A Celebration of English Wine

All too often wine literature can be rather intimidating – laced with technical terms, even borderline pedantic – to the ordinary wine lover, who may simply be after some rudimentary information to compliment his/her wine appreciation.  Not so with Liz Sagues’ writing.  Wine columnist for the London based Ham & High Series of newspapers and a wine writer/lecturer for decades, Sagues, has a refreshingly modest approach to her writing.  Her latest book, A Celebration of English Wine, is no different than her earlier works in terms of style. The book, which was published in 2018, is a close look at the relatively recent upsurge in England’s wine industry. In the last several decades the country has experienced a proliferation of its commercial wineries; the fledgling cottage industry has evolved into an international contender with over 500 vineyards and some 165 commercial wineries. Sagues’ work examines the propelling force behind this exciting new phenomenon.

The book starts out with a brief historical overview of viticulture and winemaking in England. Sagues traces English wine back to Roman times, referencing mostly the work of a Northamptonshire Archaeological team. She continues chronicling wine culture in England during the post-Roman era; through the period of the various monastic communities, to the vineyards planted by Henry II in the mid-twelfth century. Sagues observes that viticulture was mainly the domain of the wealthy upper classes throughout the centuries. The author argues that modern wine making, utilizing the fundamental principles of selecting an appropriate vineyard location and varietals began in the late sixteenth century, and continued to flourish through the following centuries, despite the whims of European politics and the accompanying economic policies. But her heroes who really laid the foundation for the country’s current commercial vineyards are just three men – Ray Brock, Edward Hyams and George Ordish – who put their imprint on English wine in the mid- twentieth century and paved the way for England’s well recognized success in winemaking today.

In the following few chapters, the author takes the reader on an effortless tour of the country’s main grape varieties, soil types of the wine regions, the basics of winemaking and the climate change with its repercussions for English winemaking. Sagues finds the oft-cited argument that global warming is the primary reason behind the exponential growth of the English wine industry a rather facile generalization. While she acknowledges the positive effects of the changing weather patterns for wine grape growers, Sagues draws attention to the unpredictable weather extremes it entails, such as “sudden late frosts, extra-strong winds, rain in damaging deluges” – which can be devastating to vines. She cites the harvests of 2012 and 2017 as examples of such extreme conditions with heavy rainfall during flowering, and spring frost resulting in the destruction of new growth, respectively. Her position that the recent burgeoning in English wine production is not simply a result of global warming provides an easy passage to her main point: It is all about the people who actually make wine. Her primary focus is the winemakers – their unique backgrounds and stories, their desire to learn how to tackle the challenges posed by climate, soil type, animal and vegetal attacks on their ripening fruit in order to improve the quality of their wines. The author’s frequent references to Plumpton College, England’s well respected wine education and research center is a testament to her strong belief that wine education is squarely behind the recent improvements in English wine. The author reverently cites the contributions made to the industry by Chris Foss, the founder of the wine program at Plumpton, Stephen Skelton, a long-time winemaker/lecturer/writer, and a number of Plumpton graduates who have become winemakers of reputable wineries in their own right. Her firm stance on the matter is summed up in her words: “The final liquid reflects most of all the individual personality of the person who makes it.”

The rest of the book is essentially a case study buttressing her argument.  In the final chapters Sagues takes her readers on a virtual tour of several wineries from Canterbury to Cornwall, offering a vicarious pleasure of the English countryside in all its splendor. She relays the unique background and approach of the winemakers interviewed creating their craft as they have dreamt it. In doing so, she is generous in her description of not only these winery settings and production details but also the general surroundings, the wine tours offered and other touristic activities nearby – enticing one to book wine tours and hop on the next flight.

All told, A Celebration of English Wine is an enjoyable and highly informative read both for amateur wine lovers as well as more serious students of wine.

The New California Wine

Jon Bonne’s “The New California Wine” is an insightfully written account of the wine revolution taking place in California in recent years and the young iconoclasts behind the exciting trends.

Bonne grew up under the mentorship of a father, who taught him about Old World wines from a very early age.  Well versed in European wines “from Vouvray to Valpolicella,” as he puts it, Bonne is clearly thrilled with the new winemaking trends; he sees the current practices as the application of lessons learned from the European vintners to the unique California climate and soil. Bonne is a strong believer in terroir; he particularly appreciates the new wine makers’ predilection for local grape varieties rather than the internationally recognized names.  These, he claims, “show nuance, restraint and deep evocation of place,” unlike the heavily doctored, bold wines with high alcohol levels that exude no varietal and or regional expression.

Today, California produces some ninety percent of the country’s wine and is the fourth largest wine producer globally, but the state’s current ascendancy has a long and interesting history. Bonne, in his refreshingly easy style, takes the reader on a historical journey by comparing past winemaking practices with current trends, chronicling along the way the ever-present tension between the Old World and the New, as well as tracing the maturing American wine palate through the decades.  While this book is about the Young Turks of the present, Bonne also acknowledges and salutes some of the old California wine makers, such as Ted Lemon, Rick Longoria and Steve Edmunds for their avant-garde wine making practices who battled the odds, long before the current revolutionary movement started.

Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Bonne’s book is not only a comprehensive treatment of the sweeping changes in California winemaking scene, but it provides a welcome resource for wine lovers with its lists of the many small artisanal producers and the wines behind this exhilarating new wave.  A must have reference book for those who appreciate and enjoy California wine.

Tasting the Past

A journey of an inquisitive mind wishing to trace the origins of a wine, once tasted in the distant past leaving an indelible impression – this is Kevin Begos’ intriguing story in his book “Tasting The Past.”

Begos, an Associated Press Correspondent on assignment to the Middle East sits in his hotel room in Amman, Jordan on his last night in the country before flying home the following day. His options for a drink are limited – after all, it is a devout Muslim country. He explores the contents of the room’s mini-bar and reluctantly opens the bottle of red wine. It is named Cremisan. Begos does not have any expectations from this wine as he takes his first sip. To his surprise, he is immediately impressed. And the dry, Syrah-like, peppery, spicy flavored wine sets him on his quest to find the origins of Cremisan.

Begos’ search for Cremisan lasts for more than ten years. It takes him from the Caucasus Mountains where the first wine was made some eight thousand years ago, to the Holy Land and to Europe. It involves countless interviews with not only the monks of the Cremisan monastery in Jerusalem, where Cremisan was made, but also with a host of winemakers, academics and the world renowned ampleographer, Jose Vouillamoz.

During his travels retracing the ancient wine routes, Begos discovers many exciting local grape varieties, each with a unique quality and flavor. This revalidates his conviction at the outset of his quest that indigenous wine grapes have been swapped for more profitable and trendier international varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. He clearly laments the “globalization” of the wine industry. He believes that not all grapes thrive in all soils and that terroir is one of the determining factors for successful winemaking. Begos equally loathes the concept of wine rating, which, he thinks, conditions consumers’ palate to certain flavor profiles. He is on the other hand, quite excited and hopeful to see innovative winemakers defying the global trends by experimenting with different varieties, their choice of yeast, fermentation techniques and aging their wine.

Tasting The Past is a very enjoyable read. Begos’ work is multidisciplinary bringing history, science, geography and literature together. His research is thorough, impressive and informative. If there is any criticism, it is perhaps that the narrative appears to be a little overwhelming at times, packed as it is with an abundance of information.