An English Wine Odyssey

An English Wine Odyssey

This time last year Ruth Spivey, wine consultant, communicator and founder of independent wine market Wine Car Boot planned a road trip. Her mission: to get to the bottom of English wine. Was it really as exciting as the press were saying - while glossing over the prices and, in some cases, mediocre quality? Are the wines really good, or just good for England, can they compete on the global market?

Supply of English wine has shot up in recent years thanks to some rather bullish investment. Who on earth is going to drink it all? Especially 40+ quid fizz. There are very few wines we don’t import - wine drinkers enjoy an unrivalled choice here - it begs the question whether we really need to make our own wine in the first place.

As a wine producer the UK had no real identity, and even less diversity. At times it felt as if we were copying/competing with the French (sigh) and not looking to the right places for inspiration on varieties, styles, farming and future proofing.

I’d had the idea for the jaunt two or three years prior, but as ever there was always a reason not to do it. When 2020 came around serving up a proper shit-show in a matter of mere months - thanks to an unholy trinity of a break-up, Covid and cancer - the fuck-it-let’s-go approach seemed entirely sensible. The intention was to keep the itinerary fluid and flexible in keeping with the romantic notion of a road trip which we all harbour. Plus, proper planning runs the risk of realising the stupidity of the idea before setting off. So, in effect, I just set off. In a 38-year-old campervan I’d bought the week before. To give you an idea of how competent a driver I am not, I had to call the RAC out before I left my own street.

Ruth pre-trip at Noble Rot in London. Zalto the whippet enjoys van life.

Anyway, back to wine. The Sourcing Table team asked me to cover things such as the growing up of the industry (has it?); why I think people should drink more English wine (hmm, should they?); what excites me about it (not the prices that’s for sure) and why I have decided to try and write a book about it (answers on a postcard please). I have no finite answers to any of these questions, I’m afraid. I only got around 29 which isn’t bad in two months when your wingman is a whippet.

As I said, loosely planned. On day three, I awarded myself RAC’s Customer of the Year as I was being towed out of a field in Devon, whilst sourcing my own replacement parts. Fiendishly planned press trips with generous budgets were, at that point, looking rather more practical. But isn‘t life meant to be about the journey? I hate people who say things like that. Especially when you’re trying to get somewhere.

State of the nation

So where is England now, wine wise? I’m most excited about the new still wines coming through, but the sparkling offer gets bigger and better every year. It’s crucial for the sector not to be dominated by two or three brands focussed on challenging Champagne.

There are also more producers making other styles such as Col Fondo and Pet-Nat, which is great and accessible, or using Charmat (like Prosecco, which has by accounts ruffled some feathers) and carbonation to keep cost down.

Regionality hasn’t properly developed yet, and no-one seems sure that it will. A lot of wine people are obsessed with place, but perhaps we don’t need to worry too much for now. For perspective, the Loire Valley wine route stretches to 800km in length. Trevibban to Tillingham is just under 500km. Granted the Loire is massive, and has all sorts of climates and soil, but you get the point.

Ben Walgate from Tillingham in his Trousseau vineyard, planted in 2019 with the help of our very own Ellen Doggett

The south east is lumped as one, enjoying the ‘best’ soils and weather but it all feels rather vague. The south west is wet but workable, however good results can be achieved. I had a brilliant time at the largely organic Trevibban Mill near Padstow who share a winemaker with Oxney, an organic estate in East Sussex, and is the home to the wonderful Wild Wine School who run a brilliant hybrid programme of WSET courses and others focussed on sustainable viticulture and low intervention winemaking, all taught outside in the vineyard.

A pioneering spirit

The focus away from traditional method sparkling has brought interest in other varieties and vessels, some used to bring out the best of the hybrids historically planted here. Tim Phillips of Charlie Herring planted Riesling and then Sauvignon, Ancre Hill in Monmouthshire planted Albariño and Ben Walgate at Tillingham has 20 varieties including Gamay and Trousseau and makes dozens of cuvées, several in qvevri. I can’t think of a better way to explore, discover and develop what English wine is or can be than with this ambitious and experimental approach. Ben’s most recent Pinot Noirs from 2020 have a purity, elegance and drinkability all of their own.

No faux Burgundy aspirations here. How refreshing.

That said, I hope we can look to the centuries of experience of other countries and learn from them in a much shorter space of time. The environment, lack of biodiversity and depletion of soil health is now an urgent concern. To plant a vineyard or set up a winery that doesn’t ensure a reasonable and responsible level of protective and regenerative husbandry feels wrong and out of touch. I’ve never really bought the attitude that it’s impossible to be organic or biodynamic in the UK due to the climate. Especially when the likes of Davenport, Tillingham, Ancre Hill and more prove otherwise.

We’re lucky to be able to watch a new region lay its foundations and make its mark. You can’t do that in Bordeaux or Piedmont, can you? I’m being facetious, of course. But we’ll never get this time again and future generations will just have to read about it.

The case for English wine

And should people drink more English wine? Of course they should, but then I think people should drink more wine in general. The price is pretty exclusive however, and I don’t believe in making people feel guilty for drinking cheaper from elsewhere. Another thing we’re missing is the romance of wine and food culture that even a bottle of cheap Rioja, Bordeaux or Chianti can conjure up, even if you know full well the chateau on the label and the story of the family is a load of nonsense. I get frustrated with the comparisons people make to other countries or regions, something I am guilty of too. But I get even more frustrated when the industry makes comparisons, as if the aim is to imitate. Maybe I’m being harsh, we all need a framework or compass to direct us. How do you know if what you’re doing is ‘good’ or even on the right track, if there’s no comparison? But to bastardise the phrase: England should be itself; every other country is taken. My favourite producers from this country are those that have travelled and worked abroad or at least drink far and wide. People with a passion for wine in general. I met a few who didn’t seem to really drink much wine at all which seemed odd. Or only drank what they made. If you only drink your own wine, how do you know if it’s any good?

Davenport winery in Kent is farmed organically.

Speaking of good wine, you can find a few on here. Will Davenport has been proving organic farming is entirely viable in the is country for years, and continues to be an inspiration to many. His wines are bright, pure and clean; not to mention keenly priced and frankly difficult to not drink. His traditional sparkling rosé and Horsmondon Dry white blend are £32.50 and £16.50 respectively (in home turf terms very reasonable). Busi-Jacobsohn is a new producer with their first vintage in 2017. I was impressed when I visited them last autumn. They’re not messing around, smart and accomplished for such a new outfit, run by a very cool Swedish couple Douglas and Susanna.

So where does that leave us? In a few short years we’ve now got smart wines, quirky wines, natural wines and commercial wines, packaged in cans and kegs as well as traditional bottles. It’s a bit all over the place, and I wouldn’t say it’s found its direction yet, that certainly makes for an exciting time. Does it even need a direction? English wine is on a journey, and as I’ve found journeys aren’t always plain sailing, but sometimes the wrong turns lead to the most exciting discoveries. So perhaps you’ll consider raising a toast on English Wine Week with a bottle of something local.

English wines to try