Skelton’s “The Wines of Great Britain” and some thoughts on English Wine

This article began its gestation as a book review. I recently read another edition from the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, of which I have reviewed two further books in just this past year (on Sake and Japanese Wines by Anthony Rose, and The Wines of Germany by Ann Krebiehl, both of which I loved). I thought that as I’ve been getting increasingly interested in English Wine over the past few years it was about time that I read a book about it, especially as the publisher of this series had sent out a 40% discount code.

Stephen Skelton MW has unarguably been the biggest name in English Wine, not just as an author but also as a winemaker and a consultant, over the past forty-plus years. He studied at Geisenheim in the 1970s before returning to establish Tenterden Vineyard, in Kent, in 1977 (Tenterden is now the home of the UK’s largest producer, Chapel Down). He became a Master of Wine in 2003 (proclaiming the highest mark in the written paper in his book bio), and has since worked as perhaps the most notable consultant to the English Wine Industry.

This is not Skelton’s first book on the subject by any means. His publications list includes The Vineyards of England (1989), The Wines of Great Britain and Ireland (2001)Viticulture (a student text), Wine Growing in Great Britain (2014, aimed at producers), and a UK Vineyards Guide (originally 1989, fully updated 2016). This Infinite Ideas edition was published in 2019.

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With such an authority to review you may wonder why I have added the second part to the title of this article. Before I crack on with telling you what the book covers, I think it’s fair to say that there are some parts of English and Welsh viticulture that it leaves out. Stephen Skelton might argue that some of these are peripheral, but in terms of my own readership I am not sure that they are. What he leaves out to a certain extent relates to dynamic new producers, and also to some of what he might judge to be fringe activities, but which have literally burst onto the independent retail scene in the past year or two.

Petnats and skin contact wines are two such areas of experimentation. And if the book lacks anything, it is that Skelton appears not to consider it worth discussing those producers who are at the edges of English Wine. As you will know all too well, my view is that progress is driven by the innovators. So I want to talk about those.

I would also like to share some concerns which the author could not be expected to address, in terms of the future health of English Wine at the time of publication, back in 2019. The view from back then wasn’t all rosy. English Wine, of course, seemed so exciting all of a sudden. Awards were flooding in and because, as Skelton identifies, most of the amateurs and the less professional wineries had left the scene, quality was generally excellent. On the back of the obvious success of English Sparkling Wine (ESW), mostly made from the “Champagne” varieties and by the same méthode traditionelle, we were also beginning to see some very good still wines, and even (honest, folks) some good reds.

Both of those colours in the still wine category had previously been either looked down on or considered poor value for money by many wine professionals, although a certain market for Rosé wine had grown up. In fact the market for English wines was beginning to diversify. The cellar door sales of the bigger names (and indeed some of the smaller ones), as part of a tentative attempt to establish a wine tourism of sorts in England and Wales, were and still are important, and in many cases life saving. There’s also no doubt that the enormous support of the Waitrose supermarket chain, the country’s largest retailer of English Wine, meant and continues to mean a great deal to the industry.

The more recent phenomenon has to be the increased availability of English Wines in the independent retail sector, especially their acceptance as a “hip” category by some. Not only does a cutting edge retailer need to have a few Jura, or Austrian wines, or maybe even something from Czech Moravia, they also need to show some support for home grown talent. That some of the wine importers more known for wholesaling “natural wines” (such as Les Caves de Pyrene) have dipped their toe into English and Welsh wine is encouraging. Why? Because at the big wine fairs like Real Wine and Raw Wine these producers are being tasted by a much younger audience. These are passionate wine lovers who we really need to get behind English Wine.

There is a dedicated section, an English Wine corner, at the annual London Wine Fair, usually dominated by Nyetimber’s attractive double-decker bus, but it is by no means large enough, with too little industry-wide backing. The best promotional work is being done by the Wines of Hampshire group, whose annual tasting is held in the basement tasting room at the 67 Pall Mall members club. It is always very well attended and the wines on show are pretty much exemplary, and it’s a shame more work like this isn’t undertaken by other groupings.

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The elephant in the room which the hype of the national press has tended to ignore is that vast quantities of new vineyards are soon to shed their grapes onto the market as new wines, and just a few of us have wondered whether all of this new wine might find a ready market…or not, especially as Brexit threatens to make exports potentially more difficult (if potentially cheaper with a weaker Pound).

With Coronavirus coming into the picture the situation gets a little worrying. The threat of recession, with high unemployment, lower spending, and possibly even inflation, cause a number of issues to be highlighted. A recession is not what you want when you are about to increase production several-fold (both in terms of new vineyards, and for producers of ESW a large amount of stock currently ageing on lees due for imminent release).

If you were not already feeling hit by my potential pessimism, remember that grape growers are no different to the producers of any other agricultural crop. Unless they are very small they need a team of pickers at harvest time, and most of the teams who regularly turn up on our shores for the grape harvest are Eastern Europeans. They tend to be highly skilled too, so it may not be a case of merely hoovering up swathes of unemployed school and college leavers come the autumn. Being able to use the same team of skilled individuals, often family groups, year on year has assisted in the increase in quality we have seen from our vineyards, of that I am certain. Brexit may have yet another negative consequence for those producing English and Welsh wine.

So let’s move on to the book. The Wines of Great Britain is divided into eight chapters with an appendix, comprehensive bibliography and index. Chapters 1-3 are a history lesson. I’m going to say that the seemingly endless debate, which Skelton does cover, as to whether or not the Romans practised viticulture in the British Isles, is of less interest to me than perhaps to some readers, and to a degree I’m also less interested in Chapter 2 (1939-1951), though certainly not disinterested. But the establishment of commercial viticulture in the United Kingdom from 1952 onwards (Chapter 3) does give a good foundation for what has swiftly moved from an almost dilettante occupation at the beginning, to a fully fledged industry of value to the UK agricultural economy (with now something approaching 3,000 hectares of vines planted, if by no means all of it yet producing a wine crop).

Skelton details the change in grape varieties planted over this latter period, and it is worth noting how the switch to the traditional “Champagne” varieties has been so swift, with the consequent move away from varieties more useful for still wine in an extremely cool climate. Doubtless climate change has been beneficial to the extent that we can now hope to ripen these varieties almost every year.

He gives the reader two facts which I think are essential in one sense in illustrating the rapid changes taking place. The first is that those three sparkling wine varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, now account for 63% of that 3,000 hectares (and, he says, more like 70% of production). But he also repeats an oft-quoted fact that the area under vine in England and Wales has grown by close to one third in the period since 2016, which if you look at the figures is phenomenal growth. It’s why I think my earlier concerns about a glut, if not an English wine lake, are worth noting.

The figures regarding the Champagne varieties do hide what I can see as something of a resurgence for the older (in UK terms) varieties, though. Wines made from Bacchus, Ortega (and others but especially those two) are gaining a following among that younger audience I mentioned. So when the author says “The future for production in Britain of sparkling wine – which in truth is the only category that really matters now…” (my itals), I am not sure he is completely correct. I really do see a market emerging, albeit small, for other varieties. The reason I think it’s important is because these wines are not being bought by the coach parties but by that younger crowd who are prepared to pay £20-£30 for what they perceive as exciting and quality wine.

There is one other comment I would like to address on grape varieties. On page 68 the author states that “Riesling…resists all attempts to be grown successfully in Britain”. It may be the case that Mr Skelton has never tasted the Charlie Herring Wines Sparkling Riesling (“Promised Land”) made by Tim Phillips from his walled vineyard (undoubtedly the key) between Sway and Lymington, in Hampshire.

I will add in a little suspense by telling you that the 2013 will get a Review in Part One of my “Recent Wines” for May, next week. However, Tim’s wine may well prove the exception. I am told Denbies could never ripen Riesling, and equally that Rathfinny, which planted around 20,000 Riesling vines according to one source, grubbed them all up this year. But that doesn’t mean Tim Phillips’s Riesling isn’t a marvel. If you like a firm, steely, spine to your “Sekt” (many a Lauer fan does), then it certainly is.

I believe in the promised land…photo for Anne Krebiehl MW

The chapter on viticulture and winemaking gives us more than a fine overview of the conditions faced by grape farmers in England and Wales. The emphasis on selecting the right site is repeated over and over again, especially with regarding to planting altitude. One of the great issues British grape growers face is wind, which in terms of my own garden I perceive to have been particularly strong over this current year. I have seen the vineyards at Rathfinny Estate many times over recent years and I would say my first thoughts were along the lines of “boy, you’ve chosen a windy site”, less than two miles from the sea, south of Alfriston (East Sussex).

I found it interesting that Skelton includes a long quotation from Rathfinny owner Mark Driver’s blog where Driver acknowledges wind was a concern when choosing the site. The author suggests that in the search for chalk-rich soils in the Southern Counties perhaps insufficient note has been taken of exposure to wind. Wind can do many things, not all negative in relation to disease, but it can play havoc with yields. Rathfinny is one of the two biggest vineyard investments in the UK, and Stephen Skelton does worry that “time will tell if this multi-million-pound venture will be a financially viable enterprise”. If crops are limited by wind, then profitability will be impaired, unless the Rathfinny name can ensure a hefty premium, which I’m fairly sure is what the vineyard’s owners hope.

Rathfinny’s vineyard team has put in large expanses of plastic wind break, which are fairly ugly (and not at all in keeping with the attractive Downland scenery, nor very ecological). One hopes they are a temporary measure as natural windbreaks grow. As Mr Driver says, “…the trees we planted as windbreaks are taking a lot longer to grow than I expected”. Well, it’s pure chalk exposed Downland…

The books which I have read in the Infinite Ideas wine library series all major on producer profiles. This particular book differs from most others in that there are only twenty-one major profiles of producers. This is considerably fewer than the other books in the series, although it is true that the profiles in this chapter are much longer. Of these twenty-one I would say that seven of them I did not know. Naturally, with a larger entry for those selected I learnt an awful lot about them (each alphabetical entry gets between four and eight pages of text, approximately).

The chosen few were selected as covering “the complete spectrum of those owning vineyards in Britain today”. That may be true but in omitting many top and major wineries from this chapter, I think that it lessens the book’s value as a consumer guide to English and Welsh Wine. The answer, of course, is to buy Skelton’s aforementioned 2016 Vineyard Directory (UK Vineyards Guide), which I understand lists more than six hundred vineyards and producers, though I am not sure in how much detail. But so much has happened so quickly on the English Wine scene in the last five years that I would imagine a new edition would be welcome.

Stephen Skelton, as I noted before, has worked extensively as a consultant to the British wine industry. It is clear from his text that, at the very least, many of the producers selected for an entry in this chapter are ones he has worked with, which has doubtless given him privileged access to, and insights into, these operations. But for myself, I was surprised to see several key names missing here. In terms of size and/or prestige I can’t really fathom why he has not decided to include the likes of Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon and perhaps Wiston in such a list, but I am not privy to the reasons for exclusion.

Those omissions are to a certain extent made up for by an Appendix which contains “Other Notable Vineyards”. There are, in fact, seventy (if I have counted correctly) producers listed alphabetically, but the entries are very short, mostly between two and six lines of text. They often sound like pure marketing. There isn’t generally much information about wines produced, but we do learn that if you visit English Oak Vineyard near Poole in Dorset, then “electric vehicle charging [is also] available”; that Gusbourne Vineyard “strives to create wines that stand up alongside the finest offerings across the globe”; or in the case of Lavenham Brook Vineyard, all we are told is that it is “planted on a south-facing chalk slope [and] makes award-winning still and sparkling wines”.

These few lines read almost as if they are paid entries in a directory, and certainly as if they were written by the winery itself. Lavenham Brook is a good example of how this small directory section could have been improved immeasurably, because as with many of these wineries, if you don’t know them you won’t know where they are. Their web site addresses are given, for sure, so we can look them up. But if we had just been given a location (nearest town/village and county) it would have assisted our decision as to whether we wanted to take our research further when perhaps choosing a vineyard to visit on a weekend afternoon.

Some of the English producers I might have hoped to see get a multi-page entry in Chapter 6 do appear in this appendix with a few lines. People like Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Rathfinny, Ridgeview and Wiston (to name a few). Hattingley and Wiston are notable for their respective award winning winemakers, Emma Rice and Dermot Sugrue, who have had an unquestionable influence on modern English Sparkling Wine.

Plumpton College gets a four line mention in this appendix. It is rightly described as “Britain’s centre of excellence in wine training, education and research”. I would have argued for a lot more information on the one place in the UK where you can get an undergraduate, and graduate, qualification in wine. The college is now rightly at the forefront of wine education and is increasingly turning out home-grown winemaking talent essential in taking English Wine forward. Plumpton doesn’t get it all right (I have some thoughts on their use of synthetic agro-chemicals and possible alternatives), but their level of experimentation stretches to a nice row of new amphorae and qvevris spotted on my last visit there.

Now we come to what I call the complete omissions, and these fall into two categories. The second would be the innovators. I will talk about those in a minute. These might, for various reasons, be ignored by the author. But there is another category, that of very high quality producers of ESW who are for whatever reason ignored. There are several, who for me would include the likes of Cottonworth, and especially Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk Wines. This producer in Hampshire’s Test Valley admittedly only launched their first wines in 2018, but they exploded onto the scene. Many insiders (not just myself) consider Black Chalk to be potentially the most exciting new producer in Britain at the moment.

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Of course there are also wines which may not have wide appeal but which some of us enjoy nevertheless. I can’t help but give a shout, in this category (though I can’t complain at it not getting a mention in the book), to Bolney‘s red sparkling Dornfelder. Not one for the wine experts, but if you are seeking a bit of old school fun…

Now to the innovators. These are the people who may be working at the fringes, but in fact are the people who are driving subtle changes in the market for English (and Welsh) wines. Their influences may seem tiny looking down from the lofty heights, but here at ground level they are perceptible.

Innovation one – petnat. Skelton rightly mentions and pretty much dismisses cheap sparkling wine made by the Charmat (tank fermented) method, but he fails to comment on wines fermented in bottle by what the French call the méthode ancienne. The resulting wine is bottle-fermented but is not disgorged of its lees sediment, creating a style called pétillant naturel. These wines have achieved massive popularity worldwide among younger drinkers, largely because they are primarily fun wines full of glouglou charm, usually low alcohol, and usually cheaper to make and consequently much cheaper to buy than traditional method ESW. These wines are also not made to fit into the “luxury” category inexorably pursued by most producers of traditional method wines. Producers of notable examples include Ancre Hill, Davenport, Westwell and Tillingham, but there are many more.

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Mentioning Tillingham, this most innovative of labels was set up by ex-Gusbourne CEO Ben Walgate, creating a winery and a new vineyard inland from Rye in East Sussex. As well as pushing the petnat envelope he has led the slow but essential march towards experimenting with terracotta winemaking via skin contact methods. Beneath an Oast House a hundred metres from the winery Ben has a number of qvevri buried, all sourced from Georgia, and his experimentation extends beyond wine to qvevri cider as well. As I said above, his experiments have not gone unnoticed, with qvevri now landing, inter alia, at Plumpton College.

The Qvevri shed at Tillingham (Ben Walgate left, Tim Phillips centre) with their contents

These experimental styles of wine are well suited for some of the grape varieties which have previously gone under the umbrella “lesser”, both vinifera and complex hybrids like Seyval Blanc and Solaris. I’ve made my own skin contact orange wine from Seyval Blanc, and although I’m a mere amateur, I would say that it was the best wine I ever made. The grapes are no longer available to me and I’m now making light red from Frühburgunder (more commonly known as Pinot Précose in the UK). Davenport’s petnat is always highly sought after, if you look to that style, and Adrian Pike’s Westwell “Pink” (Pinot Noir/Meunier blend) is wonderful if you fancy an excellent Rosé (and often easier to source, though there are only usually around 1,000 bottles).

Ancre Hill, like Tillingham, is completely biodynamic. They make stunningly good Demeter-certified Welsh Sparkling Wine by the traditional method, aided by a particularly well chosen 12-hectare site with a special microclimate in Monmouth. Among other wines from Ancre Hill I have tried a fun, red, petnat made from Triomphe, and an exciting cuvée called “Orange Wine – whole bunch pressed (mostly) Albariño, one of the most potentially promising varieties introduced to the UK recently, which sees 30-50 days on skins and comes with one of the most quirky labels in England and Wales (traditional Welsh National Dress meets A Clockwork Orange).

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Interestingly there was one producer which Stephen Skelton had intended to include in his chapter of larger producer profiles, one he describes as “a Welsh biodynamic producer”, which I take to mean Ancre Hill? The reason for exclusion given – “unfortunately he changed his mind and was ultimately unwilling to discuss his business with me”. Considering my perception of the importance of Ancre Hill on a number of levels (ranging from quality to innovation) it is a shame that no mention of this wine producer appears anywhere in the book. It means that the future role of biodynamics, and low intervention winemaking and viticulture generally in the United Kingdom, doesn’t get a real airing.

“Natural Wine” is a philosophy which, for most of those who practise it, trumps production levels, even getting a crop at all. Those who make wine without recourse to the addition of synthetic agro-chemicals do so because they believe such chemicals are harmful, either to fauna or consumers, or both. This topic is pertinent with brexit around the corner because there are a number of treatments either banned, or due to be banned, from use in the EU which might not receive the same treatment in English and Welsh vineyards in a post-brexit situation.

Glyphosate (more commonly known by the trade name created by Monsanto for the weedkiller of which it is an ingredient, “Roundup”) is one example, a ban having been put off for a further five years by the EU in 2017, so due to be taken out of use within the European Union in 2022. It’s one chemical those who eschew the use of the synthetics always mention as in their view potentially harmful. Let’s hope that we don’t end up keeping it when the EU ban finally comes into force, but readers ought to note that the UK was one of those EU Member States in favour of a renewal of the licence. There are statements online which claim studies suggesting that glyphosate can be a cause of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and other cancers, though I have no personal scientific knowledge here, only the tools proffered by Google for my research. By total coincidence I read yesterday that UK DIY chain B&Q has just announced it will no longer sell glyphosate-based weedkillers.

Our climate can have been said in the past to have been eminently unsuitable for grape farming without the assistance of chemicals described by some producers as napalm death. Yet a small number do succeed with organics, biodynamics and “natural wine”. Have they just been lucky with climate change or are they, like Ben Walgate and Tim Phillips, Ancre Hill (and a few others) careful and clever?

Back to the book…I suppose Stephen Skelton hasn’t perhaps set out here to create a real consumer guide, by which I mean a book which gives the kind of details someone would find useful if setting out to visit English and Welsh vineyards. As we have noted, he’s already written that one, although perhaps a “Vineyard Directory” may not be exactly what I’d like to read either. This work doesn’t, for instance, list the wines made by each producer with some sort of critique. The larger winery entries in Chapter 6 are much more slanted towards the business than the end product. I think this is the key way in which this work differs from the others I’ve read so far in the Infinite Ideas series.

It could not really be said that Skelton is a finger on the pulse man. Clearly he has a great deal of insider knowledge of the industry, in terms of financing and wine technology. He has advised so many English and Welsh vineyards on site selection, grape varieties, vine training methods, rootstocks etc. But I would have loved to know what he thinks about the mass of innovation taking place on the periphery. Does he dismiss it or is he unaware of what those producers I’ve been talking about are up to? I presume it isn’t the latter? So perhaps where we differ is in my perception of the future value of this innovation to the industry, and that such innovation is not merely a gimmick.

The innovation we are seeing is important for one good reason, which ties in once more with the general worries about the market for English and Welsh wines I expressed at the beginning of this article. Stephen Skelton suggests (as I have quoted) that English wine is all about the emulation of Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier on chalk (and not forgetting that some pretty fine sparkling wines come off good old English clay, something not all new producers appear to know). These wines cost a lot to produce, a lot to market, and when it comes to the end result, retail prices approaching £40 a bottle or more limit your audience, even more so in a likely recession.

Is there not a lesson to be learnt from the innovators? They signal opportunities to diversify. Ben Walgate has proved that you can make profitable petnat from Pinot and bang it out for £20 a bottle, and he’s also proved there’s a thirst for skin contact, orange wine and all manner of other concoctions if they taste good, and especially if they come with good modern and innovative design. He’s by no means alone. There are small artisan producers doing great things, if on a small scale, in pretty much every county that grows grapes.

Your average drinker of ESW is older and affluent, not to mention perhaps a more conservative palate. Your average drinker of the innovative styles is younger, and if not exactly “poor” they certainly have other calls on their disposable income. The future of English and Welsh wine may not be completely orange, but there’s certainly a place in the market for it, alongside some of the other more offbeat wines and styles I’ve mentioned. If that particular market sector is small now, I am convinced it can grow.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, actually, I did. It’s a work containing a great deal of knowledge and experience. Am I pleased I was able to use a discount code? Well, perhaps I am. It meant that the book cost £18 instead of £30, and I would not say I felt it was as seminal as some of the other books in this often fabulous series. But remember, I write for an audience which I have come to know over five or so years, and with whom I share a number of truths. We all love to see boundaries pushed, sometimes by the conventional and sometimes by the unconventional. Even the world of English (and Welsh) wine is wider than just “ESW”.

I think that most readers coming regularly to my site want to see English and Welsh wine move forward in directions other than merely a copy of the world’s most famous sparkling wine, however central traditional method sparklers are, and will be, to our country’s wine future. This is why I have taken the opportunity to express some views and discuss some wines beyond the scope of Stephen Skelton’s book. My intention is not to claim great knowledge, merely to add to, and stimulate, the debate.

The Wines of Great Britain by Stephen Skelton MW was published in 2019 by Infinite Ideas Ltd, as part of the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library (RRP £30). There are currently, I believe, twenty-one books published in this excellent library, making Infinite Ideas one of the most prolific sources for wine writing, certainly the most prolific in the UK. Their list is worth exploring. I’ve read four and there are at least half a dozen more I’d like to explore.

 

 

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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5 Responses to Skelton’s “The Wines of Great Britain” and some thoughts on English Wine

  1. Mark Carrington says:

    An interesting article.
    My concern with the book is that in a rapidly changing wine environment in UK the book quickly becomes irrelevant. Moreover, I would be looking to use it as a buying guide. So am I willing to shell out £30??
    As aside, I have recently purchased a pair of 2018 still wines from Bride Valley & also Langham. They are either PN or Chard. The only one opened to date is Langham Chardonnay (12% abv) £15. I found the high alcohol challenging. Mrs C enjoyed it more. It’s an unlikely repeat purchase.
    Bride Valley are considerably pricier

    Liked by 1 person

    • dccrossley says:

      I would hope that should the author disagree with anything I’ve written, one would hope he would not disagree that this could not be further from being a buying guide, which I think in many ways English (& Welsh) wine is ready for

      I am yet to sample the Spurrier product. As for Langham I’ve only had fizz, which I must say has been consistently good.

      Like

  2. Mark C says:

    My reference to high alcohol for the Langham Chardonnay should read ‘high acidity’. Oops!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alex M says:

    I met with the author in question earlier in the year to look at a potential site. He appeared to know very little about Black Chalk and hadn’t tasted their wines. Like you, I think there’s exciting potential here – a youthful start-up to be championed, with young, thrusting, innovative winemakers. It’s a shame some have been left out, but I think I can take a pretty good guess at the reasons why.

    Liked by 1 person

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