While England has long been an important wine market, the country’s wines were, until relatively recently, seldom taken seriously. Although better known for producing exceptional beers, ciders, and gin, climate change has played a part in aiding English winemakers over the past decade, and the nation’s wine production is now gaining recognition.
English wine is booming, in fact – most notably led by the popularity of English sparkling wine. Champagne winemakers are even drawn to the emerging industry, investing in land and planting. Across the board, over one million new vines have been planted every year since 2017 in terroir, while four million bottles are produced each year, with 30 million bottles predicted to be produced annually by 2050.
Specifically championing English wine, The English Vine was set up with a goal of removing the snobbiness from wine, and the intimidation that often follows – ultimately making wine approachable, fun, and understandable. In addition to selling a wide range of English wines, as well as their own (Number 1), The English Vine also offers immersive virtual tastings, with glasses of wine sent out to homes around the country.
Typically taking place over two hours, via various video conferencing apps – which looks set to continue post-lockdown – The English Vine’s alternative tastings are intentionally laidback, with CEO Neil Walker sharing tips and tricks while talking through a selection of wines delivered on the morning on the tasting, intentionally ensnared in recyclable plastic test tubes.
The English Vine CEO Neil Walker said: “The reason we use [test tubes] is because they are completely recycled and you recycle them afterwards. Glass bottles, depending on which report you read, are about 40 per cent of the carbon footprint of making wine, so it’s a nightmare and we need to change that. But if I took around six cans to my mother-in-law she would say “you’ve completely lost it”.”
“So although they look a bit like pee pots, we do it on purpose. They are completely recyclable and you can do it again.”
Zero waste is a prominent focus at The English Vine, with plans also in place for their Number 1 wine to be made available in kegs and cans this year.
Throughout the interactive tastings, people are also encouraged to ask questions they’re perhaps too embarrassed to ask. Should I order the cheapest wine on the list? Does leaving a teaspoon in unopened sparkling wine prevent loss of fizz? (Answer: it doesn’t. Instead, Neil suggests clogging the bottle with a normal wine cork). There’s also talk of general tasting techniques, and how to test a wine for acidity.
“If you look down and dribble out of your mouth, it’s too acidic for the general population, so you should never buy a wine that you’re dribbling.
“When you’re tasting 75 wines in a day, it’s hard work. My wife doesn’t believe me when I tell her this. You get palate fatigue. The other thing is to smell your skin. When you tell people this, some smell under the arm pits. So when I see them on a Zoom call they’re dribbling and then smelling their armpits, I think “my work is done. I told you how to be a true wine drinker”.”
The tastings also intend to debunk various myths, including that certain wines must be drunk with certain types of food. With Number 1, spicy food was considered, taking in Walker’s appreciation of Thai cuisine. With this wine he hopes to challenge the stereotypes, trying to get people to understand it’s fine to have a white wine with curry, red with fish, etcetera.
“Don’t go for your big reds with a curry,” he says. “I want to break from the mentality of “I’m a lad, I’m going to have ten pints with a curry”. It’s your own personal choice, it really doesn’t matter.”
A recent tasting began with Westwell Pelegrim, NV, a sparkling wine from Kent, where most French vineyards are growing at the moment, and where Nyetimber have recently planted.
“It’s probably the closest to Champagne out of any English wine,” explains Walker, discussing the link between English sparkling wines and Champagne. On the motivation of drinking English sparkling wine and Champagne, Neil believes people drink Champagne due to the name, having been brain washed over the past 20 years. During a recent blind tasting, English sparkling wine was pitted against Champagne, but with a slight twist. After blindly tasting eight wines, participants were asked to take a rest before tasting the following eight. Unbeknown to participants, the next eight wines were exactly the same, with tasters told either “this is Champagne”, or “this is English wine”, before drinking. Westwell Pelegrim came second, while Veuve Cliquot, which came second to last in the previous round, was first. In the first eight, English wine came first, second, and third.
“When they found out it was English sparkling wine or Champagne it just flipped the results completely, and the only thing that changed was people now knew they were drinking Champagne, so marked it incredibly high,” tells Walker. “So it was really fascinating.”
“People now knew they were drinking Champagne, so marked it incredibly high.”
On his own wine, Number 1, Neil Walker says: “When I started, I wanted a vineyard. And then when I started learning I thought “that’s crazy,” especially with climate, so I thought I’ll let someone else do it. I’ll get the grapes, and make wine from it.”
Made using Essex-grown Bacchus grapes from the oldest Bacchus vineyard in the UK, Number 1 is a particularly easy-drinking wine, ideal for various situations.
“We describe this as basically established in the shed in Essex, by me – an asthmatic, dyslexic ginger kid – who’s chasing his dream of starting a wine revolution. So that’s how we describe the wine. Number one for any situation, and easy-drinking, because you want to get people interested without saying you can smell a “ripe lychee”, with everyone asking “what does a ripe lychee smell like?”
“What is quite interesting, is we had a wine geek who called the wine “cat piss”, and cat piss is a very complementary term for white wine. This is what is completely wrong with the wine industry. You can’t have a term like “cat piss” as complementary to most of the general public, as they will smell cat piss and say “it’s not particularly nice”. The wine industry is great at talking to itself and no-one else, so we wanted to try and relate to people a bit more. So we try to, in our tasting notes, say which situation to have it in. So we have different cases, like “parenting”, “pain relief”, “if you like lager”, or “meeting your mother-in-law”.
“The wine industry is great at talking to itself and no-one else, so we wanted to try and relate to people a bit more.”
Moving on to the next white, Davenport Horsmonden, 2018, Walker believes Will Davenport is the best winemaker in the country at the moment. “He’s all about letting the grapes do the talking. When he makes his red, he doesn’t even put any yeast in. He lets it ferment itself. He really believes in letting the wine do the talking in the glass.” Describing this particular wine as “a little bit of magic”, Neil also explains that this wine is organic, which is so often confused with natural wine. While natural wine tends to go off if not drunk fresh, organic wine uses sulphites to maintain the quality.
The tasting’s sole rosé – Albury Rosé – on the other hand, is both organic and biodynamic. Drunk by the queen on the royal barge during her jubilee, the wine is sourced from a vineyard in Surrey, which practices an extensive farming process, which can also lead to entire crops being lost, typically reflected in the pricing of biodynamic and organic wines.
On to the reds, Neil describes the Winbirri Signature, 2016, as ‘the Norfolk rioja’ – a smooth, bold red with stone fruit flavours and an oaked finish.
“I was talking to the guy in Norfolk, and he managed to convince his dad, who was a farmer, to plant a vineyard. I was asking him what’s the wine he was most proud of, and he took me to this one. It’s Dornfelder, a well-known grape, but the way he described it to me, I thought he had just described rioja, and I started laughing as we were in Norfolk, and I tasted it and it is the Norfolk rioja. It is lighter because of the climate in this country.”
From Devon, Sharpham Pinot Noir is perhaps a more typical example of English reds, particularly light and easy drinking. Smashable, even.
“I almost gave up on reds and someone said try this. I don’t know why, but I went to the shop and bought a Wispa bar. I hadn’t had one in years. Man United were playing Burnley. So I was watching footie with a Wispa bar and this wine, and thought “holy crap. I’ve nearly finished this whole bottle!”
“I wish with this one they would oak it for slightly longer,” he adds. “But sometimes in the English wine sector, some of the unknown brands need to make the money, so the owner basically says “no, you need to sell it now”. I think if they oaked this for another nine months it would be stunning. With this one, you get an initial taste which is really nice, and I just want a little bit more after it.”
As our English Vine tasting draws to a close, I can’t help but notice the Winbirri Vineyard (just south-east of Norwich) is the northernmost winery featured, while popular English sparkling wine seems almost exclusive to the home counties. Frost is part of the reason for English wines being so heavily concentrated in the south, with some northern wineries having almost lost their entire crop in previous years.
“You probably know Sussex makes some great English wines, but there’s more to the English wine scene than just Sussex. I’d say Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire are the best for sparkling. I think Bacchus are very good East Anglian, and Essex is so underrated as a wine county. Most quality wines will have an Essex grape. There just isn’t a winery in Essex, so it’s an interesting dynamic. Also, it’s interesting that the French buy Kent but have moved onto Essex a little bit. If you’ve got a spare couple of million, buy land in Essex and you’ll be sorted.
“You probably know Sussex makes some great English wines, but there’s more to the English wine scene than just Sussex.”
A selection of notable wineries are popping up all over the country, however, including in Yorkshire and in Newcastle, home to a new urban winery.
“Wine is going through a journey at the moment,” Neil adds. “Can we go on this craft beer revolution? The problem with wine, compared to craft beer, is if you get it wrong you have to wait 12 months. It’s not like you can make a beer out of hops, it didn’t quite work, let me try it in three months’ time. It’s literally having to wait until the next harvest.”
So what does the immediate future hold for English wine, both at home and on an international basis?
“I now think whites and English sparkling wines are world class at a price that can compete, because there’s this perception that English wine is expensive, but if you start looking (take Number 1, that’s £10) all our whites are between £10-15 and I think they compete globally. I think the challenge is with the reds. I think they need to market it in a way that they’re easy-drinking, light reds, and not be like “they’re complex overpowerful reds. When there’s a good red, some people sell it for far too much, which doesn’t help the industry.”
“I think on the small scale, like my blind tasting showed, is that it needs to get past the people that won’t try it. And people not being influenced by the perception that champagne is what we should be drinking,” he continues.
“So to answer your question in not the simplest way: it’s looking good. That’s what I put my company on to. We’re the English Vine. We only sell English wines. People are surprised, but it’s getting them to taste it.”
Further information on The English Vine can be found here.