Climate drives change – beware France, the English are doing wine

“In victory you deserve Champagne. In defeat you need it.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1972, the year before Britain joined the European Common Market, Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit to France. As part of her effort to promote relations with France in the wake of the momentous event, she hosted a state dinner for French President Pompidou at the British Embassy. The dinner was to be served with English wines from a winery in Hambledon, a town not too far from Portsmouth in southern England. When event organizers went to Orly airport to pick up the wine ordered from England, the customs agent would not release the cases on the premise that English wine cannot be imported into France. When pressed for the “real” reason why, he claimed it was “because English wine doesn’t exist.” With a little cajoling (perhaps mixed with a dose of threat) the agent eventually released the shipment, and the English Chardonnay finally made it to the Queen’s banquet table. Humor aside, the point was – and still is – that England is not a country known for its wine. How does an island with a notoriously damp climate and limited sunshine lend itself to grape growing; difficult to imagine, isn’t it? It is not even located in what is accepted as the prime wine growing belt – between parallels of 30-50 degrees latitude. Well, contrary to common assumption, these days the English are making wine, lots of it, and pretty good ones too.

Historically, England, a non-wine producing country, imported most of its wine from France, until the Napoleonic wars necessitated alternative sources; Portugal stepped in to fill the need. In the 1800s, French champagne was especially a well sought-after drink in England. Madame Clicquot, the matriarch of the French champagne industry of the time catered dutifully to the needs of England – her most important market, rivalled only by the Russian aristocracy – making sure the neighbor to the north across the channel was well supplied with Clicquot champagne, and that their happiness assured.

Although England’s first domestic winery was founded in 1951 in Hambledon by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a wine lover and a Francophile who had lived in Paris as a diplomat and developed a taste for fine wine, there were relatively few wineries in the country until quite recently. So, England has had a tradition of importing from abroad, including new world winemakers such as Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, right along with the established old-world producers. Things are changing though, and they are changing rapidly. It might not be too long before English wine lovers forego all imports, in favor of their own home-grown wines. Currently, there are almost 500 vineyards and some 165 wineries in the country, primarily situated in what is called the “inverted L” region – the longer leg extending from Yorkshire in the north to Canterbury in the south and the shorter leg from Canterbury in the East to Cornwall in the west. Despite the rapid growth, England is still a small producer on the world stage, but vineyard plantings are on the rise and so is the number of wineries. English wineries have recorded an exponential growth in the last few years. In the southern counties of East and West Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Surrey, more and more plots of land that were once home to apple, plum and pear orchards are being cleared to plant champagne varieties of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – constituting half of the nearly five thousand planted acres. Not quite an international contender just yet, at the current growth rate, however, it is quite possible that England will be a global player in the next few decades.

The plain truth is that the cool climate of the island has never been very hospitable to winemaking. But that is changing. As a recently published New York Times article entitled “The Future of Wine: Very, Very Dry” elucidates, global warming and the resulting extreme and unpredictable weather is impacting the wine industry around the globe, including England. Many European countries known for their wines for centuries are now beginning to suffer from either too much rain in the spring (causing problems during flowering and fruit set) or extreme heat waves later in the year affecting the quality of the harvest. Changing weather patterns are prompting these countries to experiment with various techniques to protect their grapes or simply to switch out to other varietals that better tolerate the new climatic conditions. While Mediterranean based winemaking countries are adversely affected by global warming, it is enthusiastically welcomed in England. Even though the soil composition of southern England is the same as in northern France – basically a continuation of the same soil under the channel – the cool weather in England has traditionally resulted in grapes of higher acidity and lower alcohol content, suitable only for sparkling wine making. Even production of sparkling wine has required some manipulation by way of adding sugar before fermentation (chaptalization) to reduce the acidity of the wine. As the climate has slowly warmed, however, English grapes no longer experience the same challenge of reaching a preferred alcohol level of 10-12 percent. Warmer temperatures allow the grapes to reach this level naturally, simplifying the production of sparkling wine and encouraging the production of still wines.

While English red wines are generally considered to be less exciting, with some notable exceptions such as the Pinot Noir at the Gusbourne winery, the whites are quite commendable. The grape most commonly used in still wine is Bacchus, a crossing of German Riesling, Silvaner and Muller Thurgau. Bacchus – Roman name for the Greek wine god Dionysus – is so common in England that it can almost be called the “national grape.” The southeastern part of the country, more specifically the county of Kent, is especially well positioned for complimenting their existing portfolio of excellent sparkling wines with still varieties. In addition to possessing the same free draining, chalky, gravel-rich soil composition of the Champagne region of France, Kent’s south facing slopes are protected from the damp winds of the Atlantic Ocean. The recent higher average temperatures are now making a difference, replicating France’s Champagne region of a few decades ago. So, once known as the fruit basket of the country and affectionately referred to as the “Garden of England,” the county of Kent is reinventing itself as the prime wine region of England. The farmlands of yesteryear, dotted with thatched-roofed cottages and traditional kilns to process hops, known as oast houses, are quickly making way for vineyards.

The effect of climate change and its repercussions in England have not gone unnoticed by the gurus of the wine industry. Large French champagne houses such as Moet, Pomeroy and Taittinger are all on a shopping spree on the island, looking for prime land to move their operations across the Channel. Taittinger has already acquired some 200 acres of farmland in Kent, in partnership with local producers, to make sparkling wine for a new brand called Domaine Evremond. Ironically, the name references a seventeenth century Frenchman who escaped France to start anew in England to enjoy a more liberal and epicurean lifestyle. Evremond will be operating right alongside the existing English wineries such as Nyetimber, Coates & Seely, Chapel Down and Gusbourne – already well recognized for their sparkling wines, as well as a plethora of smaller, family owned wineries with ambitious growth plans, such as Chartham.

Interesting times, indeed, after three hundred years of patronage, the French producing their own sparkling wine in England! It will be even more interesting to see what they will name the British bubblies – most definitely NOT champagne.