Watching the Olympics has brought back some great memories. It was, after all, in England that we thought of Wine is Life. We still have a thing for darts and a nice pint of ale and Fish & Chips. Great Britain has contributed considerably to our sense of culture here at Wine is Life, and was, after all, home to one of our heroes, Winston Churchill.
Churchill was not only Prime Minister of England, he was an artist, a writer, and the only Prime Minister to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also, it must be noted, an accomplished drinker.
In 1899 Churchill was a reporter for the Morning Post in England and went to South Africa to cover the Boer War. He took with him three cases of wine, a case and a half of scotch, a half case of brandy, and some socks. When he was in India he took to the practice of adding a shot of whiskey to his water, in the thought that the alcohol would eliminate any risks of disease. He said that he grew to enjoy the taste and made it a point to keep in practice in his later years. Once, when accused of being drunk at a state dinner, he famously said to his dining companion (an aristocratic lady of London society), “Yes madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
So what does this have to do with wine? When you think of England and drinking you generally think of pints of beer and glasses of gin. Perhaps an Irish whiskey or a tumbler of scotch? Well, Sir Winston encouraged the consumption of a bit of champagne at every luncheon, saying that it “clarified the mind and lifted the soul.”
Not that the English are averse to a bit of wine, either. The Romans brought wine with them to the Isles over 2,000 years ago, and with a few hiccups, they’ve been making wine there ever since. A grapevine found growing outside of a cottage in Kent was thought to be a clone of a Pinot actually introduced by the Romans. The outbreak of World War I brought severe shortages of sugar and feet for stomping, and it took several decades to get things back up to speed, but British people DO make wine.
It’s the growing of the grapes that throws most people off. Grapes like long, dry summer weather, and if you’ve seen the Olympics you know that “Long, dry English summer” is one giant oxymoron. Such is the reputation of England’s wine economy that the term “British Wine” actually refers to any grape drink that has been fermented. In India they refer to most western alcohols as “British Wine.” It’s kind of like referring to all soft drinks as a “Coke.”
There are a few things going for English vineyards. For starters, the soil in England has a great deal of limestone, which grapes actually enjoy. The Northern parts of England actually enjoy extremely long days during the summer, although they don’t get an equal amount of sunshine, what with it being England and all. That could change, as many are pointing to global warming and seeing temperatures and weather patterns changing in the North Atlantic. And British people like to drink. Not just any old booze, but they like a bit of style with their libation.
Most of the wines coming out of England, Wales, Scotland and such that are getting any press are sparkling wines. Now, they use a variety of grapes, from Chardonnay to Pinot Gris, and they are not technically a “champagne”, but every bit as good as their French cousins. A sparkling Chardonnay by Bolney Estate, the 2007 Blanc de Blanc, won the gold in the 2012 International Wine & Spirits Competition. English wines also won awards at the recent International Wine Challenge.
There is, however, a bit of a sticky wicket. The British Isles are just that, islands. They are also, to paraphrase Churchill again, but a bunch of pieces of land rising out of the Atlantic, and the North Atlantic at that. There is not a great deal of land there for growing grapes, and the British are forced to import 99% of their wine. Right now, wine making in England is very much a boutique endeavor, like dressage. That being said, English wines are somewhat hard to find in England, much less here in the United States.
Here is a website with some links to some great English wines. Some of them offer mail order services. Some are only available in the U.K. Perhaps your best bet is to pack up your umbrella and head off to Jolly Olde England. Take it from us, Britain is not just tea and crumpets and Downton Abbey. You have our word on it. But, as Sir Winston said, “Eating words has never given me indigestion,” so if you get snowed in at an airport, we’ve never met.