Did the English wine revolution start in, er . . . Essex?

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 29, 2017
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Piers Greenwood painted in wine (Barons Red 2015) produced from his own vineyard

EVERYONE knows that the recent resurgence of English wine started in the chalky geology of Sussex and Kent. Or did it? There is another county that can make a strong claim. Essex. Yes, Essex. And it comes mainly down to one place, New Hall Vineyards which has been hiding its light under a bushell for far too long.
New Hall was built up by the legendary Piers Greenwood and his father Bill and family. Piers has sold his stake in the vineyard to his brother-in-law and now lives in Canada where, surprise, surprise, he is starting another vineyard. We caught up with him a few days ago when he was back in Essex to help out with the tasting and blending.
Talking to him in front of the original 850 Reichensteiner vines planted in 1962 (above) with the help of a battalion of cheap railway sleepers to keep the trellis up, was a treat. He reminded us – OK, he didn’t remind us, we didn’t know – that he introduced Bacchus, which has become the best-selling English still wine, to this country after spending several years in Alsace learning his craft with the famous Hugel wine family.
It was only about four years ago that I realised I had been drinking Essex wine for years without realising it as New Hall had been supplying fruit to the likes of Camel Valley, Chapel Down and Denbies, the largest vineyard in the country. Even today New Hall still supplies 25% of its Bacchus grapes to other vineyards in the UK.
But this isn’t its main claim to fame. Piers says that in 1983 New Hall was the first to produce traditional method sparkling wine (using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) in the UK.  The history of sparkling in England and Wales is a bit like a river fed over the years from various tributaries which had made sparkling on a small scale. In the past these tributaries included Piltdown Manor, Felstar, Hambledon and Oxted, not to mention Painshill in the mid 18th century.
But New Hall was the first to produce English sparkling from Champagne grapes on a commercial scale. Piers says that the idea was planted in his mind by Jack Ward who ran Merrydown, one of the earliest UK vineyards and who strongly believed that England was a great place for sparkling. The only other contender is the Carr Taylor vineyard in Kent which produced a sparkling about the same time in 1983 from their own home grown grapes Reichensteiner (50%) and Schonburger (50%) amounting to 20,000 bottles. The first bottles were sold in 1985 as were the New Hall wines.

Piers in the tasting room

So they were both pioneers at the same time but New Hall was the first to make commercial-scale English sparkling using traditional Champagne grapes.
New Hall is well known within the trade and has been festooned with top prizes and accolades but its major contribution to the resurgence of UK vineyards has yet to get the credit it deserves.
We will be hearing a lot more about Essex in future. New Hall has plans to more than double its current 100 acres.There are 12 vineyards within 8 miles of New Hall on what is regarded as ideal ground for growing Bacchus. They are actively planning to boost the undervalued brand of Essex wines rather than selling surplus fruit to other established vineyards thereby continuing a custom of growing grapes that goes back to Roman times.
We assuredly have not heard the last of Essex wines.
Wine painting by the author @BritishWino

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One man and his vineyard

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 26, 2017
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PAUL OLDING has a bit of an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to planting a vineyard. He has already written a much praised book on the subject, “The Urban Vineyard” based on a tiny one of his own on an allotment in Lewisham, south London. Now, in fulfilment of a long held dream, he is going rural with Wildwood, a lovely one-acre vineyard on a sunny south/south-eastern facing hillside off a bridle path in vine-friendly East Sussex.

Having endured tortuous procedures to get planning permission both for the vines and a shed he then suffered the freak late frost after bud burst that hit vineyards throughout the UK inflicting wholesale damage on the crop. But those and numerous other problems are in the past. Now he and his family can now look with satisfaction at a thoroughly professional vineyard with no noticeable side effects from the frost.

It was a very un-Brexity multinational effort: vines and wires from Germany, end posts from Belgium, the larger cabin from Latvia, the smaller one from Slovenia, a tractor insured in Wales and a toilet from Ireland installed by Romanians. Skilled Romanians also put in all the posts (and planted the vines) as is common in English and Welsh vineyards. But the wine will be unashamedly English.

When? Paul, who is 44, believes in letting the roots settle and is planning only a small harvest in 2018 using two bunches from the stronger vines with a full harvest planned for 2019. The plot was purchased in 2014 but it took 18 months of preparation doing such tasks as reducing the acidity of the soil by spreading lime.

He is growing (highly popular) Bacchus, Regent and two varietals of Pinot Noir. This is clearly a fun thing for him and he is not expecting to make much of a profit and especially not if the huge cost of land is factored in. There are no plans to give up the day job as a TV producer/director (including some of Brian Cox’s films). With an acre of vines and several more acres of ancient woodland attached slithering down to a happy stream he has already created his own dream world. But he will still have to pray for good weather.

I am hoping to keep an occasional eye on Paul’s progress. You can buy his book at http://theurbanvineyard.co.uk/.

His website is wildwoodvineyard.co.uk

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An American in Battersea – London’s new winery

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 09, 2017
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Sergio Verrillo, an American from Connecticut, prepares to taste the first draft of freshly barrelled Chardonnay from his new winery under a railway arch in Battersea. His Blackbook is the third winery to open in central London recently as the capital experiences a mini renaissance of one of the worlds oldest professions. A fourth one, Vagabond, is opening imminently opposite the west wall of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Battersea Power Station barely a mile as the crow flies from Blackbook.

Vagabond

Two others – London Cru in West Brompton and Renegade in Bethnal Green are in full swing.

They are all winemakers – and they need grapes. All of them use at least some sourced from the UK – in Sergio’s case they all come from Essex – but none thus far from London itself which has two sizeable (though still small) sources of grapes. The more important is Forty Hall, a ten acre community vineyard in Enfield which was on a roll until two unexpected events happened this year – a late Spring frost and marauding parakeets – which have made a big dent in output though it won’t affect latest releases including a large batch of their 2015 London Sparkling available later this month.

The other source of London grapes, Chateau Tooting, has had a record year with enough fruit to make well over 1000 bottles. Chateau Tooting gathers grapes from gardens and allotments in London which were collected from a central point at the end of September and dispatched to a professional wine maker outside London to produce a surprisingly good rosé.

Sergio Verrillo is in a different league. He expects to produce nearly 4,000 bottles this year with hopes to triple that next year en route to around the 40,000 bottles needed to be viable in the long term. Sergio, who has a background as a sommelier, trained at Britain’s wine college, Plumpton and has worked in vineyards From California to New Zealand to gain experience. He is clearly deadly serious about what he does and has active plans to plant his own vineyard probably in Kent to become the first vertically integrated outfit in London producing wine from his own grapes.

Originally, he had hoped to make sparkling wine as well but the lack of suitable fruit means he will just be producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this year.

At first he will be selling to the trade and to individual customers including his growing contacts on social media. He also has hopes to make the winery into a destination for tasting as Renegade has done. Inner city wineries are still a novelty but Sergio points out that there are well over 200 urban wineries in the world. No swinging city should be without one.

Blackbook

 

This article also appears on my LondonMyLondon.co.uk blog

Hambledon – the cradle of two revolutions

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 30, 2017
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IF YOU gaze from the steps of this country house in Hampshire towards the horizon it just looks like another vineyard. True, a very attractive vista with the Chardonnay grapes in the foreground subtly changing hue as they merge into lines of Pinot Noir and then at the far end Pinot Meunier – the classic Champagne varieties.
But this is no ordinary vineyard. It is the actual sanctified ground  at Hambledon where Sir Guy Salisbury Jones planted England’s first commercial vineyard back in 1951. The original plantings were of hardy Germanic vines such as Seyval though he later planted all three Champagne vines as well and experimented with sparkling though not on a commercial scale. The original label had cricket stumps on it – a homage to Hambledon as the place where the game of cricket started. A nearby(ish) pub, the Bat and Ball, is a shrine to its birthplace.
He little realised that thanks to his pioneering efforts Hambledon was to become the cradle of a second revolution – proving that wine could be made in England on a commercial scale. To be fair, Wales – so often underrated in viticultural terms – had planted Britain’s first commercial vineyard under the Scottish Earl of Bute more than 50 years previously at Castle Coch near Cardiff.  Unlike Hambledon, it had not provided the inspiration for dozens of other vineyards to follow suit.
What was the wine like? It is easy to dismiss these early English efforts as being a bit amateurish but the 1971 listing of the very choosey Wine Society said that considering the vagaries of the English weather Hambledon’s wine was “astoundingly good”. That is a phrase that I have rarely if ever seen used to describe any wine. I wonder if this was the Hambledon wine served in May of the following year at a banquet in Paris. It was hosted by Queen Elizabeth for President Pompidou – as part of the thaw in Anglo-French relations that led to Britain’s entry into the European Common Market a year later. What President Pompidou thought of it is not on record.

Since those pioneering days the estate of Hambledon has been on a Cooks’ Tour of different owners. But now it is in the very capable and even visionary hands of Ian Kellet, an investment banker from the north of England, who has raised the quality of the crop – now all sparkling wine – to levels undreamed of by Sir Guy – as the photos on the wall of three consecutive gold medals at the International Wine Challenge testify.
Nor is he sitting still. He already has what is claimed to be the country’s first gravity-fed grape pressing system where the grapes are taken to the top of the winery to find their own way down without intervention through the presses before being sorted into four qualities only two of which are used for wine the rest being turned into brandy. His long-term plans include producing a million bottles of fizz and an underground cave which he is about to excavate through the chalk terrain that could have a capacity for 2 million bottles.
I have visited dozens of vineyards in England and Wales since I started writing about English and Welshwines some years ago and Hambledon has always been one that I was really looking forward to. I was not disappointed. Hambledon is now among England’s super vineyards which are giving  the champagne houses such a run for their money. And the wines which we sampled? Totally delicious.

Follow me on @BritishWino

The Bat and Ball

Glowing review from the Wine Society 1971

 

Original Salisbury Jones layout (photo Hambledon vineyard)

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At last – a plaque for the man who proved that the English made “Champagne” first

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 26, 2017
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IT COULDN’T have been better timed. This week a long-awaited plaque was unveiled in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire at the birthplace of Christopher Merrett. It was Merrett who in a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 recorded that what came to be known as the méthode champenoise – ie secondary fermentation in the bottle – was actually invented by wine coopers in England decades before it was attempted by Dom Perignon. Most French people still, erroneously, believe that it was all due to the Dom, not the Pom.

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

It was a memorable occasion – with lovely wines supplied by Paulton Hill, which introduced us to its first sparkling, and Lovell’s vineyard which markets the fine Elgar range and is the nearest vineyard to the birthplace of Christopher Merrett.  It was well timed because the English and Welsh wine revival seems to have entered a new period of growth. It is not just that a million new vines are expected to be planted this year – most of them for sparkling  – but our still wines are starting to win serious prizes. 

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

A fascinating example is the northernmost vineyard in North Wales, Conwy, (@conwyvineyard) which I visited two years ago and was told that New Zealand legend Kevin Judd, the man behind Cloudy Bay,  on a visit to promote his new venture had noticed some grapes growing on a hillside as the train came into Llandudno station. He commented that it was a great position for a vineyard and he would love to come back for a tasting. Well, if he does he will find that Conwy, owned by a delightful couple Colin and Charlotte Bennett has just won one of only two silver medals awarded for UK still wines at this month’s International Wine Challenge. The other silver was awarded to LondonCru, which operates London’s first winery for centuries. Oh, and Conwy also won a bronze for its Solaris. Not bad for a vineyard of barely an acre in an area of Wales where most people would be amazed to find grapes growing at all.

The plaque at Winchcombe was unveiled by Mike Read, best known as a DJ but who has written 36 books, many on historical subjects, and is a founder of the British Plaque Trust. Mike boldly entered the controversy about what to call the  indigenous  sparkling wine discovered by Merret. He suggested English Royal which has a lovely prestigious ring about it – with hidden notes about Charles II who espoused the Royal Society – but I am not sure how it would go down in North Wales! But it is a lot better than the headline a bright sub editor wrote on an editorial I wrote about Christopher Merret’s discovery 20 years ago in the Guardian. It was “Champagne Pom” I was much moved by the warm reception a packed church gave to me for my talk on Merrett – including this poem . .

In praise of Christopher Merrett

(from my fifth poetry book LondonMyLondon published on Kindle this morning!)

 What makes Champagne go full throttle, 

Is secondary fermentation in a bottle. 

This is an invention without which, 

Sparkling wine would be mere kitsch. 

And who made this spectacular advance? 

Why, in folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France. 

But wait: hear Christopher Merret’s scientific view, 

Which he wrote in sixteen hundred and sixty two 

Without any mock Gallic piety, 

He told the newly formed Royal Society, 

He’d discovered this oenological advance 

That let wine ferment in bottles first, 

That were strong enough not to burst. 

T’was Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France

Decades before they gave sparkling a glance

It created that country’s strongest brand. 

So, let’s raise a glass in our hand,  

To a great man’s invention from afar 

And drink to the Methode not Champenoise 

But What should have been called Merrettoise. 

So, let all by their merrets be 

Judged – that  the whole world can see 

That however we may be thought insane, 

We gave the French for free – Champagne.

Me preparing to meet the audience

Me preparing to meet the audience

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Forget craft beer – meet London’s new wineries

Posted by Victor Keegan on April 05, 2017
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Warwick Smith (left) and winemaker, Josh at their new Bethnal Green winery

Warwick Smith (left) and winemaker, Josh at their new Bethnal Green winery

IF YOU care to walk along a down-at-heel alleyway cluttered with second hand furniture barely 30 seconds from Bethnal Green Tube station in East London you will stumble across a spanking new space under a Network Rail arch. Welcome, Renegade London Wine, the latest in what is beginning to look like a mini boom of wine makers in London. Forget craft beer, artisan wine is the new red. London Cru started it in 2013 in a winery close to West Brompton underground station and is still going strong. Now three others are joining the fray. Vagabond Wines which serves wine by the glass (with a choice of 140 varieties in its newly opened Victoria branch) will soon launch a new winery in the Nine Elms complex by Battersea Power Station complete with visitor centre. Meanwhile Sergio Verrillo, an American from Connecticut is opening yet another one in the Queenstown, Battersea area later this year in time for the harvest. All of them will be processing at least some UK wines.
Making wine in capital cities where rents are often sky high is not quite so barmy as it sounds. There are reckoned to be over 300 urban wineries around the world including successful ones in New York with sampling and eating facilities attached.
Warwick Smith, who runs Renegade with winemaker, Josh Hammond is hoping to attract cult customers by offering wine by the glass and hopefully snacks in the winery itself as well as seeking online sales and getting into restaurants. An ex City asset manager he gave me a sample of several of this year’s newly labelled wines yesterday including Bacchus (fast becoming the flagship English still wine) Sauvignon Blanc  frm France and Pinot Noir from Italy. I was impressed. They have made 7,500 bottles this year from English grapes from Suffolk and Herefordshire plus fruit from France and Italy. Bizarrely – like London Cru – they are not allowed to call their Chardonnay “Chardonnay” even though it is from a well respected Italian vineyard because of arcane EU rules about certification. They know they will have to sell a lot more that 7,500 to turn a profit but they seem very focussed to do that. They are also believed to be making a batch of sparkling wine but they are a bit coy on the subject. As I was leaving Josh showed me a few Chardonnay cuttings which he is about to plant in a wooden container to catch the afternoon sun outside. Maybe one day they will make a little wine from their own grapes. You can follow them with (hash)renegadelondonwine or on instagram

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru London Cru, which pioneered the idea of an urban vineyard in London in 2013, produced an impressive 24,000 bottles of English and Continental wines last year of which about 60 per cent goes to the trade (mainly restaurants) and the rest directly to consumers especially at tasting events in the winery. It has built up a good reputation for quality and counts French sommeliers amongst its customers. Winemaker Gavin Monery reckons that London could support lots more urban wineries – probably with a restaurant or café attached as Vagabond is doing at Nine Elms – but he admits high rents are a problem. Both London Cru and Renegade admit they will have to sell a lot more to achieve long term viability. Gavin says the “magic number” is 50,000.
These are the first commercial wineries in London for a very long time though exactly how long is hard to nail down. The antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726 to 1798) observed that “The genial banks of the Thames opposite to our capital (ie in Lambeth) yield almost every species of white wine; and by a wondrous magic, Messrs. Beaufoy here pour forth the materials for the rich Frontiniac, destined to the more elegant tables, the Madeira, the Caleavella, and the Lisbon, into every part of the kingdom. . . . The foreign wines are most admirably mimicked.” It was reported that five sixths of the white wines consumed in the capital were the produce of home wine presses.
If Renegade does produce a sparkling wine then it will open a fascinating discussion about which sparkling wine is more truly “London” – that of Forty Hall (grapes grown within the London postal area but processed in Sussex) or that of Renegade (grown in the country but processed in London). Let the debate roll on.

<em>(This blog is replicated on my LondonMyLondon blog victorkeegan.com)</em>

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We need a catchy name for our sparkling wine – British Fizz or Brit Fizz?

Posted by Victor Keegan on January 19, 2017
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There is a fascinating conversation among vineyards about whether the UK’s booming sparkling wine should be called British Fizz. Apparently it is already being called that in at least one restaurant in the US which is expected to be one one our biggest export markets (the country, not the restaurant!).
If everyone called it British Fizz it would solve a long running debate about finding a label that everyone in the industry can agree on. It has the advantage of being more inclusive than “English sparkling” or “Sussex sparkling” as it includes Wales, which has some fine vineyards but has not always been treated well by the English industry.
But there are two disadvantages. The first is that under EU legislation – which will govern us for the next few years British wine” means wine made in this country from imported grapes or juices.
The second is that three syllables do not trip off the tongue as well as two. A lot of memorable brands, though of course not all, have two syllables including Rolls-Royce, Google, Yahoo, Apple and, er, Champagne.
So why not just call it Brit Fizz or BritFizz? If you are ordering from a bar it sounds much better, and certainly more melodic, to ask for Brit Fizz rather than British Fizz (which sounds as though you are making a nationalistic statement (I want British fizz). It avoids the EU ambiguities of “British” and it capitalises on the fact that we are known as Brits the world over.
Someone claimed Brit Fizz sounds like something you take for a hangover but I don’t see the connection. It is something you drink in moderation to avoid a hangover.

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Brexit good for vineyards? Don’t bank on it

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 04, 2016
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There is a wave of euphoria going the rounds of some vineyards about how Britain’s wine industry will benefit from Brexit. I hope this is right but it won’t happen if we only look at the benefits and not at the other side of the balance sheet. Sure it will make our exports cheaper as long as it lasts. But remember, the reason the pound has gone down is that the financial markets think Brexit will be bad for economic growth partly because foreign-own industries such as motor manufacturing and financial services – which came here to be inside the tariff barriers – will switch new investment and people to Europe. This will lead to higher unemployment in the UK and a big blow to confidence and spending power which may lead to fewer purchases of the more expensive domestic wines.
Devaluation makes exports cheaper but also imports more expensive. Virtually all of the machinery to pick and process grapes – like the massive press that arrived at Rathfinny this week – comes from abroad as do the vines themselves and many of the gangs that pick them.
It is all very well to presume that Brexit will lead to the Government reducing tax on English and Welsh wines but this is unlikely at a time when there will almost certainly be a rising deficit that the Government is pledged to eliminate albeit over a longer perion than previously thought.
In these circumstances the Chancellor would have to be barmy to reduce the duty on wine when 98% of the proceeds would go to importers who dominate the market. And if he decided to reduce the duty on UK made wines alone in a discriminatory way then that would be sure to trigger a retaliatory trade war abroad.
There could be unexpected benefits. If agricultural subsidies are eventually reduced sharply then that might persuade more farmers to invest in a growing indigenous industry rather than farming subsidies.
I remain bullish about the revival of the UK wine industry and it will be improved by a lower pound. But the irony is that if Brexit succeeds (very unlikely in my view) then the pound will once again strengthen thereby removing a competitive advantage that arose from expectations that it would fail.

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Chateau Tooting starts thinking big (well, bigger)

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 24, 2016
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The Ilford contingent arrives

The Ilford contingent arrives

Chateau Tooting is one of my favourite London oddities. They collect grapes from gardens and allotments in London and elsewhere at a fixed time and a designated place (today it was in a sidestreet  in Clapham) and then dispatch them to an established vineyard, Halfpenny Green in Shropshire to be made into surprisingly good wine. This year I arrived with naked humility. No grapes. My half a dozen mature vines which I have been fondly tended after reading numerous books decided to have a miserable harvest and what they did produce was wiped out by powdery mildew. Then I meet Marcella Grazette, a mental health manager from Ilford who brought along 39 kilos of healthy looking grapes, enough to make 20 bottles. And – wait for it – all produced from a single vine which she hardly ever tends. Ouch!

But that’s Chateau Tooting. It breaks all the rules but somehow works. No one I spoke to today, apart from one,  even knew what variety their grapes were. Alan Frankham from Purley bought a vine six years ago from a garden centre having been inspired by a talk at Denbies vineyard in Dorking which produced 23 kilos this year, just over 11 bottles. Jilly Hanson from nearby Tooting Common produced 11.2 kilos from a single vine and Diana Kerr from Fulham 9 kilos from a single vine.

chateau2Richard Sharp – who started the project with his friend Paul (photo, right) – managed 8 kilos this year but added that Furzedown Primary School produced some from a Rondo vine and he also got some from the greenhouse at Brockwell Lido. The success of the scheme has prompted the two pioneers to start expanding. They are marketing some of their surplus bottles – those that are not acquired by the growers who have first choice – to local shops, restaurants and markets together with bottles produced by other cooperatives associated with Halfpenny Green. They have their own tee shirts and banners and this Christmas they are hoping to produce hampers with all these in plus a specially selected vine that can be planted in your garden or given to a friend. Yes, Chateau Tooting which started life as a guerilla grape grower is becoming a brand. If this works out and enough people buy the selected vine (maybe a Rondo for red or Seyval for white) then Urban Wine could in a few years produce a single varietal wine in addition to their present Chateau Tooting cocktail.

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Meet Denbies – Britain’s biggest vineyard

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 20, 2016
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The conservatory at Denbies

The conservatory at Denbies

DENBIES in Dorking was the first English vineyard I ever visited. You can’t miss it if you are driving down the A3 from London because, unlike most UK vineyards which are hidden along country lanes, Denbies covers the whole hillside, all 265 acres of it. When it was built it was the biggest single estate vineyard in the country – and, 30 years later, it still is though newbie Rathfinny in Sussex will soon be biting at its heels. To build on such a big scale so long ago when the English wine revival was still in its nappies was quite something. And it wasn’t a millionnaire acting out his dreams but the result of an authoritative suggestion by a professor of geology, Richard C Selley that the Champagne-like terrain of the North Downs was ideal for grape growing. Professor Selley’s subsequent book (“The Winelands of Britain”) on the history and geology of UK vineyards is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.
But if I am honest, although I was a huge admirer of it as a business – with its very large conservatory café, a good (more recent) restaurant, a cinema and lots of boutique stalls – I wasn’t madly impressed with the actual wines though they were always pleasant enough to drink.
Then something happened. Denbies Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010 was the only still rosé out of 367 bottles entered from 21 countries to win a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge. In other words, it was rated the best in the world from those submitted. The next time I was passing I popped in for a purchase but it had sold out within days of the announcement.
Since then it has won lots of silver medals and also a gold for its “Noble Harvest 2011” desert wine, one of only three UK gold medals awarded at the 2013 International Wine Challenge. Most recently in the 2016 IWC Challenge Denbies won another gold for its sparkling Greenfields Cuvée NV made from classic Champagne grapes.

The entrance

The entrance

Looking towards Box Hill

Looking towards Box Hill

When I visited the vineyard a few years ago they were selling approaching 80% from the cellar door. Now it is down to around 50% as they lead the long awaited surge of UK wines into supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Tesco. They still claim to sell more than any other vineyard from the cellar door – not least Surrey Gold which is the best selling wine in the UK – which is not surprising when you get over 300,00 visitors a year.
Chris White, the chief executive, says that, though sales are rising dramatically they are not planning to plant more than five or six more acres but will buy in 10 to 15% more grapes from other vineyards. He claims to be in the forefront of developments including minimal pruning and has what he claims is the only picking machine in the country. He is also thinking of producing a Bacchus which would be bottle fermented for nine months, a fascinating prospect. Denbies is moving away from herbicides and its winery (though not the vineyard) has been organically certified.
But it is on the wines it will be judged and our four-strong tasting party was very impressed especially with the two sparklers (Greenfields and Cubitts) and the 2015 Noble Harvest dessert while the Pinot Noir was surprisingly good for an English red. Denbies has been making sparkling wine since 1990 which puts it among the earlier vineyards to go into commercial production. It has taken a long time to gain international recognition – but long-term thinking is one of the crucial factors in the startling success of English and Welsh vineyards.

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Three of the best on a Sussex vineyard trail

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 15, 2016
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Nutbourne's windmill tasting area

Nutbourne’s windmill tasting area


SUSSEX IS in the minds of many people – not least those living in Sussex – the epi-centre of the UK wine renaissance. So it was with nervous anticipation that we were looking forward to visiting three of them – Bolney, Nutbourne and Bluebell – more or less at the same time. We were not disappointed. All are quite near each other – and, curiously, can be joined by a straight line on a map – yet have strong personalities of their own. Bolney is the country’s leading producer of reds, Bluebell is overhelmingly sparkling and Nutbourne, though is has won gold for its sparkling intends to concentrate on still whites.
But enough of medals. This is about vineyard experience.

If ever there was a labour of love in a vineyard it is Nutbourne, nurtured and expanded by Bridget Gladwin helped by her husband whose main job is running a very successful catering company. It is sheer delight to meander among its sprawling 26 acres rolling down to the South Downs in the near distance passing llamas and tumbling pools before having a tasting of its fine wines on the veranda of a former wind mill. The Gladwins purchased an 18 acre vineyard in 1991 planted with German varieties knowing nothing about vineyards and have since painstakingly expanded it to where they can sell 20,000 bottles in a good year. Although their Nutty Brut sparkling has won a gold medal twice at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition they intend to specialise in still wines bolstered by the fact that their Sussex Reserve was the first ever English still wine to achieve a gold medal in the same competition. Located in terroir to die for with two vineyards belonging to Nyetimber  close by on either side , Bridget has conjured up a memorable experience. It is also the most vertically integrated vineyard I have ever come across. A lot of their wine goes to three fashionable restaurants in London run by their sons (including The Shed in Notting Hill) which also take food from the family farm. To top it all Bridget, a part-time artist, designs the labels for the wines herself.

Bolney's new tasting centre

Bolney’s new tasting centre

 

We visited Bolney and Bluebell as part of an £89-a-head day coach trip from London organised by English Wine Tasting, one of the first companies in what hopefully will be a burgeoning UK wine tourism industry. As Bolney came into view you are first hit by the ambition of the place – a spanking new tasting, café and reception area with a long balcony looking over 18 of their 40 acres estate – a pleasant surprise from other vineyard cafés where you have to stretch your neck to see the grapes. Bolney, with a terroir closer to Bergundy than the chalky underlay of Champagne, has courageously taken a counter-intuitive decision to concentrate on English reds led by their much lauded Pinot Noir even though their best selling wine is white (Bacchus). They plan to triple production over 10 years.

They grow their vines high to protect against frost and wandering deer and have a natural advantage from some buzzards which frighten off the birds. After an expertly curated tasting we retired to the picturesque Eight Bells in the village for lunch and other English wines which unbeknown to the organisers turned out to include “British” (ie made from imported grape juice) because, surprise, surprise the gastropub doesn’t serve local wines. However, it at least confirmed to us the quality of proper English wines and the sutuation was soon righted by our efficient tour operator.

Bluebell's vineyard manager,Colette O'Leary

Bluebell’s vineyard manager,Colette O’Leary

The tasting room

The tasting room

Bluebell is a lovely welcoming vineyard built on an old chicken farm. It has rightly been garlanded for the quality of its Hindleap sparkling wines made with impressive attention to detail by winemaker Kevin Sutherland and vineyard manager Colette O’Leary. They only make vintages (wine produced from the year of growth) rather than blending the produce of different years as happens so often with Champagne producers.

Named after the bluebells which crowd the area in Spring and after which the nearby Bluebell railway is dedicated, the 60 acre vineyard ambles its way down a soft slope between former chicken huts and wedding marquees towards the South Downs interrupted only by several soft pools adding to its Arcadian charm.

They have a small-is-beautiful approach reflected in growing slightly different varieties of the same vines in neighbouring blocks and fermenting their wines in blocks – ranging from a sparkling made from the Seyval grape to others made from full blown classic Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Bluebell is now growing other varieties such as Ortega and newly fashionable Bacchus and has plans to double output in the coming years from 50,000 bottles a year to 100,000.  Like Bolney and Nutbourne they have their own winery with 40 tanks including a couple outside. There is a small friendly tasting room where we savoured their excellent range of wines while being talked through the wine-making process.

The more I visit vineyards – and I have clocked up many dozens – the more I am convinced of the prospects for vineyard tourism. Wines may have been of varying quality but the vineyard experience has been distinctive. The trouble is reaching them without a car (if you are not drinking and driving) as very few are near railway stations. Which is why dispatching coaches from London where the money and the tourists are could be a savvy idea, Our party of 15 included two people from Sweden and two from Denmark. There is all to play for.

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Will still white wines be the next big thing for Britain?

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 27, 2016
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Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

THE AMAZING resurgence of UK vineyards in recent years has overwhelmingly been the story of sparkling wines which have been so festooned with gold medals that even French champagne makers have woken up to it. But is the same success about to happen to our still white wines which have languished in the shadows for so long? You could definitely draw this conclusion from the recent English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition where an astonishing 20 out of 32 gold medals awarded went to white wines of which no less than 11 were made from the appropriately named Bacchus grape (after the god of wine) which is emerging as the UK’s still wine of choice for consumers. Several other non-Bacchus wines also struck gold including chardonnays from Chapel Down’s Kits Coty vineyard and from the long-established New Hall in Essex.

This competition was blind tasted by Masters of Wine judged, it is claimed, to international standards which means that there ought to be no national bias. The trouble is that at the more recent Decanter blind tasting – which includes wines from everywhere and not just England and Wales – there were no golds for Bacchus or indeed any other still wines from the UK though there were three silvers (plus a few more for other still whites). This is par for the course for international competitions. So what on earth is going on? There are various explanations. It could be that domestic Bacchus producers did not enter in sufficient numbers for Decanter. Maybe there a subconscious patriotic preference for home producers by the judges. Not at all unlikely. Or , just possibly, the success of Bacchus in domestic competitions is a lead indicator of what is to come in international blind tastings. After all, our sparkling wines were hailed at home long before they started winning prizes in international competitions. Or, perish the thought, wine tasting is a much more random operation that its participants like to admit.

Either way, there are lessons here. Maybe the new vineyards being planted here which are overwhelmingly of the three varieties that make up classic Champagne wines – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – should look to plant more for still wines. Of course, if the market changes, it is easy to produce still white from Chardonnay vines and still red from Pinot Noir, which is gradually improving in quality in this country. But Bacchus, which is a cross between hardy Germanic varieties Mullar-Thurgau and Sylvaner x Riesling, is clearly emerging as the cheer leader for UK wines with a name to conjure with.

Bacchus wines are not cheap being mainly priced around the £14 mark though at the time of writing you could get a Brightwell Bacchus at £9.99 from Waitrose and a 2014 from Chapel Down for £11.50 from the Wine Society. Waitrose is the best place to look for English and Welsh wines if you are not buying from a vineyard, not least because they occasionally have special offers with cuts of 25% or more and they have over a 100 English and Welsh wines on offer. The choosey Wine Society (lifetime membership £40) has a much more limited but high quality list including a couple (non Bacchus) at under £8. Both organisations have free delivery if you buy by the case.

So it looks as though Bacchus will be a premium priced wine like our sparkling wines. If you haven’t got the economies of scale of overseas producers it makes sense to sell on quality. The name Bacchus can be used by anyone but the way things are going it could establish itself as a distinctively branded English still wine. That would be something worth waiting for.

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London vineyards – a weekend break

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 19, 2016
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Hillcross
LONDON has long been an international centre for wine but none of the growing or production has happened in the capital for centuries. Now things are changing, albeit on a small scale. The latest news is that the admirable Vagabond Wines, where you can buy up to 100 wines by the glass (which would be attractive to punters wanting to try out English or Welsh wines) is planning to build a winery in London to make wine from grapes grown in this country. This means that London could soon have two wineries of its own following the pioneering efforts of London Cru in Earls Court.
Yesterday (Saturday) I added another London vineyard to my experiences when I visited one I was previously unaware of in Morden (See photo, above) at the southern end of the Northern Line in the middle of suburbia. It is quite sizeable for an urban vineyard with over 300 vines but there is no way you would know it was there as you can’t see it from the street and the owners understandably intend to keep it that way and asked me not to reveal its location.
From here they have been making white, red and rosé wines since the mid 1990s on reclaimed allotments from well tried cool-climate varietals such as Triomphe, Dornfelder and Dunkelfelder which they turn into wine at their own well-equipped micro winery. What they don’t drink they distribute to friends and relatives. They kindly gave me a bottle of white which I look forward to sampling.The terrain is not text book ideal – soft clay soil on ground that slopes the wrong way – but it seems to work. Even when you are in the house it is a bit of a maze to find the exact location but well worth the unique experience of viewing suburbia from a secret vineyard. If anyone knows of any other vineyards in London however small please contact me on victor.keegan@gmail.com.
From Morden it was only a few stops on the Northern Line to Tooting Bec station where I somehow managed to find my way to the vibrant Furzedown Festival to collect my annual allocation of four bottles of Chateau Tooting which makes wine from grapes grown in gardens and allotments across the Capital. You are allocated bottles in proportion to the weight of grapes you put in. This year – a rosé made into wine by the highly regarded Halfpenny Green vineyard in Staffordshire – was sweeter than last year’s excellent offering but very drinkable even though I don’t have a sweet tooth. Chateau Tooting makes north of 600 bottles and is the second largest wine priducer in London.They seemed to be doing a roaring trade at their stall yesterday.
BacchusForty
This morning – yes, this is definitely London wine collection weekend – I trekked to Enfield in North London to the 10 acre Forty Hall (photo, left) which is emerging as the most exciting vineyard in London for a very long time. I bought a few bottles of its Bacchus, which has been well received by early imbibers plus an Ortega. Its second sparkling wine will be released later in the year probably only for patrons until production gets fully underway. Forty Hall is an organic vineyard run by volunteers, some of whom have social problems which are greatly helped by the therapeutic value of vineyard involvement. I felt a bit better just by strolling around. The wine is made for them by Davenports, the highly respected Sussex winery, and the combination of the two organisations looks like a highly encouraging blend.
Chateau Tooting
Chateau Tooting’s stall at the Furzedown Festival)

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Giving due Merrett to the English inventor of Champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 07, 2016
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MerrettHouse

AT LONG last Christopher Merrett, the 17th century English scientist who first established what is now called the méthode champenoise – long before Dom Perignon – is to get official recognition. Local historians have now discovered exactly where he lived in the Gloucestershire village of Winchcombe and have applied for a plaque to be put up. When I wrote about this two years ago it was thought that the house – actually a pub – where Merrett was born was on Gloucester Street on the the corner of Mill Lane. This was true. But it turns out it was the wrong corner. The actual building is the one in the picture above and not the one on the other side of the lane part of which can be seen on the left of the photo. The house has been reconstructed since the 17th century but still has the original cellar and barrel roll.
Local writer Jean Bray and folk artist Katie Morgan have applied to have a plaque to commemorate Christopher Merret’s undersung achievement. Most people (especially in France!) still believe that Dom Perignon invented champagne but he actually came onto the scene nearly 30 years after Merrett.
In Merrett’s time Champagne in France was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired furnaces able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques.
Merrett went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden which had a large vineyard in those days though it is not known whether Merrett was involved with it. He was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn.
MerretPic

Jean Bray is to give a talk entitled “The Englishman who invented Champagne” at 7.30pm on Thursday May 26 at the Chandos Hall in Winchcombe as part of Winchcombe Festival of Music and Arts. It is sponsored by Strawberry Hill Vineyard of Newent which is one of the nearest vineyards to Winchcombe (price £8 including a glass of sparkling).
It is great that Winchcombe is celebrating its most famous son but there are dozens of vineyards around the country whose success can ultimately be traced back to Christopher Merrett (picture, left) who don’t celebrate him enough. This is partly because Ridgeview vineyard established Merrett as a trade mark. This may have been a shrewd move commercially but it may also have hampered the scope of vineyards in the UK to capitalise on a name that, in truth, ought to be more widely known than Dom Perignon.

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The proof of “real” wines is in the drinking

Posted by Victor Keegan on April 17, 2016
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RealWine1
UK tables at the Real Wine Fair
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I HAD some liquor today that was distilled in a house in Highgate using wormwood as an additive. It turned out it was all legit. Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney, who started in 2009, had to get four different licences before being authorised to set the operation up which distils its spirits under a vacuum in glassware. I stumbled across it at today’s Real Wine Fair at Tobacco Dock in London’s Docklands. I liked the the look of the bottles but said I was only really interested in English and Welsh wines. But when it was pointed out that three of the bottles were two thirds filled with wine from Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire I was hooked and immediately sampled some Three Choirs based vermouths plus a cardamon gin and a Negroni, all marketed under the Sacred label.
The three English vineyards there – Ancre Hill, Davenport and Forty Hall – are all firm favourites with me as their new wines confirmed including a liimted edition 2015 Davenport Pet Nat with an 8.5% alcohol content and very pleasant Pinot Noirs from Ancre and Davenport. Forty Hall, the 10-acre community-run vineyard in Enfield, London had their impressive 2015 Ortega and Bacchus but none of their first sparkling wine which went mainly to sponsors and helpers. Future years will be different.
England and Wales represented barely two per cent of the vineyards on show – which gives some idea of the size of the fair which attracted wines from all over the world. Hundreds of people were there creating a real buzz along the lines of tables of all kinds of wines and artisan foods. Among those that grabbed me on a whet-my- whistle-stop tour was one from Priorat in Spain made from a vine over 100 years old, a 2015 Mtsvane Pet Nat from Georgia which was left in the bottle from primary fermentation and a Loxarel from Penedès in Spain that had been laid sur latte for 10 years without even being disgorged.
There is clearly a big market for “natural” wines. Some of the people I spoke to said that after drinking natural ones they couldn’t face the additives present in the usual varieties which they noticed in a way they hadn’t before. You don’t have to go all the way with the niceties of making organic and biodynamic wines to accept that they are making some very fine wines. The proof of the theory is in the drinking.

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