“We drink bottles, not glasses!” This quote scribbled out on a survey seemed to epitomize English wine-drinking culture four years ago. Conducting research in London and Nice on their differences between their respective wine-drinking cultures led me to two crisp and clear conclusions: there is a comparatively pronounced culture of binge drinking imported wine in London, and Londoners perceive English wine to be laughably bad.
Throughout my summer of research, I grew accustomed to Londoners chuckling in my face at the suggestion of a comparison of their wine culture to that of France. English eaters frequently have a fetish for all things French, importing their wines, emulating their recipes, poorly mispronouncing their foods, and buying fully into their stereotypes. Inquiry into English wine and its culture, on the other hand, was often met with a sarcastic scoff, followed by a grinning, “What English wine?!” Or as a Sussex winemaker stated when I asked his opinion on English cuisine, “I think the British tend to live on donuts.”
The same winemaker explained to me when I met him in his countryside garden shed-sized outlet of foreign and homemade wines that English consumers of wine simply weren’t ready to shell out the money that it took to produce high-quality English wine in a nascent industry, lacking in history and infrastructure. He explained in the typical English manner of half-humor, half-misery, “Well there’s a relationship between price and quality. It is no good having the best quality if no one can afford it. And alternatively, it is not any good having wine that is poor quality because no one will want to drink that anyways. It’s a sort of halfway house, really. I think it would be nice to sell the best wines in the world, but how many people have that sort of money unless you’re a Chinese billionaire. As far as I know, I’m not a Chinese billionaire.”
Yet other oenophiles at the time approached English wine with optimism. For example, a tour guide at Bolney Winery explained to me over a tasting with a sparkle in his eyes, “I think it will continue to grow. I think the UK market is the biggest market in the world for wine, and we’ve got that right on our doorstep.”
Just four years later, that growth has taken root in a dramatic way. Climate changed has inserted a heaping dose of anxiety into the minds French winemakers, who have begun searching northward for respite from their fears. England’s wave of rapid success in sparkling wines has made the country a primary candidate for growth. That is, if the locals hadn’t begun taking the land into their own hands by dipping their toes into the field of winemaking.
From my personal perspective while touring Bolney, Ridgeview, and Court Garden wineries with family last week, it seemed that the game had changed wildly within a short span of time. Bolney in particular was filled to the brim of its café and wine-drinking terrace with throngs of families. These eager people flooded the premise for Sunday afternoon wine-tastings and samplings from the artisanal vendors that studded the edges of the vines in their pop-up booths. At Bolney, I met Liz Sagues, an English author who was selling signed copies of her latest book titled A Celebration of English Wines. My father, a botanist and die-hard English ex-patriot, approached her with the essential question of why. Why has growth of the English wine industry exploded and (as a Professor of Ecology would wonder) what role has climate change played in the process?
Liz explained that climate change has been a double-edged sword. In some ways, it has aided the industry by delivering improved growing temperatures for bubbly varieties. Yet most English winemakers – 64% to be exact, according to statistics cited by Liz – believed that climate change was a threat rather than an opportunity for improvement in their trade. This pronounced trepidation is caused by the definitive element of unpredictability that climate change inserts into weather conditions. Liz states that while on average, temperatures have risen between 1954 – 2013 to become akin to “Champagne growing region through much of the twentieth century”, the baggage of volatile weather conditions that accompany global warming mean trouble in paradise.
Already, according to Liz, some wineries have sacrificed 80 percent of potential harvest due to unpredicted April frosts. Not to mention the freak storms and floods that has dismantled the typically-dreary English forecast, taking winemakers’ vines along with it.
So if climate change is not quite the simple answer to improvements in English wine, what is?
The Sussex wine-maker I spoke with four years ago was half-right in his prediction that it would take “Chinese billionaires” to rock the country’s industry. These changemakers were certainly billionaires, but they often were English-grown varietals. For example, in her book, Liz profiles Mark Driver, founder of Rathfinny Wine Estate in South Downs. Driver, she says, retired as a ripe middle-ager after striking it big by selling out his hedge fund management company. Liz states, “He was forty-six and had no very clear plan of how to occupy himself, other than an intention to buy land. Entirely accidently, when scanning the A-Z list of available university courses with his eldest daughter, he reached ‘V’ and found viticulture.” 10 million pounds later, Mark reached the 1 million bottle mark in his production of wine on his 250-hectare property.
Native-born English winemakers like Mark often have a novel perspective of production, throwing tradition out the window. In order to maximize quality, this new breed of winemakers has experimented with hybrid and altogether unheard of grape varietals that grow to perfection in the chalk soils of the countryside; they have a soft spot for creation of organic and vegan wines; they often operate by the principle that anything can be sparkling; they add “orange” to the traditional categories of red, rosé, and white. And while some traditionalists may view these experimental actions as blasphemous, the British Ecological Society has lauded phenological diversity as a unique opportunity for adaptation in winegrapes in the wake of climate change. Perhaps more importantly, the millennial generation of wine consumers see these shifts in winemaking practice as innovative and delicious.
With innovation and investment has come improved appreciation of quality, and with improved appreciation has come cultural evolution. This cultural evolution increases demand for higher quality, which further motivates winemakers toward excellence in a snowball effect. So is it climate change or culture that is driving improvements in English wine? A wine-loving culture of Brits certainly helps, but a few English billionaires don’t hurt either.