The earliest record of English wine being sold at The Wine Society was a Lamberhurst Seyval Blanc from the 1986 vintage, which we sold for £3.50. The wonderful 1989 vintage saw an influx of new wines, including still wines from Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom in Sussex (who now only produce sparkling wine but I'm sure Peter still opens up bottles from these early vintages to lucky visitors) and Three Choirs in Newent, Gloucestershire, two producers who we still work with to this very day.
England is truly one of the world's most exciting wine producing regions and, despite what are often difficult growing conditions, we're keen to continue to support our local growers and winemakers. After all, it's at the extremes of viticultural possibility where the world's finest wines are made.
History of winemaking in the UK
Viticulture in the UK dates back to Roman times, with a history of wine drinking likely to go back even further. The Domesday Book records 42 vineyards across England and Wales, as well as mentioning 'Nitimbreha' from which Sussex producer, Nyetimber, takes its name. But, despite a history of viticulture going back thousands of years, the UK wine industry is still in its infancy but is growing at a rapid pace. Today there are over 500 vineyards across Great Britain, with more and more vines being planted every year. 2019 saw an incredible three million vines planted bringing Britain's total area under vine to just over 3,500 hectares. Annual production is a rollercoaster due to our marginal climate and can be anything between 5.9 million bottles in the frost-ravaged 2017 vintage, and 15.6 million in the bountiful 2018 vintage. A stark reminder that grapes, although destined for something far greater, are still a crop and at the whim of Mother Nature.
What styles of wine are made?
So far, the reputation of English wine has been based on traditional method sparkling (when the all-important second fermentation takes place in the bottle), in particular those based on the classic Champagne grape varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. According to Wine Standards' official figures in 2018, these three varieties represent 60% of all vines planted in the UK, with 27% dedicated to chardonnay and 26% to pinot noir. Bacchus, an aromatic white grape, makes up 8.5% with a spattering of seyval blanc, the other planting of any real significance.
Although the market has been dominated by sparkling wines, still wines have gained incredible momentum after three fantastic vintages in a row (2018, 2019 and 2020). There are numerous wonderful examples from the aforementioned bacchus available across England and Wales (in particular Camel Valley in Cornwall), as well as top-quality pinot blanc and pinot gris, with some truly world-beating still chardonnay and pinot noir leading the charge in recent years.
Making the most of our climate and soils
The surge in recent high-quality vintages is partly due to greater viticultural knowledge and winemaking know-how, but also thanks to rising average temperatures allowing for greater consistency in ripening. However, although Climate Change is very real for UK viticulture, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Rising average temperature brings forward key growing periods where the potential yield for that year is defined, such as bud-burst and flowering. It's at these times when the vine is at its most vulnerable. Late spring frosts such as in 2020 can completely decimate yields. But in a cruel twist of fate, having fewer grapes to ripen in such a marginal climate can mean that what remains is of outstanding quality.
It's regularly mentioned that part of England's success is down to the chalk soils; the same that are found in the Côte des Blancs where the finest chardonnay in Champagne is found. And yes, it's true that some of Kent and the majority of Hampshire is positioned on this wonderful, free-draining chalk which gives extremely pure, structured sparkling wines. But England is also home to a number of unique soils and terroirs. In Sussex you find greensand over clay, providing wines with wonderful breadth and power as well as freshness, and the Jurassic Coast is a geological treasure-trove the potential of which is still being realised.
The hugely successful 2020 vintage
Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, 2020 was a hugely successful vintage qualitatively for English vineyards. Quantitatively, however, yields were way down on both 2019 and the enormous 2018, thanks mainly to a devastating frost on 13th and 14th May, exacerbated by the wonderful weather in the weeks that preceded it. Producers across the south coast, Sussex in particular, reported losses of anywhere between 50% and 90%, with Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom one of the worst hit – his first major frost since the '70s. The rest of the growing season went without any major issues, with a long, warm summer that led to rising pHs towards harvest – ideal for still wines. Getting the timing of harvest just right, however, was crucial as there was a deluge of rain at the start of October. So, although quantity is down, quality looks very high, especially for still whites and reds.
*Rising pHs mean that the resulting grapes will have lower acidity and are more suitable to the production of still wine as opposed to traditional method sparkling wines which require low pH (i.e. more acid).
Where to start getting to know English wine?
For those new to English wine the best place to start is with our own-label offerings. The Society's English White is produced by Three Choirs in Newent, Gloucestershire, and the Exhibition sparkling is produced by Ridgeview in Sussex, whom we've been working with for over thirty and twenty years respectively.
We blend The Society's English White with Head Winemaker Martin Fowke every year to make sure it not only reflects the style of the vintage, but also members' taste. We also play an active role on the assemblage, ageing times and dosage levels of our Exhibition English Sparkling wine, ensuring we are offering a classic example of English traditional method sparkling at an attainable price.
Other sparkling wine producers to look out for are Nyetimber, whose Classic Cuvée is a regular feature on our Lists, and regularly offer up interesting older parcels for our members, Black Chalk whose chalk-based vineyards in Hampshire and gentle handling in the winery allow the crisp chardonnay fruit that's so classic of this region to shine through, and Camel Valley in Cornwall whose Brut Rosé is always a winner.