Last year, the wine gods smiled on England. The 2018 harvest was exceptionally and extraordinarily, record-breakingly bountiful – almost too bountiful for some who, having filled up every tank and every square inch in the winery, had to order emergency fermenting vessels or borrow them from friendly brewers.
“It’s important to say that the quality was also good – there’s not much point having a lot of grapes unless they’re going to make decent wine,” as more than one winemaker was keen to point out when I chatted and tasted my way around the annual Wine GB tasting last week.
Now it’s that weather-app-watching time of year again. And, again, the UK looks set for a generous grape crop. It’s always tricky to talk about averages, but as a rough reckoner, if the weather continues to play ball: “If last year’s vintage produced triple the average yield, then this year’s could be around double,” said Dermot Sugrue of Wiston Estate Winery.
The tasting is always a good opportunity to take a snapshot of the state of the English wine industry. On the whole, it’s a hugely positive and optimistic story. The buzz in London’s Royal Horticultural Halls was almost tangible. The tables were full of good wines that as recently as two decades ago few dared to believe would ever exist. England makes world-class sparkling wines, but the still wines look ever more convincing. New names are constantly emerging and, by and large, the wines they make are – at the very least – decent.
For existing producers, the challenge is to build on what’s already there, and no one, it seems, is standing still. To take one example: the brightest new star of last year’s Wine GB tasting was Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk, which launched in spring 2018 with a remarkably sophisticated set of sparkling wines. Leadley has just announced that he has raised £1.5 million from a combination of an EU fund – “one of the final ones to be approved before Brexit takes effect” – two new backers and additional help from existing ones.
The funding will be used to build a Black Chalk winery and tasting room (the wine is currently made at Hattingley) and pay for three new full-time positions at Black Chalk. If you haven’t yet tried Black Chalk wines, get ordering – I’d start with Black Chalk Wild Rose 2016: a sparkling rosé that smells of ripe raspberries and fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs, and which tastes very precise. It’s £40 and available from blackchalkwine.co.uk.
Suddenly huge harvests pose logistical problems for producers. It’s not just finding the manpower to shift the grapes and the space to handle the fermenting juice. Sparkling wine made by the traditional method (that is, fermented in bottle like champagne) needs time maturing on its lees before it can be released and sold. This is expensive. “We built a huge building, filled it with wine, closed the door on 400,000 bottles, and locked the door for three years,” as Sugrue puts it.
It’s not just the weather increasing the size of the harvests; there’s also a rush to plant ever more vines. Existing producers have been increasing their vineyard area. Monaco-based billionaire businessman Mark Dixon (the founder of the Regus serviced offices chain, who owns Château de Berne in Provence) is said to have planted 1.25 million vines in the UK this year. One of the biggest questions for the nascent industry is: can it sell all the wine?
Ruth Simpson of Simpsons Wine Estate in Barham, Kent, believes there is still headroom for sales of home-grown wine to increase. “At the moment, demand outweighs supply. I do think that in the on-trade going forward, there’s the expectation that on sparkling lists there will be champagne, prosecco – and there’s also got to be English sparkling wine.”
Part of the opportunity comes from reimagining the possibilities. Simpsons Wine Estate produced 180,000 bottles in 2018 (following 22,000 in 2016, its maiden vintage, and 22,000 in 2017) and a third of that was still. Most of the noise in English wine comes from sparkling, but Simpsons’ still wines already have some prestigious listings, at Le Gavroche and Oblix at the Shard.
Simpson – who with her husband Charles also runs a wine estate in the south of France – is part of the export committee for Wine GB and is quick to point out that it is vital not to rely on the home market but to “keep looking at export. We export to Denmark, Norway, Poland and Ontario [Canada] and are looking to launch in the US next year when we have more volume. It’s important to think creatively and keep looking at new markets.”
Meanwhile, Wine GB might need to think carefully about how to protect the upmarket identity of its flagship brand. The newly forged reputation of English wine is built on sparkling wine made in the same way as champagne – that is, using champagne grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier), fermented in the bottle and aged on its lees.
However, these wines are now being joined by a host of other – cheaper – sparkling wines, made with different grapes and fermented in a tank (by the so-called charmat method). I tasted one the other day. Angel and Four Masterstroke is made in Gloucestershire from reichensteiner, madeleine angevine and seyval blanc and launches in Aldi in October. It’s fizzy, tastes of hedgerow and weeds and costs £9.99.
I’d be the first to argue that innovation and play are vital in any field, especially a developing one, but the danger here is that cheaper – and very different-tasting – wines like this, which compete with prosecco, will confuse and erode the more upmarket brands that need to compete with good champagne.
And this year’s harvest? A number of winemakers are concerned about the short spells of rain, followed by warm bursts of sunshine that we’ve been enjoying. “Perfect for rot,” says one, through slightly gritted teeth.
But there is cautious optimism for 2019. The caution can’t be overstated. A single night can wreak havoc: all it takes is a hailstorm, or a bad frost that causes the leaves on the vine to drop so that photosynthesis halts and the grapes stop ripening. But the Met Office says the middle of September is likely to be “settled and dry with light winds and plenty of sunshine, especially in the south of the UK.” So here’s hoping.
Lyme Bay Shoreline 2017, England
An aromatic still white made from a blend of bacchus, pinot blanc, reichensteiner, seyval blanc and solaris. Think dancing meadow grass, ripe pear, and a hint of salt.
Woodchester Valley Orpheus Bacchus 2018, England
(12%, Le Vignoble, £17.55)
Bacchus is considered England’s signature white grape for still wines, and this one, lush and green and rounded, with breezy notes of elderflower and tart gooseberries, is a beauty.
Langham Wine Estate Blanc de Blancs Reserve NV, England
(11.5%, langhamwine.co.uk, £31)
Wafts of brioche rise from this creamy, satisfying blanc de blancs, made in Dorset. It’s very good, and won three trophies at the recent Wine GB awards.