP34.99).
Zut alors, as the French might say.
What used to be as big a joke as the English climate is no more; English wine is starting to turn heads rather than turn up noses.
Look at the recent crop of medals, say producers.
English wine grabbed 21 awards at the International Wine Challenge, the Oscars of wine and the world's biggest blind tasting. Just in case you suspect someone switched labels, the haul followed 16 last year, and 10 in 2005. Although this must be put in perspective - French wines won 635 medals at the event - it helps show that English wine is no longer just a joke.
More proof? Well, Waitrose, the supermarket for the 4?4-driving English middle class, now stocks 28 English varieties, with sales up 40 per cent year on year.
'Five years ago very few connoisseurs would have taken English wine seriously, but now it's emerging from the shadows as a real contender,' said Justin Howard-Sneyd, Waitrose buyer and master of wine. 'In particular, some of the best English sparkling wines are gaining an international reputation ... in fact, demand has risen so rapidly that it is a challenge for us to secure enough bottles for customers.'
Christine Parkinson - group wine buyer at Alan Yau's hallowed upmarket Chinese restaurants, Hakkasan and Yauatcha, in London - has used English wines since day one. 'We started with the sparkling Nyetimber, purely on quality grounds. It is very good,' she said. 'Now we serve, among others, Plumpton's Ortega and Camel Valley Pinot Noir Brut, which is good value at GBP54. I don't think people even make jokes about English wine any more.'
English wine popular? Good? Inexpensive? How?
Julia Trustram Eve, at the English Wine Producers, a trade association, said: 'The quality of English wine is growing fast because accredited and skilled wine producers have moved into a market which used to be dominated, perhaps, by amateurs. Now people know what they're doing. The technology here is as good as anywhere in the world now, while vines planted 10 years ago are growing older and better.'
Jeanette Simpson, marketing manager at Denbies, said: 'It's due to momentum. It's been happening for some time. We're becoming increasingly sophisticated as an operation, which enables us to grow superior grapes and, therefore, better quality wine. We have been helped by the increasing acceptance of New World wines over the past 15 to 20 years. People have become more accepting, and they know now we can grow a quality product.'
Owen Elias, England's winemaker of the year, at Chapel Down vineyard in Kent, southeast England, knows more than most. 'Because it's better than it used to be.' Would he care to elaborate? He laughs. 'Yes. Well, it has a lot to do with the awards for sparkling.
'Conditions here are right for them. We share the same chalk and limestone soil as the Champagne region [as the crow flies, Kent is only 130km away], which allows grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay, and we have an increasingly similar climate. You don't want hot; you want cool; a soil high in acid; a long, cool growing season which allows a flavoursome fruit; not high in alcohol. We have all that.'
The growing belief that money can be made from ripening conditions has sparked large-scale investment, not least at Nyetimber, a veteran vineyard in Kent. It is run by Dutchman Eric Heerema, who plans to quadruple acreage to 60 hectares. Chapel Downs is adding 500 hectares over four years, and Three Choirs in more northerly Gloucestershire are experimenting with ways to ripen grapes under polytunnels.
'Sparkling wine started doing extremely well in competitions and made people think they could make money out of vineyards here. It was a business chance and people took it,' said Ms Trustram Eve. 'The UK market for sparkling wine is very buoyant. The English like it; only the French drink more. The price is also good for such a premium product.'
Mr Elias added: 'When you win awards, people take notice. This attracts investment, especially being so near to the market: the English love sparkling wine, and there's 30 million of them in the southeast and London, the richest city in Europe.'
But why now, all of a sudden? 'We have had a very good run in crop yields, possibly due to climate change, and we're getting good, often award-winning vintages, year on year,' Ms Trustram Eve said.
Aha. Global warming. It was always quipped that England would be the sole country on Earth looking forward to climate change, and now that the Earth is doomed, it finally gets an award-winning wine industry.
England officially has just noted its hottest spring on record - the last five years also have been the warmest on record - but English winemakers do not solely praise the weather.
England can grow vines successfully at a latitude north of 50 degrees (the normal limit for wine making) due to the Gulf Stream and has done so ever since the Romans brought vines with their togas. In the early Middle Ages, England enjoyed a warm spell, making enough wine to export to France. Things started to go perry-shaped when Henry VIII closed the monasteries, which ran most vineyards, and the hot spell gradually cooled.
Wine drinking itself petered out after a 1703 treaty put high duties on French wine, prompting the English to turn to gin or fortified tipples from Spain and Portugal. Viticulture did not recover until the 1970s, when the English lapped up German wines such as riesling.
But things have changed. 'England has done quite well in medals, largely because the style of wines we are producing are more popular,' said Thomas Shaw, managing director at Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire. 'Softer, more gentle varieties are in vogue, whereas the big and blowsy wines from hotter countries are not. Bacchus, for example, is in vogue, whereas the New Zealand sauvignon is fading, as are oak-matured wines.'
So global trends, not global warming? 'The growing conditions have always been different here, much better suited to gentle, fruitier, more delicate wines,' Mr Shaw said. 'It's cooler. More people are planting grapes in cooler climates now, because of the wine it produces. More vineyards are up in cooler Alsace and the Loire, and Victoria in Australia and Tasmania.'
Mr Elias said: 'We also have changed the grapes. In the '70s and '80s, we grew a generic grape, such as riesling, but that has changed as fashion has changed. We've got the right grapes for the right conditions.
'It has be said. There's resistance, sure, especially to the reds, and some is justified. But the awards prove we can make top sparkling wine and whites.'
The future for English wine may have a warm glow about it, but there is a long way to go. Even though the International Wine Challenge awards prompted a barrage of letters, The Guardian's former wine critic, Malcolm Gluck, stormed on the letters page: 'In the view of most wine critics and retailers, and in spite of warmer summers, English wine is still very much a joke. Only seven vineyards can grow interesting grapes and make acceptable wine.'
But given English wine history, surely even 'acceptable' is an improvement?