At forty-three years of age, I don’t feel that I have grown up in a wine producing country. I visited them as a child, trips with my parents to Bordeaux and Tuscany gave me that, and of course as an adult, but the nations were Italy, France, Spain, not the country that I was born in. Today, around the lunch table I asked my children ‘where does wine come from?’, England was the third nation they mentioned. Somewhere, somehow things have changed.
Given the rapid rise in reputation over the last few decades, I have questioned whether we should consider England an old-world country or a new-world one. In the end, and not because of the 46 vineyards recorded in the Domesday Book I feel our positioning in Europe (even post next March) locates us in the old-world, however I would guess that most of the global wine audience would consider wine from England a newer concept than that from Australia, South Africa or north America.
Personally, I don’t attribute the change in quality and attitude to a climatically warming world. Instead, a period of wise decision making has taken the industry away from hobbyist vineyard owners, working poorly chosen sites with ill-fitting varietals to one based on soil mapping, thermal imagery and huge viticultural investment. High quality fruit and financial backing has attracted winemaking talent such that now I have no problem in claiming English Wine to be one of the most exciting developments in the international wine scene.
As the Chair of the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA), I have spent the last two years getting closer to our production than before, perhaps maturing along the way into a judge of intrinsic quality that one that simply compare one wine with others, and found a depth of quality and range of style that in truth I had not realised was there. Not limited to the counties that lip the southern coast, wine is made successfully as far north as Leicester.
International acclaim so far has largely come from our sparkling wines, which benefit from a climate and frequently soil type close to Champagne, and allows England to get closer to France’s most famous sparkling wine region than any one else globally. Producers, like their Champenois friends across the water enjoy the right to celebrate their ownership of land constrained by poor soils and meagre sunlight, in the most delicate and elegant sparkling manner.
Last week, i took up an opportunity to carry out a dosage and disgorgement session at Lyme Bay, a winery that I have come to know as one of the most dependable sources of sparkling wine in the country. Finishing the work done by their coincidently named winemaker ‘Liam’, we blended a wine for the retail chain Borough Wines in London. It was a fascinating process; aromatic vin-clair, incrementally adjusted with varying amounts of sugar, barrel elements and even brandy until we found a recipe that felt right.
Driving home from the winery, having finally made our decisions and bottled it I was reminded of that feeling that I have had so many times before. Despite true faith in everything you taste along the way, at some point in the winemaking process, you have to stop and put a cork in it. From there on in, the decision making is left with the customer. Luckily for now, the world falling in love with English sparkling wine, let’s hope that ‘Maison 54’ from Lyme Bay continues to make people smile.