Can English Wines Compete on the World Stage?

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With 2014 looking like a bumper harvest for British winemakers, Wall Street Journal wine columnist Will Lyons says it’s only a matter of time

 

By

WILL LYONS

IN ENGLAND, THE WINEMAKERS are relaxed. Spells of settled weather, a relatively sunny June and warm July have instilled a great deal of optimism across the industry. After the washouts of recent years, particularly 2011, it looks as if the dry weather has helped grapes ripen evenly. It’s early days but talk is already of 2014 being a bumper harvest.

“I’ve been on easy street these past few days,” Sam Lindo, winemaker at Cornwall’s Camel Valley vineyards, said when I visited him in early September. “It’s an easy harvest; everything is ready a week to 10 days earlier than usual. Usually, with most harvests, you are holding out for as long as you can, trying to balance when to pick the grapes.”

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INot this year. Picking started Sept. 23 and, all being well, the vineyard will produce 200,000 bottles of sparkling wine—many of them selling for more than £20 (€25) a bottle. Not bad for a small, tucked-away 7-hectare property that just 30 years ago was grazed by cattle and sheep and didn’t have a single vine. Now, when you come to the farm, you’ll find a tasting room, a sales counter and a terrace full of thirsty visitors drinking English sparkling wine while overlooking a sea of sun-drenched vines.

As someone who has been visiting this part of the world since I was a child, I don’t mind admitting that the experience felt a little surreal. It was almost like stepping into the future, into a blueprint of how England’s vineyards could compete on the international stage, in a scenario shaped by climate change and a domestic market with a newfound love of wine. As I left, I passed a man carrying a case of wine to his car. When Sam’s parents, Bob and Annie Lindo, planted their first vines here in 1989, this scene would have been unthinkable.

But the Lindos aren’t alone. There are now more than 1,600 hectares of vineyards planted across England’s southern counties. From Cornwall in the far west, through Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, there are more than 500 wineries, producing around 2 million bottles of wine a year.

In England there is a feeling that the industry is on the cusp of something special. On the South Downs in Sussex, Ridgeview—whose first vintage was in 1996—has just opened a tasting room that wouldn’t look out of place in Napa. Meanwhile, Chapel Down in Kent says it has raised more than £2 million through a combination of crowdfunding and institutional investment to build a new winery, planting more vines as well as extending its hospitality facility.

Three years ago I wrote about former hedge-fund manager Mark Driver’s £10 million vision to create England’s largest single vineyard, Rathfinny, in Alfriston in East Sussex. The vines are now planted, the winery and tasting room are open and this September they will harvest their first crop.

So what’s happened? How did this rainy archipelago in the north Atlantic go from producing literally no wine of any note 40 years ago to creating a mushrooming wine industry? The secret lies in bubbles. As Champagne expert Tom Stevenson writes in the World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine: “Britain is one of the few places on earth naturally suited to growing grapes for sparkling wine.” It just took a while for England’s winemakers to realize this was their best product.

 

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