February 23, 2006

Enthusiasm and New Vines Put Fizz in English Wines

By Chris Johnson

DITCHLING COMMON -- Something extraordinary is happening among the chalky hills and pastures of southern England -- and it's adding a sparkle to one of the country's oldest industries.

Britain's tiny wine industry, long the butt of dinner party jokes, is being revolutionized by a new generation of professionals who are replanting orchards and wheat fields with vines and winning prizes worldwide.

The wine is so good that at least one champagne house has moved across the channel from France to invest in an English vineyard and will soon be producing sparkling wines it hopes will rival the great marquees of Reims and Epernay.

Helped by a warming climate, new varieties of grapes, modern methods and government grants, production is rising rapidly.

"English and Welsh wines are getting better very quickly, and some of them, English sparkling wines particularly, are already exceptionally good -- world class," said Stephen Skelton, author of "The Wines of Britain and Ireland."

Wine has been made in Britain since at least the 8th century and dozens of vineyards are detailed in the "Domesday Book," a land survey and census compiled for William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

For most of the past thousand years, British viticulture has been largely eclipsed by the production of beer and cider, made from the more widely available hops and apples.


England's first commercial vineyard since the Middle Ages was set up by a retired army officer, Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, in the 1950s in the southern county of Hampshire and over the next 30 years he was followed by many enthusiastic, but sometimes ineffective, amateurs.

"Typically," notes the "Oxford Companion to Wine," these 20th-century wine pioneers were "retired gentlefolk with little experience of viticulture or oenology (the study of wine)."

Amateurism gave English wine a poor reputation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair served Welsh whites and English reds at a European Union summit in 2005 to a less than enthusiastic reception among some leaders.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi later sent his Swedish counterpart, Goran Persson, 24 bottles of Italian wine, saying they would help him recover from the experience.

Wine experts say Berlusconi's taunt was unfair.

Since the 1980s, British winemakers, concentrated in the warmer southern English and Welsh counties, have become increasingly professional -- many taking degrees in winemaking -- and have focused on producing grapes well suited to the cool, temperate climate of northwest Europe.

The most spectacular success has been with sparkling wines, as winemakers have used clones of the French Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes usually used to make champagne.

The chalk and clay downland soils of much of southern England are remarkably similar to some of the best soils in the Champagne region, little more than 200 miles to the southeast.

That similarity has not been lost on French wine producers, who are keen to expand but face tight regulations, limited land for vineyards and high operating costs at home.

Champagne-maker Pierson Whitaker of Avize, south of Epernay, has begun planting vines on a 30-acre farm in the Meon Valley in Hampshire and hopes to produce as many as 15,000 bottles of sparkling wine using the traditional, in-the-bottle fermentation method used in Champagne.

"It will never be champagne -- that can only come from France -- but we think we can produce an excellent wine from England," said proprietor Imogen Pierson Whitaker.

Warmer weather in northern Europe -- whether due to human-induced global warming or cyclical trends -- has helped the production of high-quality grapes and better wines.


The area under vine in Britain has increased to about 2,000 acres, from only a few hundred in the 1980s.

"That's still minute compared to almost a million hectares in France -- only about one-third of 1 percent of the total consumption of wine in the UK -- but it's growing at 15-20 percent a year," said Skelton.

There are strong commercial pressures behind the expansion.

Grapes can also be an extremely reliable crop, with longer-lasting plants yielding higher profits than other fruits such as apples and with less waste. Wine production can use some of the stainless steel equipment used for dairy farming, which has seen a sharp fall in profits in recent years.

Another factor is the cost of land. One acre of land suitable for good vines in southern England is likely to cost about $5,000, compared with up to $500,000 in Champagne.

Mardi Roberts, marketing and sales manager at RidgeView Wine Estate at Ditchling Common in Sussex, says winemakers have now found combinations of vine rootstock and special clones of grapes that are particularly well-suited to the English climate.

"The climate helps but the key is finding the right grapes," said Roberts. "We now have varieties that suit really England."

In just five years of production, RidgeView, which only makes sparkling wines, has won dozens of medals and awards for its vintages and last year won the top trophy for best sparkling wine, beating competitors from 55 other countries.

RidgeView has a 10-year plan to increase annual production to at least 300,000 bottles and recently received a British government grant to help fund processing and marketing.

One of its competitors, the English Wines Group, has turned to the financial market, listing on London's Ofex over-the-counter board for small and medium-sized companies, to raise funds.

"There are many more opportunities now to get into wine as the industry is beginning to get on to an international footing," Julia Trustram-Eve, of English Wine Producers.

International wine critic and broadcaster Oz Clarke agreed:

"I've been saying for years that English fizz is as good as champagne: the soil's the same, the grapes are -- usually -- the same, and the climate is increasingly similar. But it's the passion of the producers that gives it world-class potential."