A taste of England 1: In the fields of Kent the grapes mature to produce one of the finest vintages for years

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A September sun, faint breeze, good food eaten outdoors overlooking a hillside of vineyards. Not Bordeaux but Kent - no Gallic je ne sais quoi here. Without question this has been a superb year for English wine and only the French are complaining.

At the beginning of next month the chaos, excitement and buzz of the English wine harvest will descend on the country's eight or so commercial vineyards. A hot summer last year and a frost-free spring followed by a summer of good sun this year have left the vines with a bumper crop of quality grapes.

Despite the old prejudice that wine from England is as appropriate as an outdoor swimming pool in Stornoway, the arguable climatic shift in recent years towards milder springs and hotter summers has led to a wine industry no longer considered a joke among international producers. Consistent quality is now achievable.

With the country now contributing more than 2 million bottles of wine to the European Union's production total, the EU has been trying to impose its quality control on English producers. France takes its own classification control very seriously but the English system has generally been ignored by producers who have hoped the bureaucracy would fade away and let them get on with improving the product. However, the harvest this year is likely to increase England's small share of the EU market and French producers are known by the British growers to be furious.

At Lamberhurst Vineyards, set in 60 acres of Kent countryside in the Weald near Tunbridge Wells, wine-maker Simon Day is anticipating the coming harvest with relish. Trained at the Three Choirs Vineyards in Gloucestershire and Brown Brothers in Australia, he is one of the few professionals who believe English wine has already rid itself of its "plonk" image.

Six varieties of grapes are grown at Lamberhurst: Seyval blanc, Schonburger, Reichsteiner, Bacchus, Muller Thurgau and Kerner. And this partly explains why the French are so upset. "Seyval blanc, for example, is a hybrid grape," Mr Day said. "It is high-yielding and disease-resistant. The French have tried to grow it and they say it produces only poor-quality wine, but in the English climate it thrives and produces good wine."

Although EU regulations allow Lamberhurst to use the Seyval blanc grape, the French say the crop will simply add to Europe's wine lake by producing more inferior wine. The fact that Lamberhurst has won international wine awards indicates protectionist tendencies from the French rather than genuine concern about over-production.

Nevertheless, when the French wine industry is worried, the European Commission takes notice. A delegation of inspectors is expected to conduct a new survey of the English wine growers before this year's harvest is in. If the EU imposed a growing ban on certain varieties of weather- resistant grapes, Britain's industry could be killed off. However, it is more likely that the French - as they did with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and now South Africa - will have to learn to live with new competition.

Lamberhurst has been in production since 1972. In the first year it crushed just over 100 tons of grapes. This year's total is up to 600 tons and the harvest is expected to raise production even higher. Last year, Paul Cooper and Derek McMillen - with backgrounds in industry and public relations - became the new owners of Lamberhurst. They have aggressively marketed the Kentish vineyards and now hold large contracts with Sainsbury and Tesco, and are negotiating with Oddbins.

Mr Day said: "At the moment we have just enough to last us but we are running out of wine because the demand is so good." Like a proud father speaking of a gifted child, he recalled the recent visit of a French wine- maker to Kent. "We entertained them at Lamberhurst. I don't think they expected what they drank - it surprised them."

But wine-making is "as much science as art", he added, and "there is always room for improvement". The French are probably hoping for not too much improvement.

Comments