Friday 18 August 2017

English wine still ‘a needle in a haystack’

Three months into his New Year’s resolution to drink more English and Welsh wine, Victor Keegan Victor Keegan@BritishWino tells us how he is getting on and why his Twitter appeal for the first sighting of an English wine in a French supermarket has gone unanswered.

Drinking more wine – trust me – is one of the easier New Year’s resolutions to keep even though in my case this means drinking more English and Welsh wines within the context of cutting down overall consumption. Since UK wines tend to be more expensive than others, this is a fair compromise between health and patriotism.

So far, after three months, I give myself 7 out of 10 for for personal achievement but a lot less for convincing others of the merits of English and Welsh wines, particularly restaurants and bars. Every case I have ordered from the Wine Society – my bulk wine merchant of choice – has been English supplemented by individual purchases from the few shops and supermarkets that stock them.

The admirable exception is @winepantry on St Pancras station in London which stocks  nothing else but UK wine and is a great place to sample the dizzy array of domestic wines on offer (starting at £4.50 a glass). I have also set up a new Twitter stream @BritishWino to help spread the word about the increasing quality of our own wines.

It is not always plain sailing. When I couldn’t find anything on the shelves at my local Tesco I asked the assistant. She couldn’t find any either but was sure there was one somewhere. She called a colleague who eventually found what she had seen. It turned out to be a bottle not of English wine but “British” wine which is defined under EU rules – which are a pain in the neck for the burgeoning English wine industry – as wine produced from imported grape juice. Cheap and cheerful but not “English” or “Welsh”.

At our – huge – local Sainsburys, again with the help if an assistant, I found found one bottle of English totally lost amidst dozens if not hundreds of others, the viticultural equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.

At the very pleasant Kilcot Inn in Herefordshire – only a few miles from the highly successful Three Choirs vineyard (@3choirsvineyard) I asked if they had any local wines and a bemused waiter politely said no, they didn’t. I expressed  innocent surprise that they and practically every gastropub you come across in the country make a point of boasting about how they source their food locally yet the don’t think of it for wine even when they surrounded by vineyards.

At another gastropub not far away it was the same story. The proprietor said that he couldn’t pay more than £5 a bottle if he wanted to make a profit (probably with a near threefold mark-up, but let that pass). At the village store in Colwall, I asked if they stocked wine from the Coddington vineyard a couple of miles away. Answer negative. I did find one village store in England that said that they tried to buy some wine from a Welsh vineyard only to be told they didn’t supply the English. No names, no pack drill.

I could go on – and I do, increasingly in danger of breaching the boredom threshold of my family –  though they were very understanding when we were having a celebratory meal in a posh-ish restaurant in France recently when I dared to say the unspeakable. When the sommelier passed us the the carte asking whether we would like one in English I asked whether there were any English wines on it. He smiled charmingly at our sense of humour. Incidentally, my Twitter appeal for the first sighting of an English wine in a French supermarket has gone unanswered. I am prepared for a long wait.

Are there any lessons from all this. Yes. There are two big barriers to the success of English and Welsh wines. The first is financial. With some exceptions – such as the Wine Society’s £6.50 for Midsummer Hill from Three Choirs now unhappily sold out (yes, blame me, if you like ) – there aren’t many domestic wines that are both very delicious and cheap. But for those who are happy to pay £7 to £12 for a bottle of white there are lots of English ones that taste at least as good as the foreign competition and others that have a distinctive taste of their own thanks to using grape varieties suitable to our terroir. English reds need more experience – and more hot summers – before they can hold their heads high but I still get a kick out of drinking some of the English reds if only because they are there at all. They are better than a lot of reds served in pubs.

With sparkling whites, there is no contest. I have simply stopped buying Champagne for celebratory occasions because the English and Welsh equivalents, wines – such as @nyetimber, @RidgeviewWineUK, @Ancrehillestate, @gusbourne and @camelwinemaker– are at least as good as anything from OVER THERE.

The second barrier is simply psychological. We have been so brainwashed by the branding of French and other wines – and so cynical about our own weather that we simply cannot believe that we can produce good wines. As I have mentioned before, the Monmouthshire Beacon in Wales did not even deem it worthwhile reporting that a vineyard less than two miles from their office was declared the best sparkling wine in the world for 2012 a couple of months ago.

On a personal level I have been surprised by the quality of the English whites I have bought through the Wine Society (a co-operative and itself a great British success story) which are now our standard drinking wines including Three Choirs (Midsummer Hill and Stone Brook) and Chapel Down (Bacchus and Pinot Blanc) and Camel Valley (Atlantic Dry) even though there are cheaper wines around. I haven’t yet found a red that I would buy half a case of but offerings from the likes of Ancre Hill estate, Bolney or Three Choirs Pinot Noir are nearly there.

Richard Ames wrote several epic poems in the 17th century about his search for a decent glass of claret visiting practically every pub in London and castigating those – nearly all of them – that didn’t even stock any. I am beginning to know how he felt. It is a bit of a thankless task asking for UK wines in bars and restaurants but at least we are in the classic marketing position of having an asset that is still undervalued by its own citizens. I have a feeling – weather permitting- it will all be different in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, to make it happen quicker, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone at least asked for a UK wine in a restaurant or wine bar until the penny drops. It would be interesting to hear of your experiences.

 

Victor Keegan @BritishWino


Victor Keegan’s Gems of London (an app for the iPhone. iPad or iPod) uses 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.