Tuesday, 5 May 2020

VE Day. Britain Sparkles.

The 75th anniversary celebrations of VE Day remind those of us old enough to have lost a relative in World War II to raise a glass to them: in memoriam Uncle Bobby, of the Fleet Air Arm, died 7th June 1944 (the day after D-Day).

The Ridgeview vineyards sit at the foot of the Susses South Downs

With the May Bank Holiday switched to a Friday to accommodate VE Day the three day weekend begins a day early this week, rather than ending a day late.

So, unlike a normal May Bank Holiday that falls on a Monday, this year we don't have to worry about it being a school night. That and almost all the schools being closed of course - but I'm not having the C word here.

A Friday Bank Holiday gives you three whole hangover days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Of course if you are of a temperate disposition, this subtle difference will have little effect on you or your drinking habit. Not that I'm suggesting that you have a habit and all that implies.

And if you are of a temperance disposition, what are you even doing here? Keeping your enemies closer than your friends? I suspect so. The Wine Rules aren't for you. Back off, snooper.

Normally I would be recommending lightweight low-alcohol drinking to get you through a long weekend but the commemoration of the end of the war in Europe requires a dash of the unifying patriotism of the allies that defeated the divisive nationalism of the Axis powers.

Which means enjoying the wines made in the UK.

What to choose though? We're not really thought of as a vine-growing nation. England for example is about half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N).

And the United Kingdom has accounted for a major share of the world's wine imports for centuries. We are actually the world's largest wine importer, bringing in some 1.6 billion bottles every year. Pause for effect. We're drinking circa 32 bottles of imported wine per adult per year before touching so much as a drop of the UK's own wine output.

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

What's more, winemaking across the nation used to be very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependent on the income from their wine sales for all their livelihood.

Consequently distribution of UK-made wine used to be really poor. Very few wine merchants or supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in the UK) even stocked wines produced in the UK. Most were sold at the wineries themselves, many of which were also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions, or sold their produce only in their own locale. Nowadays its very much the vogue to have a winery-cum-restaurant and wine tours have become part and parcel of the UK travel trade, taking in Dorset, Shropshire, Devon, Cornwall, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire as well as the better-known and best-placed winemaking counties of Sussex and Kent. Even Wales has 28 active vineyards.

Because with wine accounting for more than one-third of our alcohol consumption it made sense for the industry to expand. And it has.

With some 7,000 acres now under vine (albeit small beer still compared to over seven million acres of cereal crops) today we produce almost 16 million bottles of wine ourselves - still just 1% of UK consumption. 

Yet the majority of those millions of bottles are of one, singular wine style at which England in particular excels. 


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 most of the grapes used 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 as it is officially designated, is now world class and, fortunately for all of us this Friday, is very much the dominant UK wine style, accounting for almost three-quarters of the wine produced in the isles. 
So there's a lot of it about.

Top of my list, and virtually on my doorstep is Ridgeview Winery, high up on the South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia. 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 Butlers, Booths and Bibendum, plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose, where you can find a good half dozen English Sparkling Wines.

Ridgeview offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé.

Other notable English producers include Nyetimber, Rathfinny, Chapel Down and organic producer Albury Estates.

Harrods stocks 13 versions of English Sparkling Wine, all from Sussex and Kent but perhaps the largest range is available from pioneering direct sales wine merchant Laithwaites, a family business founded by Tony Laithwaite in Berkshire, that offers 19 English Sparkling Wine choices by the case and also in mixed cases. Tony also makes his own sparkling wine with grapes grown at the Windsor Great Park vineyard that was replanted in 2011 in the shadow of Windsor Castle. As English as it gets.

From Wales, Ancre Hill Estates' Blanc de Noirs (a sparkling biodynamic white wine made from red grapes) may be the pick of the bunch although Montgomery's 2017 Rosé actually took the title of Best Wine in Wales 2019. Who knew there was such a thing?

Unfortunately, a recent attempt to make wine from grapes grown north of the border in my Uncle Bobby's native Fife produced 200 bottles of a white wine described as 'undrinkable'. Even the pioneer behind the venture known as Chateau Largo, Christopher Trotter, admitted the first vintage tasted 'horrible'. 

But it could be worse. Because fizz made from UK-grown grapes wasn't first fermented in the bottle, Champagne-style, until after the end of the Second World War, in the 1950s. 

So however you choose to celebrate or commemorate this VE Day Bank Holiday, please remember that without Uncle Bobby's sacrifice, and that of literally millions of others, instead of raising a glass of English (or Welsh) Sparkling Wine, we could all be forced to drink Sekt.

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© 2011 John Alexander