There are more vines in England today than ever before in history. (Unfortunately the same thing also applies to deer). 1.5 million more vines are being planted this year, adding to the 6,200 acres we. have already. Climate change shares the credit for this, but new-found confidence in English sparkling wine is the real driver. The internet has been busy with reports of vines flowering in early June, when late June to July is the normal period here. Early flowering means early ripening. It takes, on average, 100 days from the forming of a grape to its maturity, so a mid-June birthday for a grape means it is ready to pick in late September, when the chances of good weather are still high. At the normal time (for England) of a mid-October vintage it stands a good chance of being cold and rainy.
The grape vine is a tough and persistent plant. Why is it that in a Mediterranean landscape in summer often the only green thing in sight is a vineyard? Once they are established, after say five years, vine roots will have found supplies of moisture deep in the ground. In old vineyards they have been found as much as fifty feet underground.
I have just been in one of the most perfect vineyards on earth, terraced high above the village of Mad in the Zemplen foothills, the soil red-brown crumbly clay with pale fist-size stones. The vines, with the big roundish leaves characteristic of Furmint, are dark green, matching a fig tree sprawled against a ten-foot wall of stones picked from the vineyard. The crop of pale-green young berries in loose clusters is prodigious after a precocious and perfect flowering. Women in dungarees and headscarves are already thinning the crop by half, snipping off alternate bunches and leaving them on the ground. The vine trunks are prodigious, too: gnarled twisted creatures half a century old, divided at knee-height to form a double cordon pinned to the first of three wires. The soil is being covered with long leafy shoots, too, as the canopy is sheared back and the top shoots persuaded between the two upper wires.
The soil here and its stones are the product of ancient volcanic geysers that bubbled and burst millions of years ago, leaving an amazing variety of minerals; rhyolite, geolite, bentonite, some hard as pumice, others soft enough for the vine-roots to go down and down and find their water-supply. A rainstorm means nothing here, where the supply of percolated water is infinite. Hence the health of these vines, their wealth of fruit, and the quality of the wine, vigorous, fresh, flowery and long-lived, that they produce: Tokaji.
Will England ever produce such world-famous wines? Judging by the quality of the best bubbly we’ve made after a mere thirty years or so in the game, I’m sure of it.