November 6, 2019
Did you ever expect to see the neat green corrugation of vineyards tilting down the South Downs? The North ones? Or in the Chilterns or along the South Coast? Last week, in their yellow autumn suits, they looked quite at home, even beautiful in their leafy English context.
I was in Kent, visiting three wine estates already making wonderful wines. Wonder is the relevant word: ten years ago I was still a sceptic. The best, and most, of what they make is sparkling. At last Champagne really has a run for its money. No other region anywhere has been able to challenge it as England now does.
How has this suddenly happened? Climate change has a lot to do with it. The average temperature of the South of England has climbed one and a half degrees in a generation. Ripening grapes outdoors here used to be a chancy business; now, in a reasonable summer, it is a given.
Just as important is the adoption, by most English wine-growers, of what you might call ‘serious’ grape varieties. In the experimental years of the ‘70s and 80s it was thought prudent to plant crosses bred in Germany specifically for early ripening. Their wines, unfortunately, were unconvincing. It was the analogy of Champagne that made all the difference.
Two hundred miles away over the Channel they make the world’s best bubbly on the same chalk formation as our Downs. Their grapes are often on the margin of ripeness – and high in acid. But it’s their acidity that makes them so drinkable in their sparkling form. Once that penny dropped, and English farmers had the confidence to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and their flavours emerged in the wine they produced, the word spread. (Pinot Meunier, incidentally, has a synonym; Wrotham Pinot. And Wrotham is in Kent.) The Champagne method is not cheap; it needed investment in plant, training, and time – at least a year more than still wine to be ready to drink, and preferably very much longer.
But now there is nothing left to prove. Even famous Champagne houses are convinced. Tattinger and Pommery have already bought and planted land in England. The next question is where will our best terroir turn out to be – there is no English substitute for their quintessentially French word. And the apparent answers are full of surprises. There are good English sparkling wines from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Bucks, Essex…. and not all of them, by any means, are grown on our Champagne-like chalk. Some of our best examples are grown on greensand, often on unpromising-looking clay, or on flinty ground where you wouldn’t want to garden. Wine-growing, in fact, is gardening on an industrial scale.
Which is why a vineyard is beautiful.