WEST CHILTINGTON,UNTED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 18: A drone view of workers on a vineyard at the Nyetimber Estate on September,2020 in West Chiltington, England. (Photo by Chris Gorman/Getty Images)
On Drink

The colourful world of English winemakers

Henry Jeffreys on the tyros who made English wine world class

When I was approached in 2021 to write a book about English wine, I honestly wasn’t keen. It’s not that I don’t like it, I’ve long enjoyed sparkling wines from Ridgeview, Balfour, Gusbourne, and others, but I just didn’t think there was much of a story there.

From the outside it looked as if most producers followed a similar pattern — some chap made a packet in the City and sunk a few spare millions into a vineyard in Hampshire, Kent or Sussex with the aim of making a sparkling wine to beat the French.

It was all a bit branded gilet and golf umbrella. I might as well have been writing about accountancy firms, plus there were other books about English wine that did the job admirably.

Two things changed my mind and they both occurred at a lunch put on by a cosmetics brand called Pelegrims that uses leftovers from winemaking in its products. One was tasting the first ever vintage from Nyetimber, the 1992 blanc de blancs.

This was the wine that put England on the wine map, winning awards and beating Champagne in blind tastings. Thirty years later it tasted remarkable, a vivid reminder of the audacity of the founders Sandy and Stuart Moss at a time when most producers in this country were aiming for no better than English Liebfraumilch.

Second, there was the person I was sitting next to. Adrian Pike from Westwell vineyards is a big softly- spoken man who’d been in the music industry before retraining as a winemaker.

I’d visit a vineyard, and the owner would say what a supportive industry English wine is, before taking a swipe at a rival

He was bracingly candid about other people in the industry: the producer who treated his workers so abysmally that he couldn’t keep them and the ambitious billionaire who was simply a “fucking twat”, according to Pike. Hang on, I thought, this isn’t boring at all.

So I agreed to write the book. The idea was to look at the men and women who turned English wine from a joke to world class in 30 years. One of the first wineries I visited was Defined Wines, a contract producer near Canterbury. The founder Henry Sugden, a no-nonsense, ex-army man was similarly to the point.

He wasn’t impressed with the overall standard of wines in England — “There’s quite a lot of home brew around” — and he described the industry as “a bit Mickey Mouse compared with the rest of the world.” My pen could barely keep up as I struggled to hide my glee.

It was the start of a pattern. I’d visit a vineyard, and the owner would say what a supportive industry English wine is, before taking a swipe at a rival. Everybody I spoke to was very open, nothing was off the record, a reminder that despite its rather corporate image, English wine is still very much a family affair.

There were no PRs sitting in — you just try getting someone at Moët & Chandon or Laurent-Perrier to say something interesting. English wine people just spoke their minds.

Over pretty much everything from Brexit, organic viticulture, marketing and even the proper way to make sparkling wine, the industry is riven with conflict, and that is before we get on to some rather colourful financial shenanigans. With all the new money and big personalities, it’s a bit like Dallas. Well, perhaps more Howard’s Way. The story behind Chapel Down alone would make a great mini-series.

But it wasn’t just about men and women with big egos bitching about each other, fun as that is. English wines themselves are far more interesting and diverse than I had realised.

Pike’s Westwell, based near Ashford in Kent, produces a range stretching from the classic Champagne-style sparklers that are England’s calling card to deliciously fresh pale reds and even a white aged under a layer of yeast known as flor just as they do in Jerez. English sherry! I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

The roots of the modern wine industry only go back to the late 1960s, but most of the producers are even younger than that. If you told me ten years ago there would be tiny wineries making still chardonnays and pinot noirs I wanted to spend my own money on, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But lately there’s been an explosion of upstarts who are looking outside the Champagne model that has dominated since the 1990s. There are people doing exciting things on shoestring budgets, many of whom don’t even own their own vineyards.

Two in particular stand out: an American expat called Sergio Verillo who runs Blackbook, which produces wines inspired by Burgundy under a railway arch in Battersea with grapes bought-in from Essex, Kent and Sussex.

But he’s a veritable tycoon compared with Chris Wilson, the former tabloid journalist behind Gutter & Stars who makes 5,000 bottles a year in a basement beneath an old windmill in Cambridge. It’s such a tiny operation that he gets his children to help tread the grapes and delivers his wines by bicycle. And there’s not a branded gilet in sight.

Henry Jeffreys’s Vines in a Cold Climate: The People Behind the English Wine Revolution is published on 3 August by Allen & Unwin#

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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