It is nearly over. Victor Keegan is a former Guardian journalist who, twelve months ago, set himself a target. A year later, did he make it?
My 2013 new year’s resolution to buy only UK wines took me on a fascinating journey sampling wines from Cornwall to Yorkshire and also visiting dozens of vineyards. Virtually all the wines I bought for home consumption were English or Welsh – Scotland, your turn will come if global warming persists – though it was not possible in most restaurants and bars where there is still stiff resistance to buying British.
Two abiding memories: first, what a joy it is to visit a vineyard in this country. They are all, almost by definition, in undulating countryside often with a cafe for snacks where you can drink a local wine with rows of vines stretching as far as the eye can see. It is a boutique experience you don’t often get even in France. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single visit I didn’t enjoy. even at the few were the wines were, er, still on a learning curve. The potential for vineyard tourism is huge.
The second is the impressive improvement in the sheer professionalism of wine-making since the pioneering days of 40 years ago. Our sparkling wines speak for themselves regularly winning top prizes in blind tastings against champagnes and other quality wines. But still whites have made steady improvements and towards the end of the year I was growing fonder and fonder of our oft-derided reds, especially after making the important psychological jump of treating them as wines from their own environment and not expecting clones of established imports.
Indeed, after a few months I actually started to prefer drinking English and Welsh to the overseas wines I have been reared on. This may have been the viticultural equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome – where prisoners identify with their captors – but now I have got into the habit it may be hard to break.
The biggest disappointment was encountering again and again a reluctance by bars, restaurants and shops to even contemplate stocking domestic wines even when there is a prize-winning vineyard nearby and maps on the wall boasting of how they source their food locally. I wish I had taken snapshots of the bemused faces behind the bar every time I asked what English wines they had. They either seemed not to know what I was talking about or wondered if I might be taking the Mick. Attitudes are starting to change but it will take a long time.
Price is right, not
Price is definitely a barrier, even though it is sometimes a false perception. Time and again pubs and restaurants said they couldn’t buy English wines and expect to make a profit (which translates into they wouldn’t always make the – ludicrous – 300% to 400% markup they expect).
The current situation of undersupply, not helped by last year’s disastrous harvest, has encouraged smaller vineyards to sell their limited output at premium prices to tourists rather than lose their retail margins by giving a good wholesale price to retailers and restaurants. This may explain such excesses – no names, no pack drill – as the vineyard selling a red at £30 a bottle which would have been dear at a third of the price and similarly the outlet selling an insipid sparkling white for £30.
But there are still lots of bargains of which the special ones include the choosy Wine Society (lifetime membership costs £40) which sells Three Choirs Midsummer Hill for £7.50 and Chapel Down’s Bacchus at £11.50, significantly below the equivalent ex-vineyard price. At the time of writing the best bargain I have come across is from the little known Strawberry Hill vineyard (close to the prestigious Three Choirs in Gloucestershire) which has a Christmas offer of six bottles of very drinkable reds (the Cabernet Sauvignon is particularly good) for £40 or £6.6 a bottle including carriage. They claim to be unique in having over an acre under glass. Waitrose is by a distance the most pro-active supermarket is selling UK wines at reasonable prices including a £6.99 Monnow Valley Madeleine Angevin in local branches..
Ancre Hill on the up
The most startling thing was the rise of Ancre Hill in Monmouth. About a year ago when I was contemplating my venture it won the title of best sparkling wine in the world for its sparkling white (2008) against competition from prestigious Champagne marques at the Verona blind tasting and has since added two more gold medals for its sparkling rosé (2009). Ancre is spearheading a revival of winemaking in Wales which boasts some beautifully situated estates including Sugarloaf Vineyards near Abergavenny, the themed Llanerch in Hensol and the secluded Glyndwr at Cowbridge,itself almost a barometer of the improving quality of Welsh wines.
One of the saddest moments was the opening and closing of the delightful Wine Pantry bar on St Pancras station selling only UK wines, beers and spirits. As compensation it has opened a pop-up bar next to its original home in Borough Market over the Christmas period.
As a Londoner I was particularly thrilled to visit Forty Hall, a 20 acre community-run site in Enfield which will be producing its first sparkling in a year or two. It is the biggest vineyard in London at least since medieval times and maybe ever. I also took part in Urban Vine’s crowd-sourced harvest in which Londoners brought grapes from their gardens or allotments to a central point in Merton where they were weighed and dispatched to Bolney’s fine winery in Sussex to be turned into actual London wine which we will sample in the new year.
The abiding memory must be the quality of our sparkling whites – and not just the rightly acclaimed Nyetimbers and Ridgeviews but the sheer quality from Cornwall to Essex where New Hall was a revelation not only for its own wines but for the number of famous brands in the South like Chapel Down and Camel Valley which use its grapes. On a short vacation in Dorset we were delighted by delicious sparkling wines from Furleigh Estate and English Oak (which we came across by chance in a restaurant). Pundits worry about the explosion of sparkling production in the UK accounting as it does for half of total production. But UK wines still represent barely one per cent of domestic consumption.
And with premium export markets beckoning in China and the rest of Asia, there is all to play for. And at home we can all do our bit by asking for UK wines in pubs and restaurants until the message gets through about the rising quality of our produce. Start this Christmas by opening a bottle of British bubbly instead of that stuff over the Channel which has had it too good for far too long.
Victor Keegan’s Gems of London (an app for the iPhone. iPad or iPod) ses geo-location to take you to unusual places in the Capital telling you how many yards you are away from them. City Poems links classic poems to the London streets, statues etc that inspired them. Shakespeare’s London does the same for all the buried memories of the Bard’s life in London. Geo Poems geo-tags most of Victor Keegan poetry.
His web site is LondonMyLondon.co.uk and you can follow his wine experiences on @BritishWino via Twitter.