Grab a glass of wine, and listen to this...

Climate is affecting what we drink, too

Simple climate action   //   I S S U E   # 3 5   //   B O O Z E

Welcome to our month on booze...

By Jemima Kiss

Suggest British wine to anyone — including the British — and they will laugh. The UK is known for its overcast, wet, and sunless weather for much of the year, and that image just doesn’t fit with what we think wine country should look like. 

Yet climate change is having a big impact on the UK’s weather. Heatwaves are now 30 times more likely, while winters are becoming warmer and wetter, according to the UK’s national weather service. Added to that, the UK has a very long history of winemaking, which was introduced by the Romans 2,000 years ago.  Long before climate change there were successful vineyards, though even the British don’t seem to want to believe it.

This month, we’re exploring the climate footprint of alcoholic drinks, the decarbonization efforts of the industry, and the benefits of buying thoughtfully. It turns out that if you live in south London, you don’t have to buy a sauvignon blanc from the south island of New Zealand. Why not try Chateau Tooting from London instead?  As Vic Keegan explains in our introduction this week, there are big changes in the British wine movement, and the joke’s on you if you don’t get it. 

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Believe it or not, the UK wine revival is here to stay

When it comes to wine, France’s loss is England’s gain

By Vic Keegan

Eight years ago I was in a restaurant in Paris, and asked the sommelier whether he had any English wines. He burst out laughing.

At about the same time our son was leaving Paris after two years, and threw a small party to mark his return to England. He was congratulated on his choice of Champagne, but when he told them it was actually sparkling wine from England they simply refused to believe him. 

English wine has been something of a joke for centuries. Yet there have been vineyards in England since the Roman invasion more than 2,000 years ago. Winemaking collapsed for centuries when the Romans left around 400 AD, but was later revived by monasteries, royalty and the houses of the aristocracy. 

It is different now. Dozens of English and Welsh sparkling wines including Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down, Camel Valley, Langham, Hambledon have regularly won gold medals in open competition with the traditional French Champagne houses. There’s a new generation of innovative, young British winemakers, many of them educated at Plumpton College in Sussex which is gaining a global reputation; its own vineyard has won gold medals in international competitions. 

Warmer weather, juicer grapes

A large part of their success has, sadly, been down to climate change. Global warming has made the English and Welsh climate warmer and the Champagne area of France cooler and more volatile, damaging the ancient grape varieties. But for winemakers in southeast England, with geology similar to France’s Champagne region, this is fueling growth in wineries. Wealthy entrepreneurs from the City of London are backing farmers with available land and the technical expertise nurtured at Plumpton, an agricultural college turned training ground for UK’s wineries.

In a sense, the success of these new English sparkling wines is Champagne coming home. Even French experts now admit that the methode champenoise — secondary fermentation in the bottle — was actually invented in London in the 17th century long before Dom Perignon stumbled across it in France. English bottles manufactured in coal-fired furnaces were much stronger than French bottles made in wood-fired furnaces, which would burst during secondary fermentation.

The revival of vineyards in England after the Dark Ages can be traced back to the Scottish aristocrat Marquess of Bute. He planted the UK’s first successful modern commercial vineyard at Castell Coch in Wales at the end of the 19th century. It closed during the First World War when sugar supplies dried up, but it proved commercial production was possible, even in the very wet climate of Wales. This was no fluke. In 2012 a Welsh 2008 sparkling white from Ancre Hill in Monmouth was voted the best sparkling wine in the world at the Bollicine del Mondo competition in Italy. Even the local newspaper refused to cover the story; they didn’t think that it was possible, and most people in Wales didn’t think it was possible either. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, amateur enthusiasts and technicians started experimenting by planting different varieties. Sir Guy Salisbury Jones, a retired British diplomat, planted England’s first commercial vineyard back in 1951 at the village of Hambledon in Hampshire. The original grapes were tough German varieties such as Seyval, but he eventually planted Champagne grapes. The prestigious Wine Society described Hambledon’s still white wine as “astoundingly good”.

Hambledon remained the only English commercial vineyard for 20 years, but was a major factor in the emergence of a domestic industry and a role model for the dozens of experimental vineyards. When pioneers such as Nyetimber in Sussex started winning international gold medals, it became obvious that something special was happening. (I was inspired enough to plant half a dozen vines in my back garden and made my first wine. It turned out to be one of the best things I have done because ever since then any wine however bad was never as gruesome as what I had produced.) 

Now the UK has more than 700 vineyards

Led by Taittinger and Pommery, French brands are now establishing vineyards in England to take advantage of the astonishing growth in the quality of English and Welsh sparkling wine. There are now around 700 vineyards in England and Wales, and more than a million new vines are being planted each year. The scale is still small compared with the huge vineyards of Europe and America, but it is providing the UK with one of its fastest-growing industrial sectors.

The number of bottles produced has risen from one million in 2012 to a peak of 13.1 million in 2018, before dropping to 10.5 million in 2019. Three-quarters of output is sparkling wine, though white wines are starting to make their mark led by Bacchus, a German varietal, pioneered in the dry eastern county of Essex, which has become a distinctive British alternative to sauvignon blanc. And it is not just white wines. Hush Heath won the International Wine Challenge Gold medal for a red wine made, unusually, from Pinot Meunier, the least well known of the three classic Champagne grapes, the others being Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  

There have also been some fascinating small start-ups such as Chateau Tooting in London, which harvests grapes from backyards. Once a year anyone can take their vines to a collection point in central London where they are picked up by a professional winemaker. They produce some surprisingly drinkable wine, despite the fact that no one knows what varieties they are or whether they were picked at the right time, and participants can boast at their dinner tables that they are part of a winemaking cooperative.

Chateau Loch Ness? 

While global warming may be good for northern vineyards, it will have an irreversible effect on the future of the planet and traditional agriculture. Not all of the old ways will survive. The fate of Merlot is one example. One of the most popular varieties around the world, Merlot as we know it is inching toward extinction in France. Warming weather is altering the sugar content of the grape, as well as flavor of the wine itself. Farmers are searching for other varieties from further south, such as Italy, to grow in the new climate.

Professor Richard Seeley of Imperial College, London, predicts that if global warming continues at the present rate, one of the best places to plant vineyards will eventually be on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, now too far north for most varieties. Although without vineyards at present, the vines would benefit from warmer weather, the reflective radiation of the loch and a geology similar to the Cape vineyards of South Africa. 

England is still a tiny wine producer on the global stage, behind even unlikely countries such as India and Moldova. But it now produces wines that compete with the best the world has to offer, while France its increasingly challenged by a changing climate. It’s likely to be only one the beginning of the changes as climate change redraws the living map of our planet.

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Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren, and Jim Giles. Everything we publish is free to read — your donations fund our writers and artists.