Some of my French friends have long expressed polite surprise that the UK produces any wine. Now the growth of English wine or more properly UK wine as it is also produced in Wales may demand their attention.
Of course they had a point. Although wine was made during the Roman times and continued to be made until the start of the First World War, production ceased between 1914 and the 1950s when vines were planted at Hambledon in 1952. Growth until recently has been very gradual – during the 1990s the UK had around 1000 acres (400 hectares) of vines. Only recently has the area planted started to really expand – over the past seven years the area has doubled to 2000 hectares (4900 acres). It is expected that a further 150-200 hectares will be planted this year. 2014 was a successful UK vintage setting a new production record of 6.3 million bottles up by 42% on 2013, which was also record breaking at 4.45 million bottles.
Putting these stats into comparison with most other wine producing countries this is still decidedly small beer. The appellations of Chablis cover 3218 hectares, while the combined exiles (Bourgueil, Fiefs Vendéens and Montlouis) from InterLoire total 2185 hectares. Slightly further New Zealand, still a relatively small world wine player, now has 35,733 hectares under vine up from 6110 as recently as 1995.
Today was the annual London tasting for the English Wine Producers. Held in Westminster it attracted a big turnout of trade and press. Recently sparkling wines have come to dominate UK wine production with 66% of production. 10-15 years ago the limited production was dominated by still white, which now makes up only 24% of the total with red and rosé bringing up the rear on 10%.
There were 62 sparkling wines on the central tasting tables – an explosion on ten years ago when there would have been only a handful on show. A drop of course in comparison to that litigious méthode traditionnelle area of north east France. However, the UK producers do have the advantage of not having to cough up to pay for expensive lawyers hired to bully one of the region’s most ardent supporters.
Of the 62 sparkling wines all but seven used some or all of the traditional trio of varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. However, one of my favourite fizzes was the stylish Camel Valley 2013 Annie’s Anniversary made from 100% Seyval Blanc.
I tasted around 30 of the 62 sparkling wines before palate fatigue set in. There is no doubt that overal the quality has improved very considerably. Inevitably given the rapid recent expansion there are considerable variations. I found that the most successful tended to be from the longest established producers such as Camel Valley and Ridgeview. You can expect to pay between £25-£30 for a good UK sparkling wine. Some are substantially north of £30 even up to £65 and it wasn’t always clear that the more expensive wines worth the additional cost.
It is exciting to see the UK wine industry finally recovering from the blow that King Henry VIII delivered when he abolished the English monasteries in 1536. It will be important that people don’t get carried away in the bubble and plant vines in unsuitable sites.