Samui Wining & Dining
In The Zone

The most favourable winemaking areas on the planet are shifting
– southern England’s now the perfect place.


In The ZoneThere’s an old joke about Heaven being a place where the food is French, the cars are German, the police are English, the beer is Belgian, the weather is Spanish and the women are Italian. And Hell is a place where those national attributes are all horribly mixed up. And without elaborating on the others, the food is English! But it could, just as easily, have been that the wine is English.


However, things have moved on since the seventies, when I first heard that joke. Sure, German cars are still boss, Italian women are just as attractive today and Belgian beer is just as good. But English food, helped in no small part by leading chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver, has progressed greatly in raising its standards to confidently match the rest of Europe. And its wines are now on the verge of elevating England to join the ever-growing number of wine producing nations truly worthy of international recognition.


Maybe it’s no surprise then that wine made in English vineyards was served to the honoured International guests at the recent Royal Wedding. Chapel Down white wine, made in Tenterden, Kent, was enthusiastically quaffed out of gold-rimmed crystal wine goblets, at Buckingham Palace, during one of the private receptions following Prince William and Kate Middleton’s momentous ceremony in April. And, such was the level of secrecy beforehand, the firm itself was kept in the dark about its role (but suspicions were aroused after a large order was delivered to the Queen’s residence in the proceeding weeks).


I’m guessing that some readers are not aware that England even produced wine, let alone wine noble enough for a future King and Queen. But there is a vital clue to the fast-evolving English wine industry’s success – climate change. The simple fact is that, over the last 25 years or so, the temperate climate band that provides the ideal wine growing conditions, has moved north. Just as the deserts of North Africa are creeping up into Southern Spain, the highly esteemed and proudly boasted about optimum narrow climate belt of the historic Champagne region (just east of Paris) is now actually sitting over South East England! (Sorry sensitive French folks, but I’m just stating a climatic fact.) In the future, we may well be eagerly seeking out sparkling wines that hail from Sussex and Kent!


Of course, unlike the more historic wine regions, you’re not surrounded by a monoculture of grapes in these counties’ countryside. But, here and there, in hidden valleys and secluded glens, vineyards of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier on south-facing slopes offer evidence of a new optimism that England can make world-class sparkling wine. And that optimism is not at all unfounded. English sparkling wines may not yet rival very fine Champagnes, but the best versions are already surprisingly good. I was personally especially taken with the elegantly flavoursome Blanc de Blancs from Ridgeview Estate in East Sussex. And Gusbourne Estate in Kent makes sparkling wine to rival any I’ve tasted, with its bright intense fruit flavors (yet with a vibrant acidity). And hopefully, one day, I’ll have the privilege of tasting Hush Heath Estate’s award-winning Balfour Brut Rosé.


Acidity is a crucial component in sparkling wine, balancing the flavours and the effervescence with a sense of crisp liveliness. In England, where climate change now permits grapes to ripen sufficiently to make good sparkling wine, but not without a struggle, acidity can still also be a bane. The marginal climate means English winemakers face particular challenges. They need to work meticulously in the vineyards to combat mould and mildew, caused either by rain or dew. They face major threats from spring frosts. And, as any English person knows only too well, they cannot count on good weather year-in and year-out. However, English wine production is bigger than ever before. Scientists can debate climate change and some politicians can deny it’s happening, but it’s a fact that England’s vineyards produced 50% more wine last year than the year before. The vines are budding earlier each year, and this year, Denbies Wine Estate, the biggest single estate vineyard in Britain, reported the first bud on April 14th, the earliest ever recorded (vines normally only bud at the end of April).


It is estimated that England and Wales has well over 3,000 acres of vineyards, widely scattered over the southern areas of Britain. But most are small wineries, strategically placed to take full advantage of spring and summer sunshine. Denbies, with over 300 acres, is very much the exception in a burgeoning wine industry, where the average is still only 4 or 5 acres. The great majority of wine produced is white. Muller-Thurgau, Seyval Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are the most popular vines, being early ripeners and somewhat disease resistant. Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris and Bacchus also thrive, as do German crosses. And, in an unashamed nod to the success of Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are being planted in abundance (I suppose, it could be argued that this is a deliberate attempt to cash-in the phenomenal success of Champagne over the last two centuries).


It may be a long time, or never, before the English grow some great red wines. But there is no doubt its white wines can no longer be the butt of any old nationalistic jokes. The quality has improved from a tentative start to steady and confident progress. England now has experienced winemakers who can make excellent white wines almost every year (look out for 2011, if the exceptionally good weather continues). Because of the low production, (rare) English wine is relatively expensive. Imports can (probably) be cheaper. But there is a brisk market at home and abroad for the sort of aromatic and original light white wines England is making today. So my advice would be to try to taste some soon. Not least, because you never know when the Palace might put in another big order and clear the cellars!


Peter James

Wine Guru


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