English Wine – the New, New World

The excitement surrounding English sparkling wine is palpable. In the last five years alone more than eight million vines have been planted, an astonishing increase of 70% giving us a total of nearly 4,000 hectares of vineyards. The English wine industry may still be very small, just 7.1 million bottles were sold in 2020, but it is growing – fast. Despite all the challenges and disruption caused by the pandemic, recently published figures from WineGB, the trade organisation that represents British winemakers, show that exports have climbed 51% in the last year with British wine now being shipped to 30 markets across the world. And we’re not just drinking it, we’re visiting the vineyards too. WineGB say that domestic wine tourism was up 57% last year as wine lovers hit the English wine route to explore the numerous cellar doors and tasting rooms we now have on our shores.

It’s all come a long way since the days of the mid-seventies when the likes of Bernard Theobald were producing red wine on the banks of the Thames and comparing the climate of Reading to Bordeaux. These days the British wine industry employs nearly 5,000 people with around 800 vineyards and 178 wineries.

Flowers blooming in English vineyard

As I said in The Sunday Times recently English wine is now entering its third chapter. The first chapter was loosely speaking post war to the late 1980s when a small group of hobby farmers, joined by a handful of commercial enterprises, began planting vineyards. Often these were with German grape varieties such as Müller Thurgau, Schönburger and Ehrenfelser, inspired by our then thirst for easy drinking white wine like Liebfraumilch and a belief that England enjoyed a similar cool climate to the slopes of Germany.

The second phase began in the mid 1990s with the emergence of high quality, internationally recognised sparkling wine made with the same grape varieties as Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and by the same method – with a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The third phase is now – where not only has England established itself as a serious producer of high quality sparkling wine but there is also a growing enthusiasm for still wines as well.

England now has more vineyards than there are grape growers in the Napa valley and here at the Club we certainly haven’t missed the great English wine boom of the 21st century. We have our very own trio of vineyards: Windsor Great Park; the high and stony Wyfold vineyard located down a country lane in Oxfordshire, expertly cultivated by Barbara Laithwaite and on the slopes above the town of Marlow, Henry and Kaye Laithwaite’s Harrow & Hope continues its ascent recently winning a slew of medals at the WineGB awards in London. Henry’s Blanc de Noir is a stunning wine with a vibrant concentration of acidity and crisp, white fruit.

Winemaker, Henry Laithwaite

Next month Wyfold’s new 2016 Brut will be released and having tasted it I can confirm it’s a thrilling, complex wine with layers of flavour. Pop the cork and it falls into the glass with a classic golden hue, take a sniff and immediately there is a hint of creamy, toasty notes. But make no mistake this is an English wine to its core and when you sip it, a burst of citrus and summer fruits dance across your tongue before finishing with a burst of thrilling acidity. It’s exciting to witness the genesis of a new wine region, right here in our backyard – and enjoy a few glasses of British bubbly too.

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

Tony Laithwaite checks in at Windsor Great Park vineyard

Did you know, that in 2011 we gained permission from the Ranger of Windsor Great Park, the late Duke of Edinburgh, to plant a three-hectare vineyard within this Royal Park. Our inaugural vintage was 2013, launched to great global acclaim. Since then, this award-winning fizz has been served to Heads of State at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and around the world. It even features in a new documentary about the origins of sparkling wine. The latest release, 2016, has just been awarded 94 Points by Decanter too.

Read more: Tony Laithwaite checks in with Jean-Marc Sauboua at Château La Clarière

Have an inside look at Windsor Great Park Vineyard with this video update from Tony Laithwaite. He talks you through the different tasks of June and the sustainable methods the team employs to keep the vines strong and healthy. 

Enough to inspire you to chill down a bottle of great English fizz!

Dry Delights in Sweet Wine Country

It’s been nearly 30 years since our club President, Hugh Johnson ventured over the then collapsed Iron Wall in a bid to rediscover one of Europe’s forgotten wine regions. Hungary’s Tokaj vineyards, which sit around 150 miles north east of Budapest boast a historical legacy few other regions can equal. The sweet, honeyed, tangy wines produced from these vineyards, which are always cloaked in a veil of their signature flickering acidity, were one of the great wines of the Hapsburg Empire. Proclaimed by King Louis XIV of France as the wine of kings – the king of wines, they conquered Europe with a swagger few wines could match. It is not surprising they were one of the first regions to classify their vineyards. As Hugh Johnson observes in ‘From Noah to Now The Story of Wine’ (republished 2020 by Academie du Vin library) they found favour with both Peter the Great of Russia and Frederick 1 of Prussia, while the Tsars of Russia delighted in their amber colour and explosion of sweetness.

“What did not go to Vienna, Moscow, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin or Prague was snapped up by the grandees of Britain, the Netherlands and France,” writes Hugh. “The world had no wine to compare with it for sweetness.”

But history isn’t always an upward trajectory and if the Russian Revolution stripped its winemakers of their most important export market, Communism conspired to flip these ancient fine wine cellars into mass production. These days European royalty are as likely to serve Champagne (or in the case of our Monarch English sparkling wine, perhaps from Windsor) as they are to drink sweet wine. Even in today’s world where we crave sugar just as much as our 18th century cousins, let’s be honest with ourselves, we only really ever pull out a bottle of something sweet a handful of times a year: Christmas, anniversaries, maybe the odd dinner with friends. But never on a consistent basis.

Like many sweet wine producing regions, from the Douro Valley in Portugal to the mist filled vineyards of Bordeaux’s Sauternes, the 21st century has brought change in the form of dry, table wines. I was lucky enough to visit the vineyards of the Royal Tokaji Company in the company of Hugh several years ago, and as much as I was impressed with the range and style of sweet wines we tasted it was the dry wines which also caught my eye. Made from the region’s signature grape variety, Furmint, as I wrote in my September Wine of the Month for the Club these wines have found favour with the wine cognoscenti and are gaining increased recognition. At its best Dry Furmint is a wonderful food friendly, dry wine with high acidity and an attractive savoury character. One could liken it to a Riesling or a Pinot Gris and the range of aromas include fresh green apple, lemon, ginger and sometimes a herbaceous, fennel character. These are wines to chill down and pair with food, grilled fish perhaps, a meaty stir fry with noodles, roast chicken, pork is a natural fit but it has enough weight and texture to stand up to spice.

In January Hugh and I attended a tasting in London of several different vintages of Royal Tokaji. Sweet and dry. The best dry examples had a touch of spice about them with notes of chamomile, and a refreshing, biting acidity. As I walked home along the Thames the thought occurred to me that perhaps the region is due another renaissance, this time for its dry wines. Time will tell.

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

Rapaura Springs update us on their 2020 Harvest

It’s always enjoyable to receive video updates and messages from our winemakers across the globe with the latest from the vineyards and winery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve received multiple heart-warming messages from our winemakers, many of which have faced challenges in their harvests and production due to local Government restrictions.

Rapaura Springs, based in Marlborough New Zealand, produce great tasting wines for us including a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Matt Thomson, Consultant Winemaker and part of the team at Rapaura Springs, has sent us this video from their Bull Paddock Vineyard highlighting the challenges they’ve faced in the past few months and where they are currently at with production. They’ve just finished their 2020 harvest and are currently in the fermentation process before they begin to blend in the next few weeks.

Watch the video below to see how they’ve been getting on.

An update from Jean-Marc Sauboua at Château La Clarière

Jean-Marc Sauboua, our very own in-house winemaker, sent us this message with an update from the vineyards of our Château La Clarière in Bordeaux. They’ve been very busy in recent weeks redoing the vineyard, pulling some of the old vines and preparing the soil to plant new ones. They are coping well and working hard. Take a look to see how they are getting on.

From the vineyards of Castelli Martinozzi

Many of our winemakers across the globe are still experiencing lockdown much like us here in the UK. We’ve been staying in touch with our global winemakers and receiving updates on how they are coping. The winery behind our delicious Brunello di Montalcino from Castelli Martinozzi in Tuscany, have sent us this warming video message from the heart of the vineyard.

Although a cloudy day, we’re happy to hear the good spirits from the winery and just like Federico, we will look forward to enjoying a glass of Castelli Martinozzi Brunello di Montalcino 2020.

Ciao from Tuscany.