This week you get two book reviews in one article and, I think for the first time, one of them isn’t about wine. Tempted as I’ve been in the past to review books on my other passion, music, I have sensibly refrained. But cheese, surely that counts for being so plainly associated with wine for centuries. It happens that I read these two books consecutively over the past two weeks, and they both have a common geographical focus, the British Isles. Of course, I’d not be reviewing a cheese book here unless I thought it was something special, and a little different. What I will say, before we move on, is that both books have a strong narrative, and so as well as informing they also entertain. Perhaps this is why I read them so quickly. Please take the time, if you can, to read both reviews.
First, to Oz. Oz Clarke’s book is called “English Wine”, though he explains in a reader’s note that this is in no way intended to upset the Welsh winemakers, of whom seven get a mention in an albeit short chapter. It is because, as Oz rightly remembers, “British Wine” is made from imported grape concentrate. He might have taken a leaf out of Ned Palmer’s cheese book’s title, but then he might have clashed with Stephen Skelton’s “Wines of Great Britain” (2019).
You kind of know what you might get from the cover, which sports a cartoon of Oz sitting atop the White Cliffs of Dover sipping a sparkling wine in a “flute”. These cartoons appear throughout. Beneath is the strapline “From Still to Sparkling…The Newest New World Wine Country”.
The book, which runs to 176 pages, begins with a little history, but thankfully only a little. Oz does mention the debate as to whether the Romans really did make wine from their English vines, and he does mention the vineyards of medieval England, whilst acknowledging that they were probably fairly insignificant compared to imports from the Gironde and later Portugal, not to mention beer (and small beer). But he doesn’t labour the point.
In fact, by the time we have reached page 40 we have covered more up-to-date matters like the importance of location for a successful vineyard, the planting spree of the 2000s and questions of what grape varieties to plant and what to make from them. It’s a shorter summary than you’ll find elsewhere, less detailed but more succinct.
The short middle part of the book, which ends the more general sections, covers Sparkling Wine, which Oz naturally calls British Bubbles. Even if you’ve done a stage at Taittinger you’ll still find this nine or so pages interesting, but most people reading this Blog will not learn anything new. That said, it does lead us in nicely to the main body of the book, effectively the last hundred pages, which is a “Tour of the Regions”.
As you can see from the Contents photo, England and Wales is broken up geographically, although Oz is not (I think) advocating regional PDOs (in a European sense) for English and Welsh wine (which at least one major producer in Sussex seems to advocate). In fact, Oz is rather good at simply describing the geology of the vineyards, which naturally doesn’t take any notice of County boundaries.
He dismisses the idea that English vines have to be grown on Downland chalk, giving a shout-out for the Thames Valley gravel beds, for “greensands” in particular (another type of detritus-rich marine deposit), and even pointing out where vines have been successfully grown on clay in some places, that supposed “no-no” for serious viticulture in England due to its normally high water retention. In fact, he is also very adept at explaining other aspects of terroir throughout the book, especially slope orientation, rainfall and, very pertinent to where I live, wind, in a way that’s simple enough that you won’t forget the lessons.
I suppose it is this regional coverage in the book which is most relevant for readers who are not novices. The directory should give us an insight into the workings of the wineries and vineyards whose wines we are likely to find in the shops, and indeed if it does its job, this section will make us want to go out and try these wines. I do think it achieves this very well. You just need to read the entry for one of England’s very oldest (and smallest) commercial vineyards, Breaky Bottom (p84ff) and I challenge you not to want to go out and buy some (Give Butlers Wine Cellar in nearby Brighton a call as they are usually well stocked with Peter Hall’s different sparkling cuvées). Perhaps even his bottle-fermented Seyval Blanc for the more adventurous among you? Most should begin with the numerous cuvées made from Champagne’s traditional trio of varieties.
We get all of the big players included here, and the entries are well written. They generally get right to the heart of what drove individuals to want to create wine in England as well as listing the more mundane aspects, such as planting ratios and maturation techniques. We also get a good number of the newer names on the scene, something I personally felt (obviously a subjective opinion) that Stephen Skelton’s 2019 “The Wines of Great Brtitain” (which I reviewed last year) failed to give us.
I guess you want examples? Skelton seems to ignore Ben Walgate’s Tillingham (at Peasmarsh near Rye, East Sussex). Ben is England’s great experimenter, and if like me you believe that those working at the fringes are most likely to push the envelope for everyone else, then Tillingham is an important place in English Wine (not to mention a serious venue for experiencing innovative vineyard hospitality through their smart accommodation and restaurants). Oz ends his one-page entry for Tillingham saying “…there’s no doubt that if biodynamic vineyards and natural winemaking are to play a part [in the future path of English wine], Ben Walgate will be leading the charge”.
So, Oz covers the whole range of British vineyards, large and small. He does it very well. I was disappointed to see some omissions, for example Westwell Wines on the North Downs of Kent, at Charing, where Adrian Pike is hardly less innovative than Ben Walgate. Then, on a more traditional note, there’s Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk in Hampshire. I know Oz must have tasted Black Chalk as I’ve spotted him at the Wines of Hamphire Tasting at 67 Pall Mall on at least one occasion. It was pretty much on the back of the very first releases by Jacob that I identified Black Chalk as heading swiftly towards the top of the rankings for English Sparkling Wine, and I was not alone in that at least one prominent wine writer shared my enthusiasm. Black Chalk cemented its place at the 2020 Wine GB Awards, where they won “Best Newcomer”.
If I’m really picking nits, as well as omitting Westwell and Black Chalk, I would personally have liked a bit more than mere “directory” information for that other great innovator, Ancre Hill in Monmouthshire. Ancre Hill might well have become known a decade ago for some cracking Welsh sparklers, but having recently drunk their red petnat made from Triomphe and being soon to drink another bottle of their innovatively-labelled “Orange” (made from Albariño), I’d suggest this vineyard has a broad portfolio of exciting wines.
I must say that one thing I am very pleased about is that Oz doesn’t dismiss still wines. It might be pertinent to note here that just as the climate of at least England’s south coast is becoming remarkably similar to that experienced in France’s Champagne Region a decade or so ago, Louis Roederer has announced two new and rather expensive Coteaux Champenois still wines. I have no doubt that these trailblazing cuvées from a forward-looking Grande Marque will be followed in time with other still cuvées, to join those of the Growers (some of which are pretty good already).
As Champagne gets warmer, so does England. If the future may now so obviously look sparkling, we must understand that still wines will have a place in our wine story. Some do already, and as they are easier and cheaper to produce than classic method, bottle-fermented, sparklers, they provide tempting cash flow (as England’s massive investors, the Driver family at Rathfinny, astutely recognised, releasing their Cradle Valley Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend as their first sparkling wines matured on their lees in Alfriston). Whilst Bacchus establishes itself as a genuinely English variety, in terms of the unique white wines it produces here, there is no doubt that many winemakers have already been hooked by the search for the holy grail of exceptional English red Pinot Noir. Some of you will know what I mean if I quote Hobo Johnson: “I woulda bought a Lambo but I’m not quite there yet” (from Subaru Crosstrek XV). But they will get there one day very soon.
How to sum up? I enjoyed Oz’s book immensely. If you want a lot of dry facts, perhaps you might want to look elsewhere. It’s relatively lightweight as far as hardbacks go, literally speaking. I’d not say it’s “lightweight” as regards content, but Oz is not writing a PhD thesis either. In fact, I’m sure this consummate entertainer is attempting nothing of the sort.
I’d say Oz will appeal to two kinds of reader. First would be perhaps my twenty-three-to-thirty-year-old self, getting interested more seriously in wine for the first time. The second type of reader is me now, a wine obsessive who wants to consume as much as possible about this new wine frontier. The book’s narrative drives the text along and frankly I could have read it all in one long, fully catered, duvet day. If I’d not enjoyed it, you’d not be reading a review. And as a subject, English (and Welsh) wine is something we all need to get to know pretty quickly.
English Wine by Oz Clarke is published by Pavilion (hardback, 2020, rrp £16.99 or US $ 24.95). I include the dollar price because for North American readers interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, this book is a great place to start.
Now please don’t stop reading because I would very much like to spend a few paragraphs telling you about a book which could almost be a companion to Oz Clarke, A Cheese-monger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer (Profile Books, hardback 2019, this soft cover edn, 2020, rrp £9.99).
Ned Palmer, like most people involved in the renaissance of the fine cheeses of our islands, had no intention of such a career. This budding jazz pianist ended up taking a “temporary” job at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Covent Garden before eventually, after a great deal of travels, cheesemaking jaunts and getting to know Great Britain and Ireland’s best cheesemakers, founding The Cheese Tasting Company in 2014.
I own a few books on cheese, but this one is a little (a lot) different, and that’s why I’m bringing it to your attention. Over ten long chapters, Ned gives us a highly entertaining overview of British and Irish cheesemaking throughout our history. He begins with our Neolithic past before moving towards our present-day real cheese revival, via the Romans, the Monasteries, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the Victorians, the 20th century with its wars, right up to the present day. There is feast and famine, and the near destruction of craft cheese as an industry here, before signs of new shoots from the 1970s, and what we can genuinely call a renaissance since 2000.
Each chapter has a signature cheese, in some way relevant to the time period. Ned will usually take us to visit its finest proponents and we get a history lesson somewhere between a visit to the British Library’s darkest corners and one of those “Horrible Histories” books. This is another book with a narrative that keeps you reading until your eyes can no longer stay open (if like me you are reading a chapter a night in bed). It had one other effect too, in some ways not what you want, but certainly an indication of just how good a read this was: even after a good dinner, reading Ned Palmer’s prose made me genuinely hungry for the cheese in question. A real feeling in the stomach and an uncanny ability, on several occasions, to smell that cheese in the depths of my memory.
This is a brilliant book, and not surprisingly it won a Sunday Times Book of the Year Award, as well as being shortlisted for the André Simon Awards and for a Fortnum & Mason Guild of Food Writers Prize. It brought me two additional avenues of research, both of which I shall be pursuing.
At the end of the book Ned details some “favourite cheeses”, listed by type with a brief paragraph about them. Many are classics if you are an habitué of Neal’s Yard Dairy or Paxton & Whitfield. I was also led to Ned’s web site, www.cheesetastingco.uk ,where you can find a list of fine cheesemongers both in the capital and around the country. I was very happy to find one shop listed in the market town closest to where my parents live which I had not previously known existed, and which, by location, ought to sell the finest example known to man of my father’s favourite cheese. Another reason I can’t wait for Lockdown to end.
I put up a review of a cheese book on my wine blog because I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I’m sure it will rank among my books of the year, and if my few paragraphs explaining its format appeal to you, if of course you love cheese, and if of course you are not one of those with a pathological inability to appreciate the fine cheeses of our British Isles alongside the wonders of taste produced by our European cousins, then you might just feel the same way.