Meet the English winemakers taking on the world’s mass-producers and winning international awards along the way.
The story of English wine is one of perseverance, belief against the odds, and a touch of the eccentricity Brits are globally renowned for.
You have to be a little crazy to take on winemakers with hundreds of years of heritage by planting vines in the UK’s famously humid conditions when fragile grapes are notoriously prone to fungal problems.
But if the French can make world-renowned Champagne in a climate that’s not too dissimilar to ours, there’s no reason we shouldn’t also be able to produce wines that sparkle.
And it is, of course, sparkling wine the British are earning a formidable reputation for. The UK weather creates grapes with good levels of acidity which leads to wines that are typically light, fresh and with a distinct fruit character.
“It was a very hard sell in the early days, but we’re good farmers and if you produce good fruit you’ll make good wine,” says Martin Fowke, Winemaking director at Three Choirs Vineyards, which was established in Hampshire in 1973.
The landscape of English winemakers
During that time the prestige of English winemakers and English wines has soared, once widely disregarded they now scoop top prizes at international awards.
Larger English winemakers such as Nyetimber and Denbies are probably the most well known. But, there are now more than 500 vineyards across England and Wales producing reds, whites and rosés as warmer temperatures (yes, really!) produce grapes with higher sugar levels.
Relatively new to the game, these winemakers tend to be more forward-thinking when it comes to viticulture. Sustainability and looking after the long-term future of the soil, rather than killing it with a chemical concoctions for short-term gains, is a necessary priority.
“You’re amazing if you’re growing organic grapes anywhere in the world,” says Nick Mason from importer Bancroft Wines, and who has specialised in organic for more than 15 years. “You’re incredible if you’re doing it in England.”
Which is perhaps why less than three per cent of vineyards across England and Wales are classed as organic and only one per cent are biodynamic, according to English Wine Producers records.
Organic vineyards encourage biodiversity and don’t allow systemic chemicals to be sprayed on the vines; biodynamic principals take this one step further and work in tune with the moon to encourage a natural harmony between the earth, the vines and the cosmos.
“We have to look for signs of disease all the time because all we’ve got to work with are natural, preventative measures. Our vineyard manager Alex is out among the vines everyday, probably 50% more than she would be on a non-organic vineyard,” says Lucy Letley from Surrey’s Albury Vineyard, which has 12 acres of vines producing around 20,000 bottles each year to organic and biodynamic standards.
“But, we work in this way because it’s quite clear the soil is of much better quality than if chemically sprayed. This produces better quality fruit, and we believe, better quality wine.”
Natural wines in particular offer a completely different drinking experience to the heavily manipulated wines most people are used to and are commonly described as being ‘alive’. No two bottles will be exactly the same and the flavours and aromas are usually more pronounced. Drinking them almost requires you to relearn everything you think you know about wine.
They are rising in popularity as consumers become more aware of the realities of mass-produced wine. Sales of organic wine increased by 8% last year across the UK; natural wine bars are popping up in London; and most good restaurants now have organic, biodynamic and natural offerings. In fact, they dominate the wine list at Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin starred Le Manoir.
Factory produced wine
As such, English winemakers aren’t just taking on the artisanal producers in the ‘mountains’ of Champagne.
They’re offering something completely different to large-scale production, which at its worst produces bottled pesticides and additives with some grape juice thrown in.
The issue, as ever, comes down to the quantities of wines required to fill supermarket shelves and brands manipulating production to create identi-kit bottles so consumers get exactly the same experience each time they unscrew a cap.
The quickest route from vine to bottle is basically to kill everything – including the soil – and manage the whole farming process with pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.
In France, one of the largest users of pesticides in the world, there is a growing backlash. In 2015, the daughter of a vine grower James-Bernard Murat, pursued legal action to establish responsibility for her father’s death from cancer linked to pesticide use over a 40-year period and in 2016 there were protests following the revelation that children’s hair in Bordeaux showed traces of more than 40 potentially dangerous pesticides – some illegal.
By the end of last year a study identified 11 different synthetic chemical compounds in 38 prestigious grand crus from the region. This was presented as good news because it meant the levels had been reduced by about a third – and the majority of consumers have no idea any of this is going on.
Most aren’t even aware that even in the European Union winemakers are allowed to adjust the flavour with a toy chest of around 70 additives introduced to the fermentation process because these aren’t required to be listed on the labels unless they’re one of three official allergens – egg, milk or sulphites.
We need to talk about sulphites
Sulphur dioxide has a particularly bad reputation because of the legislation that requires all labels to state “contains sulphites” for any bottles with more than 10 parts per million.
The paradox is that even in natural wines the fermentation process can produce more than this, organically.
For the majority of wine drinkers, research suggests small doses of sulphites, up to about 100 parts per million, are not an issue. Despite the rumours, it’s also unlikely to be the cause of terrible hangovers.
“It’s a complete red herring and it’s the least of our problems,” says Mason.
In small quantities they stop the wine from aging too quickly and a lot of organic and biodynamic producers will add a tiny amount at the end of the winemaking process to prevent the bottle from spoiling – which most people deem to be acceptable.
Wine purists won’t use them at all because they believe it mutes the flavours.
This is one of the reasons large commercial operations use them in much higher quantities – less distinct character means broader appeal. The levels of sulphites permitted in commercial production is up to 400 parts per million in sweet wines.
Vegan and vegetarian wines
Also unbeknown to many consumers the use of animal products in the winemaking process. Egg whites, isinglass (fish bladder extract) and casein (from milk) are used in the fining process to make wine less cloudy and to stabilise colour and flavours.
Vegan alternatives such as Bentonite, an American clay, are now widely available and used. However, a number of vegan wines simply don’t label themselves as such. A comprehensive list is available at online directory www.barnivore.com, a community resource recommended by The Vegan Society.
Although they don’t contain any animal products, biodynamic wines are potentially problematic for vegans, as one process for fertilising the soil is planting cow horns and cow manure.
“As we live in a non-vegan world, animal products are used in almost all areas of life,” says Dominika Piasecka from the Vegan Society. “We leave it up to the individual vegan to take it as far as they wish.”
English wines to look out for this year
Master of wine Isabelle Legeron and founder of the international RAW wine fairs is campaigning for all additives to be listed on labels.
In the meantime, a good place to start is with winemakers you can speak to – and visit.
Sparkling wines made in the classic Champagne style, such as the Classic Cuvee, are a nice introduction to the possibilities English wines.
For something more ‘English’ tasting look for the Seyval grape on the label, recommends Letley from the Albury Estate. Their Blanc de Blancs is less complex with slightly lighter and greener flavours of elderflower and apple.
It was a good harvest across the UK in 2016, with grapes offering rounded fruit character so you shouldn’t go far wrong with something from this year.
Fowke recommends the 2016 Coleridge Hills from The Three Choirs stable of wines and says there are some very interesting 2017 bottles coming along, especially the rosés and Bacchus.
Lizzie Rivera is a journalist and founder of BICBIM, London’s ethical food and fashion guide, covering the eco-friendly and ethical brands that produce top-quality food, fashion and experiences.