Back at the end of May I was wandering around the Tobacco Dock venue for the Real Wine Fair and I happened to spy Tim Wildman. I have been a fan of his Aussie Petnats for ages, so I thought I’d head over, say hi and probably taste some new vintage Piggy Pop! and Astro Bunny. What I saw instead was a rather fancy bottle with a lovely bright label (as you’d expect from design-savvy Tim). I was about to get acquainted with his latest “Lost Vineyard” project.
Back in the day (a long time back in the day), before any sane wine journalists were hyping English Wine, it didn’t really have a sparkling focus. Almost all of the wine from my home country was white, lowish in alcohol and quite acidic. In many cases the best compliment you could come up with was that they might be refreshing on a hot day…in five years’ time. Okay, they weren’t that bad, well not all of them. The acidity didn’t really make them interchangeable with Gros Plant for a cheap Kir because they were usually made with grape varieties of mostly Germanic origin, usually crossings, usually floral by nature. And as for cheap, production costs meant they were not…although the prices back then would seem so to contemporary consumers.
Tim’s wine looks back to a time when varieties like Gutenborner, Ehrenfelser, Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Bacchus and Seyval Blanc ruled in an English vineyard. Anything, in fact, which didn’t require much sun to ripen and could cope with a bit of fungal disease. Tim’s Lost Vineyards are in fact planted with such varieties, which with a few notable exceptions (especially Peter Hall’s sparkling Seyval Blancs from Breaky Bottom in Sussex) have well and truly fallen out of fashion, trampled in the march to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.
The wine in question is called Frolic. It is a blend of twenty-one heritage varieties sourced from eight lost vineyards in seven English and Welsh counties, vineyards which no longer make commercial wines, at least from these varieties. Tim is rightly tight-lipped as to exact sources – he wants to keep making wine from them. Madeleine Angevine, once one of the most popular varieties in the UK due to its tolerance of cold weather, makes up around 70% of the blend. It also includes Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Seibel, and other red varieties such as Triomphe (used to great effect at Ancre Hill in a red petnat), Rondo and Cabernet Noir.
Tim’s wine, of which you will have to wait until one of my “Recent Wines” articles to read how it tastes, tied in nicely with something I found this morning whilst packing my enormous wine library for our imminent house move. Back in the second half of the 1980s, as a newly interested wine lover of three or four years and trying to wean myself off Mouton Cadet, I went to the Sunday Times Wine Club’s London Wine Fair, and began to collect a series of booklets which came weekly in that newspaper.
Four pages on English Wine in the final (sixth) part of a series edited by a presumably very young Joanna Simon paints a very different picture of the English wine scene back in the 1980s (I’ve dated, by a process of deduction, the booklet to either late 1987 or early 1988). The introduction stresses the poor weather, but equally extols the high winemaking standards. Perhaps back then a degree of wishful thinking (and a degree or two too little to ripen the grapes very often, although among the “hobbyists” we did have some exceptional winemaking talent who helped the industry take off).
Back then, Englishness was expressed in terms of floral bouquets and a lot of elderflower references, the codial doubtless striking a familiar note for potential consumers. The taste often consisted of tart fruit (grapefruit and especially gooseberry, always a classic note as well for unripe Sauvignon Blanc from France’s Loire Valley back then, but also very “English”…I grew up on gooseberry tart and gooseberry fool). In those days a lot was made of the fact that Roman and Medieval Britain had a “thriving” vineyard. Most modern writers (Oz Clarke, Stephen Skelton) would probably stress the “thriving” a bit less today.
From today’s perspective, having just had some of the hottest days on record in Southern England, the last big heatwave of 1976 gets a mention, though I’m not sure it had a great specific impact on the long-term prospects for English wine, except to give hope to many downcast grape growers. The system for taxing winemaking and wine was equally a focus back then, with complaints that the young industry was being hindered by unfair tax levels. Plus ça change!
Perhaps one of the most surprising (or not) statistics was how little land was planted with vines back them: just 1,200 acres (not hectares, acres), farmed by between 500-to-600 growers. Figures from June this year put us at over 8,000 acres (around 3,500 hectares). This is a pretty good increase, although to put this in context, Spain (with the largest planting) has more than 960,000 ha. We are still tiny. For the record, France has around 797,000 ha and China 781,000 ha (Source: State of the World Vitivinicultural Sector in 2020, pub 04/2021).
A good few of the vineyards of England followed the tradition set in motion by the father of English wine, Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones. His original vineyard at Hambledon, planted in the 1950s, was effectively a hobby. Whilst commercial vineyards were to follow, certainly from the 1970s, the hobbyists still had a profile, as illustrated by the fact that among those mentioned in the booklet, Beaulieu Vineyard in Hampshire, home of Lord Montague, gets a few lines for their “first-class rosé” made, in a “lighter, fruitier, Provence style” from Seibel. Albert Seibel crossed a number of European varieties with American grapes in the 1950s. The idea was to produce fruit with increased disease resistance. In theory such hybrid varieties are now banned within the EU, though they do crop up in some interesting places, hidden from the authorities.
Look at the photo of the map and you will see a good number of vineyards you might not have heard of. Highwaymans, Paxton Crest, Croffta, Chalk Hill and Castle Vineyard are all off my radar. I’ll probably find out how many are still going soon as I’m about to begin to read Ed Dallimore’s new “The Vineyards of Britain”. A casual flick through threw out some names I didn’t previously know.
What is maybe more telling is what isn’t on that map. Think of today’s stars, England and Wales’s best-known vineyards, certainly among connoisseurs, and you won’t find many. Back then, Kent seemed the county of choice. The West Country is bare, although to be fair a lot of vineyards in the West of England make good use today of the East of England’s sunshine to ship grapes over. Nothing wrong with that of course, if the results are good. Essex, to a degree, might be the unsung county of English wine. Kentish Pinot Noir was once a euphemism for a joke of a wine among some people I know, but not today. A good example of east-west traffic is Lyme Bay’s award-winning Pinot which I praised after tasting at the London Wine Fair in June this year. It’s fruit source is a secret, but it is somewhere along the River Crouch in Essex.
For me, nostalgia is nothing to be embarrassed by. I’m happy to try a Bacchus from Lyme Bay here, or a Madeleine Angevine from Danebury. Of course, these wines are not in the same league as our finest sparkling wines, but it’s a bit like listening to the music of my youth for me. A reminder of a different time, a journey through the past (to steal from Neil Young).
Tim Wildman’s “Lost in a Field Frolic Petnat” costs around £32-33/bottle and has been distributed mostly to savvy independent retailers and some restaurants. Although many got small allocations and will have sold out, I know that as of yesterday the new and wonderfully named wine shop on the South Coast, “Bottle of Hastings”, had more than a case of bottles left, and more magnums than are healthy. I got my restricted access single bottle from Seven Cellars in Brighton, whose parsimonious policy may mean some might be left (it was just over a week ago). I also saw Tim had been distributing in London, including (inter alia) to the fairly new wine shop “Bedford Street Wines” in Covent Garden.