I’ll start this with the big question: is England a serious producer of wine? Yes, it is. The hype aside for a few moments, English wine isn’t just drinkable but pleasant, of high quality and (thankfully) has its own flair. Wineries are committed to producing top-quality produce using the resources they have available to them and that is the key issue when creating wine – everything else is pointless.
But there’s something that came with the hype that isn’t quite in line with the proceedings, a sense of competition. When the newspapers refer to English wine and its success abroad, it is rarely considered good in its own right. Instead it is always ‘better than Champagne’, ‘beating French wines’, ‘winning competitions against Italian, German and French produce’ – the merits and quality of the wines themselves are rarely explored.
Just yesterday I was reading an article in the Independent about whether English wines will ever be comparable to French wines (here) and as idealistic and dreamy as the title suggests that is another question that is simply begging for an answer. The answer is no.
Of course they won’t – although, in my eyes, English sparkling wine is better than supermarket brand Champagnes, it simply cannot compare with the Grand Crus of the Champagnoise landscape and nor will it ever be able to – that has nothing to do with the ability of the vintner but rather the geographic and climatic location the vines find themselves in. No matter how good an English Dornfelder or Rondo might well turn out, it isn’t ever going to be in the same league as the clarets of the Châteaux of the Bordelaise or the Domaines of the Bourgogne. English Seyval Blanc and Bacchus is wonderful but it isn’t Pouilly Fumé and it isn’t Chablis – that’s not an opinion, it is a fact.
But, who says there has to be a comparative element to the story? Why do the English vintners need to be pushed and boosted by the press for something they will never be able to do anything about? Why can’t England take a leaf out of the book of New Zealand or Germany – producing wines that compliment a range of French and Italian bottles rather than seek to compete with them? The wineries themselves don’t actually do this and nearly all of the ones I’m in touch within the UK seek to produce first quality English-driven wines, they’re not Champagne-copycats. Nevertheless the press will continue to compare which isn’t fair and, despite what some international competitions might throw up for discussion, not particularly realistic.
The English wineries are fantastic and their wines are good too – they’ve still a long way to go but the individualisation and creation of an English wine alternative is far more applicable that trying to do something a bit like how they do it in France (or the rest of the world for that matter).
Seyval Blanc, Bacchus, Rondo, Dornfelder and the other popular varietals grown in Britain are the future for the English wine industry. English Bacchus has a unique characteristic that really isn’t found elsewhere, so does Seyval Blanc – in this category there is nobody to compete with (alright the Germans make Bacchus but they’re far more concentrated on Riesling and Pinot Noir to care about it properly), instead it is a creation of a whole new marketplace – the alternative to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, not a replacement.
I hear occasionally of English wineries producing sparkling wine that isn’t based on the Pinot grapes and I think that this is an excellent decision – there already exists a region of the world famed for its creation of such wine and a few fields in Southern England aren’t going to ever be able to compete on an international level and that doesn’t just have anything to do with quality or climate. Champagne is never going to be topped by English wine outside of England and it shouldn’t be either: Champagne is the original, the best and I’m sure that most English wineries are well aware of that. Champagne is an image, a movement and it won’t ever be topped because of a deeper meaning of the word even when the aspects of the product itself are removed from the conversation.
So, I’ve said it, you might not like it but it is true – no, English wine won’t ever compare to French, Italian, South African, Australian, American or Chilean wine. The key to understanding the future of English wine is that no comparison is required – the future is the creation of an English Wine taste, of an English wine alternative – this is something that the wineries have already taken massive steps to achieve however the wine press sometimes seeks out the wrong way to promote it – it isn’t competition, it is something else and that is what we should aim for. English wine is great but it won’t ever be a serious player if it is just to mimic what is done abroad – I’m sure the wineries see it like that too which is why most of them are going down this new ‘English’ route.
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