English wine's bright future

This year, English winegrowers suffered one of their worst spring frosts. Despite the cold spell, the prospects for their wines long-term are pretty good
June 22, 2017

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In May this year, English winegrowers suffered one of their worst spring frosts, wiping out up to half of the crop in some vineyards. A blow that comes just as the English wine industry is in the ascendant and many producers are collecting international medals.

It wasn’t just English vines that were affected though. Vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy were also hit by the sudden cold spell. The freeze came after a warm spring that brought early bud break to the vines, advancing the growing season by a week or more, leaving the vines particularly exposed. Little could be done to offset the damage.

Despite the cold spell, the prospects for English wine are pretty good. Decades of viticulture have gone into tending the vines and to learning what varieties grow best in which sites. Climate change could favour English winemaking in the future, with conditions in the south much closer to the current conditions for making Champagne. This may explain why Taittinger recently bought a vineyard in Kent. It should be remembered that some of the award-winning makers of English sparkling wines use clones of Champagne grapes and work with French oenologists, though increasingly they will call upon skills developed closer to home.

Plumpton College is the UK’s centre for viticulture and viniculture, turning out highly-trained winemakers who will shape the future of the English wine industry. And given the commercial success of Plumpton Estate wines made by the students under the guidance of Sarah Midgely, there is reason to be confident. The Non-Vintage Dean Brut recently won a best in category medal at the International Champagne and Sparkling Wine awards. It is bone dry, with yeasty aromas, a gently pressured mousse, green apple notes and a clean finish. The sparking wines from the South of England have already gathered a lot of recognition, but the real innovations are likely to come from the still white wines. Following current trends, Plumpton are experimenting with short skin contact for the whites to add complexity and texture. Courtesy of oenologist Tony Milanowski, I was able to taste a recently-bottled white wine from the Ortega grape whose pressed juice had been fermented with 12 days of skin contact. The sweetness was there due to residual sugar not converted into alcohol, and the nose was reminiscent of British summer pudding, but the mouthfeel and the winey grape skin added tremendous character to the wine. Short of producing an orange wine, this is surely the way ahead.

Grapes like Bacchus and Seyval Blanc produce crisp, clean food-friendly wines with tart fruit acids, and of the two, wines made from the Bacchus grape have already achieved more brand recognition. The attractive possibility for the English wine industry is that consumers may eventually develop a prototype for a Bacchus wine in the way they have for a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, and be able to explore different expressions of the grape from geographically separate vineyards or in the hands of different winemakers. A lot of attention was given to Winbirri’s 2015 Bacchus, produced in Norfolk, which won “best in show” medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017. The judges described it as a perfect aperitif wine, but makers of Bacchus must have the ambition to take this wine further.

Reds still have some way to go, and although there is talk of excellent Pinot Noirs it is still a bit like hunting a unicorn. There’s no real reason to think that English wine growers couldn’t produce a good Pinot Noir. After all, they grow it for the blend in sparkling wines. Maybe shifts in climate will favour the growing of riper grapes leading to more concentrated wines, but there is still some way to go.

The lesson is clear: the drive should be towards quality. English wines will never rival the volumes found in France and Italy, and nor should they be seen in some post-Brexit spirit as the answer to the British consumer’s wine needs. There will still be hundreds of thousands of hectolitres of palatable wines to meet everyday needs. English winemakers should aim high.