Grapevines planted in English and Welsh soil may have to contend with an unpredictable climate, but that hasn’t deterred investment or ingenuity among winemakers. There are 1,956 hectares under vine in the UK, according to the wine standards branch of the UK’s Food Standards Agency, and 502 vineyards are making wine commercially.
The grape rush will take time, however. Simpsons Wine Estate near Canterbury, Kent, is run by a couple who also own Domaine St Rose in the Languedoc region of southern France. They planted the Kent vineyard’s first vines in 2014 and expect its first harvest this autumn. Pookchurch Vineyard, near Cuckfield, West Sussex, is a new enterprise with 100 acres and will be planting 120,000 vines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier (for sparkling wines) as well as Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Frühburgunder. Rathfinny Estate on the South Downs, East Sussex, will release its Sussex Sparkling in 2018.
Farther on the horizon is the French cohort: Taittinger has bought vineyard land in Kent and plans to release its first bottles in 2022 under the moniker Domaine Evremond, named after a soldier-poet who fled trouble at Louis XIV’s court to find a pleasantly dissolute, champagne-soaked life in London. Pommery has also signed up to make English fizz with Hattingley Valley in Hampshire — the results should be available from 2019.
Sussex and Hampshire are popular targets for planting new Châteaux Englands, not least because of the chalky soil that is also found in the Champagne region. Hampshire’s Meonhill Vineyard’s Grande Reserve Cuvée even achieved the coup of being chosen over champagne by Virgin Atlantic for its 787 flights. An application for EU protected designation of origin status for Sussex wines would in theory boost their marketability but hasn’t been universally supported in the industry.
Mark Driver of Rathfinny Estate has raised the intriguing prospect of a mixed-county “terroir” that would instead encompass the “band of chalk that runs through Sussex that forms the South Downs, and . . . extends out into Hampshire”. Driver noted on his blog that “creative names like South Coast, South Saxons, Susampshire or Hamsex have been mentioned”.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of vineyards in more improbable locations, some on minuscule plots of land. In Leeds, five acres form Leventhorpe Vineyard, which “reintroduced commercial wine-growing to Yorkshire” in 1985. In Bedfordshire, at Warden Abbey Vineyard, another five acres of vines are tended by a community group that makes award-winning wine, continuing a tradition of winemaking that can be traced to the Cistercian monks at the old abbey. And a mere three acres are enough for Bothy Vineyard in Oxfordshire, while Kingfishers’ Pool Vineyard in Leicestershire has a tiny two acres behind a private house.
Whatever the aptitude, the weather is British winegrowers’ greatest challenge. English and Welsh wine production dipped following cooler growing conditions in 2015, falling from 6.3m bottles in 2014 to 5.06m bottles. This should not be a concern for the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, however, to be held in Brighton from May 26 to 28.
Natalie Whittle is associate editor of FT Weekend Magazine