Twenty years ago, English wine might have sounded like a Monty Python punchline. Today it's a proud business sector, with a growing stash of international medals, critical praise and even a few expatriate French oenologists willing to endure lunches of bacon butty with HP sauce and mushy peas to fortify themselves against a long day's work in the vineyard.
From tentative experimentation by a few quirky souls in rubber Wellies and Barbour jackets decades ago (not to mention the swill made by thirsty Romans and Normans in centuries past), the scene in England and Wales has blossomed to 135 estates, with an annual output of 4.45 million bottles, according to the industry group English Wine Producers. That's still paltry compared with Canada's 500 wineries and exponentially larger volume (according to Wine Country Ontario, that province alone turned out 31-million bottles of locally grown VQA brands in 2014 from almost 10 times the British acreage), but let's call it an industry on-the-up, if, as the British might put it, a wee one.
U.K. wine has certainly enjoyed more than its fair share of hype in recent years, with headlines lauding dry bubblies in particular (the island's most compelling category, responsible for two thirds of the output) in the same breath as French Champagne. Those would be mostly British headlines, of course, but London's top grape critics are not known for being pushovers and continue to enjoy global influence.
"Our wines quite clearly do seem to be measuring up," Julia Trustram Eve, the English Wine Producers's marketing director, told me over the phone. Never was that more evident than in 2010, when a blanc de blancs brut from Ridgeview in Sussex took home the International Trophy at the London-based Decanter World Wine Awards for best sparkling wine priced over £10, beating out a field that included French Champagnes.
The industry, which on May 23 kicks off its annual promotional campaign dubbed English Wine Week, has also benefited from the PR halo of a special group of cheerleaders, the Royal Family. In 2011, when time came to toast newlyweds Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wedding-goers were served sparkling wine from Chapel Down estate in Kent. Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth christened Britain's largest cruise ship, Britannia, with a 15-litre bottle of Wiston Estate from West Sussex, another top bubbly. You can't buy that sort of publicity.
Brands such as Chapel Down, Ridgeview and Wiston, as well as several others, including Camel Valley, Gusbourne, Hush Heath and Nyetimber, can't easily be dismissed by knee-jerk skeptics for one key reason. They're expensive, typically about $45 and up, which exceeds many true-blue Champagnes sold in British supermarkets. Nyetimber, which Trustram Eve calls "one of our headline acts" and whose wine-making team is led by Canadian native Cherie Spriggs, recently launched a vintage-dated bottling at the king's ransom of £70 (about $130). Even in that rarefied air, demand outstrips supply, thanks to local enthusiasts. As with televised dart competitions, British wines need not conquer other markets to thrive, at least not yet. Which is something of a shame, because the few I've sampled, including a couple from Nyetimber, have been impressive.
Although prices have soared more quickly than for longer-established quality Canadian wine, producers in the U.K. have had to overcome similar deep-seated preconceptions to sit elbow-to-elbow with European counterparts. British summers are cool, even in the south, where virtually all the vineyards lie. In fact, summer weather is much less hospitable than in the Okanagan Valley or Niagara, which renders it virtually impossible to fully ripen the best-regarded grape varieties. That's why many producers of still wines rely, with mixed results, on less-familiar, cold-hardy varieties, such as bacchus, dornfelder and ortega.
That's not the case with sparkling wine, however. To preserve dry bubbly's characteristic high acidity, grapes are picked early in the season, before they've had time to shed their tart edge. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Nyetimber in the 1990s, that convenient reality opened the door in England and Wales to such varieties as pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, the noble grapes of the Champagne region in cool northern France.
Following the French model, British winemakers, like those in Canada, mainly produce sparkling wines by refermenting still wines with additional yeast and sugar in individual bottles sealed under pressure – generating natural carbonation – then laying them down for months or years to mellow and develop complexity in the company of the spent yeast.
Some of the U.K.'s best producers also like to boast that they share something else in common with Champagne: soil. The famous limestone-based kimmeridgian clay, prevalent in northern France, forms a giant ring running under the English Channel and up through the white cliffs of Dover into southern England, imbuing the wines, some say, with a prized, telltale hint of minerality.
Certainly, English sparkling wines tend to be zippy, in many cases crisper and more delicate than generally creamier, toastier top Champagnes, which derive their rich mouthfeel from France's slightly warmer summers and an often longer maturation period.
British wine's most optimistic champions often point to the favourable, if otherwise haunting, advance of global warming. Hotter weather can only mean brighter days ahead. How bright is the question. I'm inclined to think it will be a steamy February day in Manchester before the U.K. catches up to Canada in terms of output and overall quality, particularly when it comes to still wines made here almost exclusively from internationally beloved grape varieties such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. In any case, an overheated planet will probably generate equally sensational headline fodder from elsewhere, so the British may face new, unexpected competition. Siberian chardonnay, anyone?
Then again, British wine will always have the British press, and Buckingham Palace, on its side.