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Jefford: The evolution of English wine

Andrew Jefford reflects on the transformation of English wine...

Thirty years ago, I began a series of 12 monthly articles tracking the undulating fortunes of a single English vineyard, Breaky Bottom in the Sussex Downs, over a single year between 1989 and 1990. On the October day I arrived, the owner, Peter Hall, told me that he’d had no fruit at all in 1987 and precious little in 1988; sales were laborious. He made the dry, classic table wines that met his own finely honed aesthetic standards; but English wine more generally, we lamented, was a national joke, and the prevailing – and failing – style was for semi-sweet wines, inspired by doubtful German models.

If you had sketched out today’s UK wine scene to us back then, we would have laughed, shaking our heads at the preposterousness of the prospect.

Three million vines planted over the last year; 1.6 million the year before; one million the year before that. According to WineGB, some 3,500ha of vineyard are now rooted in UK soils, with 690ha added in the last year alone. A 2018 harvest of 15.6m bottles. Annual sales of four million bottles, growing by 6% per year. Some 500 commercial vineyards and 165 wineries. Three English wines in the top 50 Best in Show in the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards. And Breaky Bottom itself now a part of the Corney & Barrow portfolio alongside DRC, Leflaive, de Vogüé – and, most pertinently, Salon.

One of the two principal reasons for this astonishing turnaround has been the switch in English wine production from still to sparkling wines (69% of the annual total). That was entirely unforeseen when I first drove over the chalk-soiled South Downs to Breaky Bottom in October 1989; now Taittinger and Vranken-Pommery Monopole have become English wine-growers. They won’t be the last Champenois to head north.

It took two moneyed Americans, Stuart and Sandy Moss, to give sparkling wine a try in the UK, to do it properly, and open everyone’s eyes to the exciting potential. As Stephen Skelton MW recounts in his recently published The Wines of Great Britain, when the Moss’ first three releases each stormed to competition victory: ‘Most of us realised that things would never be the same again and that the days of German variety-based still wines were over.’ Nyetimber, the sparkling wine brand they created, is (under its present owner Eric Heerema) well on the way to becoming the UK equivalent of a medium- sized Champagne house. It has 258ha planted in a range of sites, and the ambition to go on up beyond 300ha or so, with annual production of two million bottles.

The second reason for the turnaround, and for the fact that viticulture is now one of the most buoyant and fast-expanding segments of UK agriculture in general, is climate change. If we can now grow satisfactory Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine purposes, it’s because (as Skelton stresses) summer days increasingly cross the 29°C or 30°C threshold, because summer nights are warmer, because mean July temperatures across southern Britain now routinely approach 18°C rather than struggling to crest 15°C. That wasn’t true in the 1980s. This is sudden and dramatic. Any climate change that can be measured over half a human lifetime is, by comparison with customary planetary rates of metereological change, much faster than a gallop. It also reminds us that wine is climate litmus.

I’m happy that UK wine production is flourishing. We shouldn’t forget, though, that millions will suffer terribly from the same phenomena; indeed the sheer disorderliness of climate change, so clearly exhibited in the 2017 Champagne vintage, may come to taunt all wine-growers. The carbon footprint of the wine trade, with its fermentative carbon dioxide, its wine miles and its addiction to glass bottles, remains troubling. We can’t overlook these inconvenient truths, no matter how locally welcome some of the effects of climate change might be.

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