Thursday, 29 September 2011

Rugby World Cup Wine: England vs Scotland


To my mind Scottish rugby has never recovered from the retirement of Gavin Hastings.

At one blow they lost not one player but three, three of rugby’s greatest players: one of the greatest rugby fullbacks the sport has ever seen, one of its greatest goal kickers and one of the most inspirational captains ever to don the red shirt of the British Lions.

No wine compares to him.

But there is a wine associated with Scotland comparable to another former British Lions captain and Scottish rugby hero.

Finlay Calder was a back row forward so renowned for playing offside that it was oft suggested his number seven should be sewn on the front of his shirt.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is his spiritual equivalent. It’s not made in Scotland, but in England, by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon.

Its association with Scotland came from a notorious BBC television programme that used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that Buckfast received a namecheck in over five thousand crime reports over a three-year period, averaging three crimes a day, of which one in ten was of a violent nature – the bottle itself actually featuring as a weapon on some 114 occasions.

This seemed to support research from an institution for young offenders, which reported that among young men who had been drinking immediately before their offence, over 40% had been drinking Buckfast.

According to scientists it’s not the wine itself that seems to be to blame, but the caffeine it contains – some 281 milligrammes per bottle that is equivalent to eight cans of big brand cola or three and a half cans of Red Bull. And at 15% ABV it’s as strong as unfortified wine is allowed to be in the UK although still well under the 20% limits for sherry and port.

The Scots won’t need any such artificial encouragement when they go head to head with the Auld Enemy on October 1st.

Caffeine and alcohol apart, what’s it like, this notorious tonic?

Effectively a mistella, originally using a Spanish red wine as a base, it now uses French wines. It’s dark and sticky, sweet, blackly fruity with warming leather.

It’s like a big hit from Finlay Calder, when you never saw him coming, round the blindside. Feel the air empty from your lungs. Oomph.

England would probably rather face any other team.

It's not really a vine-growing nation, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). England only makes two million bottles itself.

To put that into context, the nation is the world's largest importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles of wine.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and this makes English wines very expensive to make and, like all alcohol, wine is also very heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to local would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor.

Very few wine merchants or supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.

However.

There is one wine style at which England excels. Really excels. Champagne. 

It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. 

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the méthode traditionnelle – traditional method – as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class. 

Surely there isn't a better nor more patriotic way to toast success at a game invented at, and named after, an English public school than with a drink whose possibilities owe so much to the English. 

For it was the English who brought together the scientific understanding of sparkling wine and the durability of glassware that could withstand the pressure inside a sparkling wine bottle and are also credited with the re-discovery of a piece of cork as the perfect bottle stopper.

Top of my list of English Sparkling Wine producers, and virtually on my own doorstep, is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia.

Bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

RidgeView offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé. South Ridge Cuvée Merret 2008 is named after Christopher Merret, the Englishman who in 1662 published one of the first known scientific papers on the production of sparkling wine. 

As I write, The Sunday Times Wine Club, itself something of an English wine institution, has Cuvée Merret 2008 on offer at just £16.99 a bottle, which prices this vintage English Sparkling wine right alongside non-vintage Champagne, when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory lunch or dinner. If England win.

Other notable English Sparkling Wine producers include Nyetimber, whose 2001 Brut Chardonnay is exceptional and creamy, Gusbourne Estate, Hush Heath from Kent, Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down and Carr-Taylor. 

In winemaking, England has mastered the Champagne flair of the French. But on the level playing field of a rugby pitch Scotland doesn’t need Buckfast to buck the trend – for this is the nation that gave the world Scotch whisky. And that’s a much more powerful argument for a celebration north of the border on Saturday.

But I don’t think they’ll secure the margin of victory they need.

England 21 Scotland 23











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© 2011 John Alexander

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