English winemakers beat the French at their own game

It's no dream of the deluded. Our sparkling wines, whites and even reds really are taking on the world
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Even by the ever-improving standards of English wine, 2010 looks like being a very good year.

The copious southern sunshine and a climate that continues to warm mean a potentially bumper harvest and a growth in the number of reds and unblended wines being produced here. And there's also the extraordinary success of a little-known agricultural college in Sussex, which is rapidly becoming one of the world's most respected places for winemakers to train.

Two English wines recently picked up golds in the International Wine Challenge, and there are now more hectares of red wine vines in England than ever before. International recognition has been accompanied by a surge in national demand – supermarkets are finding English wine much easier to sell, and Waitrose opened its own British vineyard in 2009.

English sparkling wine, in particular, has an excellent reputation worldwide. Alun Griffiths, a master of wine and consultant for fine wine sellers Berry Bros & Rudd, described English sparkling as "at least as good as champagnes," and English land has even attracted the interest of French growers. Champenoise Didier Pierson has a vineyard in Hampshire, and Louis Roederer, the maker of Cristal champagne, has reportedly considered following suit.

Most English wine was previously blended to keep quality constant but this now happens less frequently, something Mr Griffiths sees as significant. "The fact we're getting more single varietal wines from classic grapes like chardonnay does indicate an increase in quality," he said. "We're also using less hybrid grapes, and more traditional varieties are flourishing."

English winemakers attribute their success to two things: increasing expertise and a changing climate. Denbies vineyard, the biggest in the UK, was the first to plant pinot noir, a grape which traditionally struggles in cold weather. "Everyone thought we were a bit crazy," Christopher White, the general manager, recalls, but the variety has been a huge success, selling in supermarkets across the UK. Mr White attributes the crop's success to warmer conditions. "Frosts have become much less frequent – when I started, we used to regularly get a frost once every two years, but this year's is the only serious one we've had for six or seven years," he said.

Warm summers and mild winters have even seen some growers turn to red wine production, traditionally the preserve of southern France. A'Beckett's vineyard in Wiltshire produces red, and the winegrower Paul Langham believes climate conditions are perfect for it. "This year we've had what the French call varaison, the final ripening of the grapes, two weeks early – we normally expect final ripening at the end of August, but this has been fantastic," he explained. "We've only had 50ml of rain since the beginning of June – these conditions are not unusual, but they are absolutely ideal. Not everywhere can produce red wine, but I believe we are at least the equal of our New Zealand cousins."

Mr Griffiths is more sceptical. In his view, "quite a lot of winemakers enjoy a challenge, and if no one's cracked red then they want to be the first. If this warm climate proves to be a blip, I think we'll see more red producers returning to white and sparkling wines."

Warmer seasons have been complemented by a jump in winemaking ability. Plumpton Agricultural College in Sussex has emerged as a global centre for the training of winemakers, challenging older and more prestigious institutions in the process.

As well as training many English winemakers, the college, which built a new winery in 2007, produces graduates who go much further afield. Recent alumni include Simon Coulshaw, now the owner of French vineyard Domaine des Trinités; Jim Close, head winemaker at the Gamble family vineyards in California, which produce 4,000 cases a year; Andrew Wood, co-owner of Waywood wines in Australia; and Stephen Farquharson, the owner of New Zealand wine label Wooing Tree.

Martin Krajewski, who owns the Chateau de Sours vineyard in Bordeaux, has recently started to sponsor the Plumpton course. The winemaker believes Plumpton is doing "an amazing job. For a small, some might say provincial, agricultural college, they punch so far above their weight it's unbelievable," said Mr Krajewski, whose daughter studied at the college. "I've seen some of the research they've been producing over the years, and no one else can touch them."