Vine and Dandy: English wine
English wines are no longer the laughing stock they once were. Time Out visits Denbies, England‘s biggest vineyard, situated just outside the M25, which has a terroir like the Champagne region – and produces wines to match.
A stint as a wine waiter at Paris’s Plaza Athénée hotel in the ’50s taught my father a good deal, much of it unrepeatable in a family magazine. But the main thing was this: the only wines worth bothering with were French. And the only French wines worth bothering with were pungent, spicy Rhône wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage.
Our house was a Jacob’s Creek-free zone, and the suggestion, made by more than one dinner guest, that New World wines had come an awful long way in the last 20 years provoked a weary headshake intended to convey genuine sorrow that a person could live in a civilised society and hold such a view.
When I told my father that I was going to visit an English vineyard to research a piece on English wine, he sighed and said simply: ‘Oh dear.’
In truth, though, his Francophilia is an anachronism, symptomatic of a broader nostalgia for cultural certainties. Because French wine is in trouble, its popularity on the wane as producers squabble over subsidies and the integrity of the old ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ (AOC) system, which is generally held to have been better at promoting diversity than guaranteeing quality.
One vine day we'll make great reds too
What’s been hard for the French wine industry to accept is that fewer and fewer people care where wine comes from any more as long as they like it; also, that too much entry-level French wine is unacceptably ropey, its tannin-y bitterness an affront to the modern British palate, which favours smooth wines with a high fruit content and low acidity. Slowly but surely, the balance of power is shifting – and the beneficiaries aren’t just Chile and Argentina.
Until recently, the general perception of English wine was that it was for freaks only – a product so biliously inferior that the only reason to drink it was to make some deviant supremacist point. Apart from mead, that medieval staple made not from grapes but from fermented honey, esteemed merchant Berry Bros & Rudd sells just one English wine on its website. But there are now over 400 vineyards in the UK, most of them concentrated in the south-east, and its popularity has grown in tandem with its quality which, as anyone involved in its production will attest, is no longer a sniggering matter.