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Frosty's Rambling Let’s drink to English wine

PETER FROST raises a glass to English, Welsh and Scottish vineyards this English Wine Week

I’LL START this week’s Ramblings with a quote from Karl Marx: “Be careful to trust a person who does not drink wine.” Marx was of course himself a vineyard owner and winemaker. Apparently he was also a bit of a socialist philosopher.

Today we are coming to the end of English Wine Week (June 18-June 26) an ever-growing celebration of the rapidly growing English wine industry.

Before I go any further let’s get round the language. English Wine Week strangely celebrates wine from England, Wales, Scotland and even wine from a vineyard or two in the north of Ireland.

Just to put the record straight watch out for what are labelled British wines these are made from grapes imported from warmer climes. They are mostly sherry or port type fortified wines.

A further confusion is what are called fruit wines. These are often homemade, from many other fruits rather than grapes. Many are refreshing and delicious drinks but they are not wines in the sense we are talking about here.

There are nearly 800 vineyards in the UK. Most in England with less than a dozen in Wales and just a handful in Scotland.

English vineyards are found all over the country. They get more numerous the further south you get with most being in East Anglia and southern counties like Surrey, Kent and Sussex.

Two-thirds of English wine is sparkling and today we produce prize-winning sparkling wine as well white, rose and red still wines — about five and a half million bottles per year and almost a quarter of them go for export, many to our near neighbour France where they know a thing or two about wine.     

Nearly half a century ago I first started to drink English wine. One of my favourite restaurants — the Butley Oysterage in Orford, Suffolk, listed a local English wine called Finn Valley. This dry flinty white was perfect to accompany the Oysterage’s smoked eel, mackerel and, of course, oysters.

Sadly the Finn Valley vineyard appears to have been grubbed up and the wine is no longer available.

To be honest 50 years ago many people, including wine writers who should have known better, treated English wine as a bit of a joke.

They got noticeably better and more easily available although they were always a bit pricey compared with imported wines.  

If I ever feel guilty about my slightly bourgeois fascination with English and Welsh wine I always remind myself that Marx came from a family of vineyard owners and liked a glass of two of the grape-flavoured tipple.

English sparkling whites — that the French won’t let us call champagne — are truly remarkable and regularly win awards all over the winemaking world often beating actual French champagnes.

Our still whites, dry and medium, just keep improving. No longer restricted to German grape varieties they are covering a wider range and even one or two sweet, dessert wines and roses.

More recently some of the more adventurous vineyards have been producing some drinkable reds as well.

In my search for English wine I always ask for it at supermarket wine departments and nowadays most have one or two examples of English wine — Lidl even has its own brand of English sparkling white.

The history of wine in the British Isles is a long one. Iron Age inhabitants of England imported considerable quantities of wine, but it seems likely that it was the Romans who introduced the first vineyards to the country by planting the first vines on English soil.

It is said that Julius Caesar personally brought the vine over — a nice story, but probably just a myth.

A few vineyards were also cultivated during the Saxon period, but it was the Norman nobles who arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 who really led to the introduction of successful viticulture.

Domesday Book records more than 40 vineyards, with the area to the west of London being particularly prominent.

Many of those early vineyards belonged to monasteries especially in southern England. Why is it that monks always seem to be involved in making alcoholic drinks?

In the 17th, 18th, 19th century various members of the aristocracy experimented with growing grapes and making wine instructing their already hard-pressed gardeners to plant a few vines.

After WWII two men seem to have been the inspiration for the re-establishment of the English wine industry.

One was Edward Hyams — a well-known socialist historian and pioneer of organic growing. Hyams spent the depression and early 1930s working in factories until his first novel The Wings of the Morning was published in 1939.

He gained a reputation as a writer on many subjects and his opinions were reassuringly left-wing. In his English Cottage Gardens he described how between 1760 and 1867 the English ruling class “… stole seven million acres of common land, the property and livelihood of the common people of England.” He called this a “gigantic crime, by far the grandest larceny in England’s history.”

After the war he became totally self-sufficient on a small holding in Kent. It was here that, in 1946, he planted a vineyard and wrote one of the first, and still the finest, books on the subject of English wine.

The other pioneer was research chemist Ray Barrington Brock. He experimented to find which varieties of grape — some imported from the Soviet Union — would grow and ripen in Britain.

The work of these two pioneers inspired others — Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon, north of Portsmouth — initially 4,000 vines were planted on a one-and-a-half-acre site in 1952. In 1955 the first English wine to be made commercially since WWI went on sale.

The rest, as they say, is history. An ever-increasing number of pioneers followed these leads and since the 1960s there has been a rapid increase in the number of those growing English wine.

There are large commercial vineyards like Three Choirs near Newent in Gloucestershire and Denbies at Dorking in Surrey but for me the real delights of English wine are still the many small vineyards.

Some of these have been retirement projects or a paying hobby. Quite often the vineyards have been planted by individual enthusiasts or couples wanting to escape the urban rat race.

To make their new life more interesting and to make a few extra bob many of these new vineyard owners invited the public in to tour the vines and taste the wines.

So how good is English wine? At its best I think it is very good indeed. Blind tastings against all-comers from around the world have shown that our wines, especially the sparkling variety, can be as good as the best from anywhere in the world.

Sadly, they are never cheap and sometimes can be eye-wateringly expensive. Can I suggest you find a vineyard near your home, many have tours or open days. Take yourself off for a tour and a taste or two. You might bring  even a bottle or two home with you.  

I’ll finish this Ramblings as I started with a good socialist quote. This one is from William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood. Big Bill was a founding member and leader of the Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies.

As I fill my glass with the best 10 quid English Red I have found I’ll remember Big Bill’s words: “Nothing is too good for the working class.” Cheers.

I can’t finish these Ramblings this week without mentioning Eddie Adams who died yesterday. I had known Eddie for over 60 years, my wife Ann for even longer. It will take a full obituary to cover Eddie’s political life from the Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958, via working for the Young Communist League as London Organiser to more recent work around issues like Grenfell Tower.

He was also one of the London Recruits who worked undercover against apartheid. We shall miss him.

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