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PETER FROST hoped to bring good news about English and Welsh wine. Instead he reports a disaster.

When I started preparing this article some weeks ago, it was going to be about the huge growth in the amount of vines being planted in England and Wales — over a million would be planted in England and Wales in a single year 2017.

Then my — and the winemakers’ — best-laid plans were overtaken by the news and the weather. This week English vineyards reported catastrophic damage after severe April frosts.

They weren’t alone, French winemaking regions, including Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, were also hit by sub-zero temperatures.

The mild early spring weather had brought the vines to the very point of budding and the frosts could not have been at a worst time.

Not in a generation have freezing temperatures wiped out what would have been at least half of this year’s English grape harvest. One vineyard reported that 90 per cent of the flower buds had been destroyed.

Temperatures dropped to minus 6°C which caused catastrophic damage to buds. Vineyards tried using all kinds of traditional and modern techniques to protect the young vine blossom from the frost.

Some used special fans and heaters to protect the vines as the Arctic blast swept across Britain. Others lit hundreds of candles, flares and bonfires, mostly to no avail.

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Because winemaking is a long-term business it is unlikely that the reduced harvest will actually affect the quantity of wine on the market until at least 2018 for still wines and 2020 for sparkling wines. But when the shortages hit they will be very serious indeed.

If I ever feel guilty about my slightly bourgeois fascination about English and Welsh wine I just remind myself that Karl Marx came from a family of vineyard owners and liked a glass of two of the grape-flavoured tipple.

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I have been drinking English wine for at least 40 years and it just keeps getting better.

The sparkling whites — what the French won’t let us call champagne — are truly remarkable and won awards all over the winemaking world.

The still whites, dry and medium, just keep improving. No longer restricted to German grape varieties they are covering a wider range of dry and medium whites and even one or two sweet, dessert wines and rosés.

More recently some of the more adventurous vineyards have been producing some drinkable reds as well — although to be honest English reds have still some way to go to catch up with the quality of our still and sparkling whites.

For my wife Ann’s 70th birthday recently we took ourselves off to a very posh restaurant, Fawsley Hall near Daventry, where I was delighted to discover their top recommendation for a sparkling wine was an English vintage.

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The wonderful wine came from the Nyetimber estate in West Sussex (above). Nyetimber was the first English vineyard to be devoted exclusively to what French champagne growers consider the holy trinity of champagne grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir.

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Since it started making the sparkling wine just a decade ago in 2006 Nyetimber has carved an amazing reputation, winning many international awards up against some of the finest French champagnes.

Cherie Spriggs (below) is the winemaker at Nyetimber. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Spriggs honed her skills at the Wine Research Centre in there and subsequently at Adelaide University, Australia.

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Later she worked in McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley in Australia, Central Otago in New Zealand, Oregon, US, and on Vancouver Island before joining Nyetimber in 2007.

Ann and I confess to being champagne socialists — one Tory mate goes as far as declaring us bollinger Bolsheviks — it is a badge we are proud to wear as we both firmly believe that nothing is too good for the working class.

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Our bottle of Nyetimber certainly demonstrated just how good Spriggs and the vineyard are at making a world-beating sparkling white wine. Let’s hope that it and the other fine vineyards can survive this latest weather setback.

In my search for English wine I always ask for it at supermarket wine departments. Some assistants are very helpful and nowadays most supermarkets have one or two examples of English wine — Lidl even has its own brand of English sparkling white.

However, on a recent visit to Sainsbury’s in Bedford I was once again reminded on what a hard job our native winemakers have getting their products out to the world. A woman with a clipboard was wandering around the wine aisles. When asked if they had any English wine she looked puzzled and told me she didn’t know there was such a thing.

Alcoholic drinks aisle in Sainsbury's supermarket, Sherbourne, England, UK

I looked along the yards of shelves all labelled with countries of origin, but no England label could I see: “If you did have it,” I tried, “where would it be?”

“Oh,” she said, “we would just put it anywhere.”

“Was there somebody who might know a bit more about it?” I ventured. She didn’t look very happy as she poked the keys of her intercom. She turned away so I didn’t hear what she said but she soon turned back and declared: “That was the boss. He says he doesn’t think we have any but if we do it could be anywhere.”

Previous experiences at other Sainsbury’s branches have been much more positive but with hard frosts and ignorance like this I can only wish our winemakers all the luck in the world. Cheers!

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 5 May 2017

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