There has been grape-growing and wine-making in Britain since before the Romans landed on these shores. As we approach English Wine Week (28 May - 5 June), Clare Finney drinks her way round the vineyards of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire…
“And now, let me introduce you to this little chap here. This is Bacchus,” says Steve proudly. A tall man with a broad smile, Steve’s soft tan and broad shoulders bespeak a man far happier outdoors than in a desk chair. We’re outside now, in fact – basking in the bright, sparkling sunshine of a spring morning in the Chiltern Valley where Steve works on a vineyard and in the attached winery, around which he is currently touring us.
‘Bacchus’, it turns out, is not his rosy assistant, nor the wine genie I’m secretly hoping for, but a small gnarled stick: spider roots one end, the other a point covered with what appears to be creamy wax. “He’s just arrived from Germany. The wax is to protect the roots when the vines are being transported. He’ll be planted out in the next few days and hopefully by next year will be trailing out two arms.” By May 2018 this ‘little chap’ will be in bottles, ready to sip, sample or serve in the Chiltern Valley Winery shop in Hambleden, and in the various local shops they supply. Fortunately for us, however, we don’t have to wait that long.
“This was bottled last Tuesday…” In the tasting room, Steve holds out a slim bottle: Bacchus planted in 2014 when Chiltern Valley first started replacing their 33-year old vines. The cork – real cork – squeaks teasingly, then pops out with that inimitably joyous sound. Steve starts pouring, and almost instantly the air fills with the scent of – I think – elderflower, peach and… well… summer? Steve happily confirms it – but I’m cheating in my pretence of palate. I’m no great vinophile. It’s just that I’ve just met this Bacchus chap before.
He is the ‘fabulous grape variety’; ‘the English answer to Sauvignon Blanc’; the main inspiration behind our most sparkling success story when it comes to local wine. Though our terrain sits on the same chalky flinty escarpment that runs from the Champagne region, under the channel, along the South and North Downs and up through the Chilterns to Oxfordshire, wines grown in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire have nowhere near as much clout as those from Sussex and Kent. The reasons cited are various… land here is more built-up so there is less space for vineyards; there is more tourism down there; and temperatures are more reliable, making viticulture – an industry which quite literally lives or dies by the weather – a less risky prospect. Yet not once is it suggested that the lower profile of our wines and their makers is any reflection on their quality.
Even James of Borough Market’s The Wine Pantry, the only shop in England selling exclusively English wines, insists there’s no reason – given a well drained, south facing slope – why a wine from north of London could be better or worse than that produced in the south. “It’s the same topography,” he points out simply. “We’ve none in stock now, but that’s because we’ve not much space here.” There are around 500 domestic vineyards in the UK – an all time peak, as you’ve probably noticed. The Wine Pantry is as small as its name implies, “and some of that space simply has to be reserved for houses the general public have heard of.” Chapel Down… Ridgeview… Breaky Bottom… Nyetimber… these are the big names of English wine – but they aren’t always necessarily the best, observes James. “The Chafor Wine Estate, for example, has been extremely lauded in recent years – and that’s in Buckinghamshire, and I’m very sorry we don’t have any in.”
As it happens, I’d spoke to Tim Chafor earlier in the day: he’s the big cheese of the local wine-growing region. A former IT man, in 2005 he embarked on his own wine project after tasting the award-winning Bacchus wine from Chapel Down in Kent. “I’d noticed English wine was on the up, I had some land that was suitable for vines, and I’d tried this wine Bacchus from Chapel Down.” That, plus IT-fatigue, convinced him that the establishment of a winery and vineyard on his land was worth the investment. “It’s German varietal, so it can cope with cooler, wetter climes – but the odd thing is, the success of Bacchus is often solely attributed to it being suited to the English climate. From my point of view it’s the fact it’s so well suited to the English palate that makes it successful here.”
Indeed the Bacchus vine is more popular in England than it is anywhere else in the world, though it was created by Germans and is, as James pointed out, the English answer to an irreducibly French Sauvignon Blanc. Chafor’s own Bacchus 2014 wine (which you’ll find in Waitrose) was the highest rated Bacchus in the International Wine Challenge, and came out with a silver medal to boot. It is “elderflower, white blossoms on the nose – an aromatic wine. For me, it is English summer time. The smell of hedgerows in the sun,” Tim says proudly. “Quintessentially English,” declares the clean, elegant label of the bottle, marked with their deer horn logo and the vintage 2014.
It is a food-friendly wine; an aperitif wine; an all rounder which ‘ticks all the boxes’ – so much so that when Chiltern Valley Winery came to replace their vines and introduce some less tried-and-tested varietals, they still decided to grow Bacchus again.
England has seen some changes in the past 10 or 20 years, to put it mildly. “Thanks to climate change, people are planting varietals here that they would not have dreamed of trying 10 years ago. We’ve seen British Chardonnay in the last two years,” says Steve. “Pinot Noir, too, which we’re growing. That makes red wine.” England has historically not had enough sunshine for reds, which needs more sugar in the fruit – “but if we continue at this rate… well someone said to me the other week we’ll have Shiraz in Northumberland by 2030.”
Steve’s not sure if the man was joking (and neither am I, to be honest), but it is true English wine would not be where it is today without rising global temperatures. It has its downsides, of course – mass extinction, rising sea levels, drought, flooding etc – but man-made climate change has done wonders for our wine industry. Frithsden, a small boutique vineyard near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, boasts the Solaris vine, only released for planting in 2005. It ripens early, and by nature boasts a higher natural sugar content – a rare thing in English wines. “It means we can get up to 12.5 per cent alcohol, rather than the usual 10 per cent,” says owner Natalie Tooley, “so there is more of a taste about it.” Frithsden also makes a surprisingly mouth-watering English rosé.
“Here at Chafor estate, the soil type and strata – Jurassic limestone, flinty clay on top – have long mirrored the region of Champagne and the Loire, but the soil is only one of a million factors” says Tim. Growing the Champagne grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Britain has only really been possible as the microclimate has changed.
Buckinghamshire is, of course, further north still than Kent and Sussex, making the microclimate here different again: nevertheless, in blind tastings Chafor’s sparkling wine has often been confused with bona fide champagne, just as Kent and Sussex bubbles have. Besides, Tim points out, even if you have the climate and the soil “what you do overall in terms of harvesting, equipment and process plays a huge role too.” He has two specialist winemakers, Emma Rice and Ulrich Hoffman, both with award-winning wine, both with international reputations. Will Davenport, the first and only winemaker in the UK to win gold medals and commendations every year since 2009 for wine made from organic grapes, is the winemaker at the first commercial scale vineyard in Greater London since the middle ages, Forty Hall in Enfield, whose wines – a Bacchus and an English sparkling wine made in the champagne method – will be on sale for the first time this spring.
“A lot of things have to come together to make a good winery,” says Tim. “Land, capital, time, patience and expertise.” It’s hard, physical and financially risky work, and it’s little wonder many try and fail. However, he observes, “if you have those things in place, and have chosen the right variety of grape for your site, there’s no reason you should not be able to grow wine anywhere in this area.” Chiltern Valley Winery and Forty Hall often accept grapes grown by local people in their gardens: they’re not growing enough even for one bottle, but they’d still like to see their grapes go into a wine.
Back in Chiltern Valley Winery, a few of my fellow tour members are whisperingly contemplating just that, inspired by the story of the man behind this establishment, David Ealand. “In 1980 David decided he fancied growing something on this plot he had, so he got some agricultural specialists in,” Steve recalls. They produced a report: 40 pages in length, “the first 39 of which were pretty incomprehensible to the average layman – but the last page was significant. The land David wished to cultivate was suitable for two crops: rhubarb, or vines.”
It was a no brainer. “David liked rhubarb crumble as much as the Englishman, but the thought of a whole field of it didn’t captivate him. A vineyard and the chance to make wine, however, absolutely did.” The tourers chuckle – and yet, in seriousness, this tale does much to undermine assumptions about wines grown here and in England generally: for if grapes thrive on the same soil that produces that most quintessentially English of all fruits, rhubarb, it speaks volumes about English – and local – wine.