The sun shines on English wine

one effect of the weather has been to alter views of the native drink
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The Independent Online
The recent scorching sunshine has been blamed for ills ranging from marital strife to road rage, but for English wines it could herald a renaissance.

The industry in Britain has been described as "small but imperfectly formed" by some snobs. But in vineyards from Kent to Gloucester, Surrey to Norfolk, there is quiet optimism that this year's vintage will be a significant step in changing public perceptions about the native drink. Production of English wine has risen steadily over the past decade: in 1986, 319 vineyards in England and Wales produced 8,000hl of wine; by 1995, 419 vineyards were producing 12,795hl.

In the Bordeaux region, the heat and clear skies have led to the earliest harvest this century, and promises of some of the greatest wines of our time. La Tour Martillac and Smith- Haut-Lafite are already picking their grapes and others such as Lafite-Rothschild, Petrus and Margaux are set to follow soon.

Over here, things are also looking good at vineyards such as Lamberhurst, Three Choirs, and Elmham Park. The early spring frost in England which led to the loss of large numbers of grapes, in many vineyards almost half the crop, in fact paved the way for a finer quality of wines, with the surviving grapes benefiting from the sun and other natural resources.

The industry is making determined efforts to be taken seriously as producers. A generation of young winemakers has studied oenology here and abroad and is now experimenting with new techniques and grapes.

English wine is exported to markets as wide-ranging and eclectic as South Korea, Thailand and Sweden as well as France and Germany. But problems are posed by the strong pound: it is cheaper to buy a bottle in Calais than over here.

Godfrey Steps, of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, said: "There is undoubtedly a rise in the popularity of English wines, and this is despite the fact that although 80 per cent of the UK wine market is made up of bottles of pounds 4 or less, most English wines cost more than that".

At Lamberhurst, Kent, one of the largest vineyards in England, more than 40 per cent of the crop died of the frost.

But that means the remainder has less competition for natural resources, and the dry conditions and the sunshine hold out the promise of sweeter grapes and fine wines.

The vineyard uses nine different grapes, the main ones being Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, and Mullerthurgau. Among the whites, Sovereign and Bacchus are becoming better known, and the '96 Red Reserve was widely praised. The '97 batch of all three are expected to be exceptional. Winemaker Simon Day said: "Roughly speaking, the adage is the lower the yield, the better the wine. We have lost out in quantity, but not in quality. English wine has come a long way recently, and hopefully this year's vintage is going to help."

Robin Don, a Norfolk winemaker, also lost around 40 per cent of his grapes in the spring frost. He points out that although the situation looks good on both sides of the Channel at present, it may change for the worse if the weather breaks, bringing rain or humidity. However, he adds that if conditions remain as they are, we can expect a very good domestic crop.

Mr Don's vineyard, Elmham Park, is one of the northernmost in the world, growing Madeleine Angevin, Schoenburgen, and Huxelsebe grapes. One of the wines he produces, Norfolk Oyster, is now exported to the Far East.

Martin Fowke, director of Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire, believes this year will see a "cracking vintage". His vineyard escaped the spring frost and should be able to produce their expected volume of 250,000 bottles. The most popular ones are the Three Chairs Estate Premium, and the Bacchus l996, which last year won the International Wine Challenge seal of approval. Mr Day said: "There is certainly a lot more demand for English wine and at the moment the main problem is lack of supplies."