Tracking the travels of English wine

As English wine increases in quality and popularity, it's finding its way into shops, restaurants and glasses around the world. Nina Caplan follows its growing presence abroad and wonders whether England's newfound place in the international wine world could spell change for the nation's drinking culture

Words by Nina Caplan

Visitors to Balfour Winery
Visitors walk in a vineyard at Balfour, an estate in Kent that has become a tourist destination as well as a winery

The first time I saw an English wine abroad, it became the punchline to a bad joke. I was in Cloudwine, one of the better independent wine shops in Melbourne, Australia, several years ago, browsing the Champagne shelf. I spotted six bottles from southern England – a surprise, not least because the price point was little different from the Roederers and Bollingers (it is no coincidence that Australia, a country that makes excellent sparkling wine, is a famously expensive place to buy Champagne). How were they selling, I asked. The wine merchant shrugged. One bottle had been stolen, ‘so now I have five’.

Things have changed since then, and in interesting ways. I can, if I wish, find Simpsons’ elegant Gravel Castle still Chardonnay in Quebec, Canada and Coates & Seely Brut Reserve in Hong Kong. Sugrue The Trouble With Dreams, a sparkling wine as delightful as its name, is sold in at least three of the United States. And Dan Murphy, Australia’s ubiquitous chain of wine retailers, stocks Hattingley Valley from Hampshire – and these days, the bottles are probably bought rather than pinched. Black Chalk, another Hampshire success story, already available in Japan and Scandinavia (the Scandinavians have a decided taste for English wines), has just landed its first North American listings.

English wine still has a small output and a high price tag but in the luxury market, at least, those are advantages, not drawbacks. And aren’t we all supposed to be drinking less but better, anyway?

Hattingley core wines
Hattingley Valley's wines are now stocked by one of Australia's largest wine retailers

It is the change in the culture that interests me. This island has been emptying bottles with enthusiasm since the invention of glass, and amphorae before that, but most of the wine wasn’t ours: part of the rise of England as a great trading nation came via our desire to buy wine and the need to find the wherewithal to do so.

In his 1906 book The History of the Wine Trade in England, André Simon calls the trade ‘one of the most ancient as well as one of the most important branches of commerce’. Our climate largely precluded winemaking – there were vineyards across the centuries, as Simon makes clear, but the wine was probably mediocre in quality and, worse still, insufficient in quantity. Is this the origin of the Anglo-Saxon thirst? And, I wonder, will a welcome into the ranks of acknowledged wine-producing countries assuage that thirst in any way?

It has always been a paradox that the amazing range of the world’s most civilised beverage that comes to these shores has done little to change a national drinking culture that could charitably be described as Neanderthal. So it is heartening to see so many English vineyards opening pleasant places to consume their product – a late development but one that suggests we are coming to understand that drinking is supposed to be fun, not an exercise in cultural inferiority or a desperate attempt to inhale as many units of alcohol as are available in the shortest possible time.

Chapel Down
The creation of attractive venues and experiences by producers such as Chapel Down helps showcase English wine to international tourists

At Ridgeview Estate, there is now a restaurant and rooftop bar where wine flights are served in a charming contraption hung with tasting flutes like baubles from a Christmas tree, accompanied by olives or platters and a view over their vines. Tillingham has accommodation; Chapel Down, a restaurant that is in the Michelin Guide. After the welcome sake at Roketsu, an exceptional Japanese fine-dining establishment in London, the first in a marvellous array of fine wines and sakes that I was offered during a 10-course kaiseki (seasonal) meal was a sparkling from Black Chalk, the 2020 Classic.

It is the change in the culture that interests me

It is all a long way from the early years of chaos that Henry Jeffreys describes in his chatty and informative new book on our wine industry, Vines in a Cold Climate. He recounts a story told to him by Peter Hall of Breaky Bottom, now one of England’s most respected makers of sparkling wine. As a rookie winemaker in 1976, Hall took his first grapes to one of England’s few commercial wineries. The winemaker, unused to ripe grapes (and, as he later admitted, a rookie himself) first added water to lower the acidity, then sugar to rectify the resulting dilution, then citric acid and unfermented grape juice to solve the problems caused by those interventions. The result, unsurprisingly, tasted awful. Bob Lindo of Camel Valley in Cornwall tells Jeffreys about mixing the sugar and the yeast for his first sparkling wines using an electric drill, with a sheep syringe to add the dosage at the end.

All that has changed: wine drinkers in England are proud of their product and happy or at least willing, to buy the 92% of output that is sold here, even at the steep prices. And now the rest of the world is getting the opportunity. I wonder if they will take it.

The View at Roebuck Estates
Summer tasting events held in dedicated vineyard spaces, like The View at Roebuck Estates, are a far cry from 'the chaos' of the English wine industry in its early days

Some interesting examples already have. The House of Pommery makes an English sparkling wine, Louis Pommery, in conjunction with Hattingley Valley and will release the first wine from their own Hampshire vineyards, Pinglestone Estate, next year. So will Champagne Taittinger, whose Domaine Evremond in Kent was planted in 2015. In Paris, Jeffreys tells us, restaurants of the calibre of the Le Bristol and Alain Ducasse’s Spoon have English wines on their lists. But what about ordinary people? Nobody in my Burgundian village drinks Bordeaux, much less wine from across the Channel. So, when Kent winery Gusbourne organised a partnership with Whitcomb’s, the restaurant at new Leicester Square hotel The Londoner, which coincided with my teenage stepdaughter’s arrival from France with two friends, I was inspired to do my bit to offer the next generation of Europeans their first taste of English wine.

First, however, they got a taste of what English wine has to contend with. We couldn’t sit out on the ‘Mediterranean-style’ terrace because the weather was atrocious. These days, the Square is dotted with statues commemorating a century of cinema; it seemed unintentionally apt that the two I glimpsed as I dashed through the downpour were Gene Kelly, singin’ in the rain, and Mary Poppins holding her umbrella.

gusbourne rose english wine
Gusbourne's still rosé was enjoyed with lobster pasta in Whitcomb's at The Londoner in Leicester Square, though not at the same speed as the stereotypical English teenager

The girls were happy indoors; they liked the smart décor and loved the food, not least because the menu was heavily French influenced, although the large, flat crispy chips were certainly not French fries and their snails don’t come with a topping of nduja sausage at home. The textured Gusbourne still rosé was a hit, especially with lobster pasta (and especially with me: no insipid blush this, it had depth of both colour and flavour), but it went down far slower than anything I drank at 18, including a great deal of Chateau Rotgut.

It’s not so simple as restraint versus incontinence – one of the friends mentioned that her grandfather in the South of France drinks the local rosé every day, even at lunch, and credits it with keeping him healthy – but there is no sense of desperation. It is almost as if they understand, on a subconscious level, that the kindly vines will ensure they never run dry. That may or may not turn out to be true as the world heats up but for the moment, England is benefitting. As our reputation for making wine changes for the better, it would be nice if our notoriety for drinking it did the same.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.