Once the joke of the industry, it now rivals champagne: How English bubbly became the


Vines in a Cold Climate

by Henry Jeffreys (Allen & Unwin £16.99, 294pp)

In 1972, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier was trying to arrange delivery of five cases of English wine to the British embassy in Paris, where the Queen was due to host a black-tie dinner for President Georges Pompidou.

Two days before the event, he got a call. The wine couldn’t be cleared through customs, he was informed, because ‘English wine does not exist’.

For centuries, the idea that Britain could produce drinkable wine has been widely mocked. 

In 1875, Punch magazine suggested that consuming it would be a four-man job: one man to drink it, two to hold him down, and one to pour it down his throat.

Why (apart from our climate) has Britain been so bad at wine, when we’ve been producing it for centuries?

In 1972, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier was trying to arrange delivery of five cases of English wine to the British embassy in Paris, but was told 'English wine does not exist'

In 1972, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier was trying to arrange delivery of five cases of English wine to the British embassy in Paris, but was told ‘English wine does not exist’

The Medieval Warm Period, from the 10th to 13th century, led to vineyards springing up all over the south of England, especially in East Anglia, Kent and Sussex, the areas that today are most associated with winemaking. 

In the 17th century, Samuel Pepys wrote of drinking a wine from grapes grown in Walthamstow, then a village outside London.

By 1967 there were enough growers to form the English Vineyard Association, although what they were producing wasn’t particularly palatable. 

Wine writer Oz Clarke described English wine-tastings in the 1970s as ‘sodden affairs with sodden people giving you sodden wine’.

Starting a vineyard is an expensive business, conforming to the ‘double down’ rule: everything takes twice as long as you think it will and costs twice as much. Even so, there was no shortage of aspiring wine producers.

Wine critic Jancis Robinson called it ‘a retirement occupation for the well-heeled with a paddock to spare’. 

But despite a largely amateur approach, English wine started to show signs of real promise in the 1980s, because winegrowers realised that making sparkling wine was the way to go.

Our cool climate means that, while English grapes are usually too acidic for table wines, they are just right for sparkling wine.

In 1988, an American couple, Sandy and Stuart Moss, started planting grapes at their medieval manor house, Nyetimber, in West Sussex. 

The Mosses stood out because they were not only fiercely determined, but also had the deep pockets to back it up.

The first Nyetimber wine was released in 1996, and a year later it beat champagne in the sparkling wine category of a prestigious wine competition. 

The ultimate accolade came when the Royal Household, which since time immemorial had served champagne to royal guests, started buying Nyetimber. The vineyard’s success put English wine on the global map and ‘put a rocket under the English wine industry’.

Our cool climate means that, while English grapes are usually too acidic for table wines, they are just right for sparkling wine

Our cool climate means that, while English grapes are usually too acidic for table wines, they are just right for sparkling wine

In Nyetimber’s wake, other English winemakers started producing excellent sparkling wine, such as Ridgeview in East Sussex and Chapel Down in Kent. 

Having once shrugged dismissively at the idea of English wines, French champagne houses started investing in English vineyards. 

Taittinger’s vines cover 120 acres of what was prime fruit-growing land in Kent, while Pommery has planted 30 acres in Hampshire.

The economics of it make sense. In Champagne, a hectare of prime vineyard can cost £1 million, compared with £30,000 for an equivalent plot in the South Downs.

Temperatures in south-east England are now similar to Champagne in the 1970s. 

Winemakers in France worry that if temperatures continue to rise, their grapes will get too ripe and lose their all-important acidity, and this makes England’s vineyards an enticing prospect.

For all its success, he points out, the production of English wine is still tiny. Our 4,000 hectares of vineyards produce 15 million bottles in a good year, 92 per cent of which is sold domestically, whereas Champagne alone turns out 300 million bottles a year.

Surprisingly, the English county with the most vineyards is Essex. Chelmsford, with its sticky clay soil, has the highest concentration of vines in the country, and the Dengie peninsula is now all the rage with wine growers. Essex is producing some fine reds and may yet compete with Burgundy.

Henry Jeffreys, who used to work in the wine trade, is an amiable and entertaining guide to ‘the English wine revolution’, revelling in the eccentric characters he meets along the way and in some of the arcane goings-on in the wine industry.

Who knew that, until the 1990s, the vineyards in Champagne were fertilised by rubbish from Paris, which is why you will often see flecks of plastic in the famous Champagne soil, or that badgers are one of the main pests in England’s vineyards, standing on their hind legs to gobble the grapes?

Vines In A Cold Climate makes it clear that English wines are always going to be expensive, because the yields are inevitably lower than in sun-drenched countries like Portugal or Australia. Nonetheless, Jeffreys remains optimistic about the future for the English wine industry.

Its modern incarnation may be barely 50 years old, but ‘with the sheer diversity and quality of wines we now produce, it’s hard not to be excited for the future’. Let’s drink to that.



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