As the English Wine Week begins on Monday May 23 PETER FROST, glass in hand, waxes lyrically about this most unexpected of cultivations and its prospects.
English wine? Unusual certainly, perhaps quirky, some would say unbelievable. “Surely we don’t have the climate? The sunshine? Or the soil? Or even the skills?” they’d ask.
Well English vineyards are proving them wrong. More and better wines are being produced every year and perhaps it is time you tried them.
East Anglia, Kent, Sussex and the south-west are the centres of the industry, but there is a vineyard near Leeds, several in Wales and last year a walled garden in Fife produced its first vintage.
English wine has by law to be both grown and made in England, Welsh wine grown in Wales, while Scottish wine is so new it has still to establish its origin rules.
The history of wine in the British Isles is a long one. It is said that Julius Caesar personally brought the vine over — a nice story, but probably just a myth. But it was certainly brought to Britain by the Romans and they planted the first vines on English soil.
By the time of the Norman conquest vines were grown, and wine made, by monks in England, especially southern England.
Why is it that monks always seem to be involved in making alcoholic drinks?
In the 17th, 18th, 19th century various members of the aristocracy experimented with growing grapes and making wine instructing their already hardpressed gardeners to plant a few vines.
After WWII two men seem to have been the inspiration for the re-establishment of the English wine industry.
One was Edward Hymans (below) — a well known socialist historian and pioneer of organic growing. Hyams spent the depression and early 1930s working in factories until his first novel The Wings of the Morning was published in 1939.
At the time Hyams was a pacifist and a member of the Peace Pledge Union, but he saw the need to defeat the nazis and joined the Royal Air Force. When he was disqualified as a pilot because of his poor eyesight he transferred to the Royal Navy for the rest of the war.
He gained a reputation as a writer on many subjects.
His opinions were reassuringly left-wing. In his English Cottage Gardens he described how between 1760 and 1867 the English ruling class “…stole seven million acres of common land, the property and livelihood of the common people of England.” He called this a “gigantic crime, by far the grandest larceny in England’s history.”
After the war he became totally self-sufficient on a small holding in Kent. It was here that, in 1946, he planted a vineyard and wrote one of the first, and still the finest, books on the subject of English wine.
The other pioneer was research chemist Ray Barrington Brock. He experimented to find which varieties of grape would grow and ripen in Britain.
The work of these two pioneers inspired others — Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon, north of Portsmouth.
He initially planted 4,000 vines on a one-and-a-half-acre site in 1952 and in 1955 the first English wine to be made commercially since WWI went on sale.
The rest, as they say, is history. An ever-increasing number of pioneers followed these leads and since the 1960s there has been a rapid increase in the number of those growing English wine.
Today nearly 500 vineyards and 150 wineries produce five million bottles from 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares).
There are large commercial vineyards like Three Choirs near Newent in Gloucestershire and Denbies at Dorking in Surrey but for me the real delights of English wine are still the many small vineyards.
Some of these have been retirement projects or a paying hobby. Quite often the vineyards have been planted by individual enthusiasts or couples wanting to escape the urban rat race.
To make their new life more interesting and to make a few extra bob many of these new vineyard owners invited the public in to tour the vines and taste the wines.
So how good is English wine? At its best I think it is very good indeed. Blind tastings against all-comers from around the world have shown that our wines, especially the sparkling variety, can be as good as the best from anywhere in the world.
Sadly, they are never cheap and often eye-wateringly expensive.
While researching this article I popped into M&S. They had three English wines, all from Kent, two were white and one rose. The whites were £10 a bottle the rose £12. The best of English sparkling wines cost about as much as a comparable French champagne.
Even with global warming the English climate and latitude probably dictate that English wine will never grow into the massive industries of France, Italy, Germany or Australia.
However, in my opinion they are one of the best kept secrets of these quirky islands of ours. Take yourself off to a vineyard and make up your own mind. Cheers!
- Important. Never confuse English or Welsh wine with stuff our wonderful government allows to be labelled British Wine. These cheap and cheerful brews are made here but from imported juice or more usually concentrate.
This article was first published in the Morning Star 23 May 2015