English wine
A novel kind of fizz

Nov 23rd 2006
From The Economist print edition
English vineyards are making a surprising comeback

English wine: Watch out, Frenchies. The British are coming! The British are coming!

WHEN Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536, he put paid to more than the cloistered life. English winemaking, which had flourished since medieval times, disappeared as well. Now it is having a renaissance. Growers had a bumper crop this year. Denbies, the country's largest vineyard, produced over 500,000 bottles, up by TWO-THIRDS from the 300,000 it made last year.

The English wine industry is still tiny. It produced 1.3m litres last year whereas the rest of Europe made 179m. Progress has been uneven since the revival began 30 years ago. The big development in the past decade has been a shift up-market, says Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers, a trade association. Production of quality white wine has increased by a fifth since 1998.

The government is taking a keen interest in this unlikely success story. The agriculture department has set up a “wine-policy unit” to sponsor the industry and to represent its interests in Europe. It believes English wine production has a solid economic future.

Sparkling wine is doing particularly well thanks in part to longer, warmer summers. From May to September this year the temperature averaged 16°C. That may be shivery for the bodegas of Spain but it was 1.5° higher than the average summer from 1990 to 2005, which in turn was 1.8° up on the previous 15-year average. The soil helps too: southern England belongs to part of the same chalk belt as France's Champagne region.

The belief that warmer weather is here to stay is giving people the confidence to try winemaking, says Mrs Trustram Eve. Setting up in business, though, requires deep pockets and patience. It takes over seven years for an initial investment of £5,000 an acre in vines producing sparkling wine to pay off.

Not everyone thinks English winemakers should raise a glass to climate change. The crops may become larger and more regular but the new weather pattern may have its drawbacks, says Stephen Skelton, a wine critic. He points out that if it brings more rain during the growing season, vineyards will not be celebrating.

However, the industry is not relying solely on more clement weather. Winemakers are becoming a lot more professional. English brands such as Nyetimber and RidgeView now have their own fans and powerful supermarkets are beginning to stock them. Indeed Waitrose, an up-market supermarket chain, accounts for a quarter of all English wine sold in stores and off-licences in Britain. English sparkling wines are seen as a direct competitor to champagne, claims Michael Roberts of RidgeView, a vineyard that uses only champagne grapes. English bubbly costs between £17 and £22 a bottle—about the same as some champagne.

The renaissance of English winemaking still has a long way to go. Britain is already a formidably competitive wine market. Consumers are spoilt for choice as an ever-increasing variety of wines becomes available from ever-more-remote parts of the New World and ever-more unheard-of vineyards in the Old.

But at least English wine is starting to make a name for itself and is no longer the stuff of comedy sketches.


FASCINATING FACTS - The English - not the French - invented champagne, and they were once the world's biggest consumers

Champagne is English, not French. British ingenunity but, once again, foreigners get the credit for it.

As early as 1630 a retired British Admiral, Sir Robert Mansell, while searching for a way to make coloured glass had invented a manufacturing process incorporating the use of iron and manganese which resulted in English glass bottles being much stronger than those being manufactured in France at that time. Moreover the writings of Sir George Etherege in 1676, nearly twenty years before Dom Pérignon is claimed to have invented sparkling wine, reveal that it was already common practice to render sparkling the still wines that were being imported from Champagne. Indeed the practice had already been referred to as early as 1662 when Christopher Merret presented a paper to the newly formed Royal Society in which he stated that sugar and molasses were being added to wines of all sorts to make them sparkling.

Quite obviously then, it was the English who invented what has since become known as the traditional Champagne process! It should come as no surprise therefore, that having established a reputable still wine industry of their own during the past 50 years, the Brits are turning to the production of English Sparkling Wine with such success.

There are currently about 380 commercial wine producers in the UK. By November 1996 at least 40 of them were known to be producing Sparkling Wine and no doubt the millennium celebrations have tempted more to enter the field. Quality has rapidly improved with winemaking experience and though, like Champagnes, some are better than others, the best of them can honestly claim to compete with the best that Champagne has to offer. If the label says Bottle Fermented or Traditional Method then the wine has been made by the same, original, Merret method and therefore merits further investigation. Forget Dom Pérignon, try some!

www.english-wine.com/sparkling.html (external - login to view)

Champagne is British? A perfidious idea, say French

Independent, The (London) (external - login to view)

by John Lichfield in Paris (external - login to view)

CORKS ARE popping angrily all over France: a British wine writer claims to have found documentary proof that champagne was invented in London 300 years ago.

"Once again, the kingdom of warm beer is picking a quarrel with us," said the right-wing daily Le Figaro yesterday.

"First, the perfidious British claim - against all reason - to have the best restaurants in the world; now they say that they invented champagne," complained Francois Simon, a food writer. It has long been claimed that the method for making fizzy wine - fermenting the wine a second time in the bottle - was devised in England in the 17th century.

Quid, the Gallic bible of facts and figures, asserts that the process was invented by a French Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, "around 1688". Not so, says Tom Stevenson in his forthcoming book A World Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. He reproduces a recipe presented to the Royal Society in London in December 1662 by one Christopher Merret, which describes a method for provoking second fermentation, and bubbles, by putting sugar in bottles of raw, white wine. This is the "methode champenoise" used to make sparking wine all over the world today.

Eric Glatre, a historian of champagne, says the recipe for making bubbly wines had been around for years. But it was the English who first recognised the commercial possibilities - using white wine from the Champagne region. They cannot claim, however, to have "invented" champagne, he said. Champagne is a unique product of the Champagne region. Champagne was not "invented" by anyone - it was "discovered". By the English.


Zut alors.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 24th, 2006 at 02:30 PM..