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|English winegrowers are benefiting from
global warming and their reputation is improving fast. Despite the
rain, some British vintners dream of competing with France's
Stuart Smith is a man with a difficult mission: growing grapes and
making wine where others are only drinking it. In recent days, he
and his pickers in England's northernmost and probably coolest
vineyard brought in the last of the harvest. Ryedale, in the county
of North Yorkshire, is farther north than Hamburg, and yet, says
Smith, "the vintage is good, very good, in fact...... plump grapes,
plenty of sugar and low acidity".
Three years ago Smith planted his vines, most of them cold-resistant
varieties from Germany. The 2008 vintage gave him the first 400
bottles of a dry white wine, and even garnered him an award in a
wine competition. Smith expects to produce "at least 2,500 bottles"
He estimates that within five years his production will have
increased to more than 20,000 bottles. Smith is one of the few
people who welcome global warming. For his business, he says, the
supposedly imminent climate catastrophe is "something of an
The concept of English wine was once as absurd as German bananas.
But England's summers have been warmer and drier from year to year.
The effects of climate change have been tangible in the British
Isles for some time, and oenophile Britons are trying to take
advantage of those effects to make wine. The pioneers of the 1980s
were practically treated as wine-drunk lunatics, but now the exotic
industry is experiencing a veritable boom. Whether in Cornwall in
the southwest, in the wild landscape of Wales or near London, there
are now 416 winegrowers in the United Kingdom -- the highest number
ever. Their vineyards are generally tiny, but they are growing
rapidly. In the last five years, the amount of land devoted to
winegrowing has increased by more than 50 percent.
Some of the wine being pressed by former sheep farmers tastes awful.
But the quality of many of the English wines is remarkable. When the
G-20 heads of state rushed to London in April to save the world
economy, one of the wines they were served as No. 10 Downing Street
was a British bubbly -- a 1998 Nyetimber Blanc de Blanc with a fine
bead, produced in Sussex in southern England.
English wines are now achieving respectable results at blind taste
tests like the International Wine Challenge, one of the world's
biggest wine competitions. They captured 24 medals at this year's
event, including a few gold medals. However France, with its 729
medals, is still the undisputed leader.
At England's largest vineyard, only 40 kilometers (25 miles) south
of London, long rows of grape vines line the southern slope of the
Denbies Wine Estate. A group of vigorous pensioners has just brought
in the last grapes at the 107-hectare (264-acre) vineyard, to the
great satisfaction of the winery owner. This year also promises to
be an excellent year at Denbies. July was too wet, but the weather
in the ensuing months was perfect for winegrowing -- warm, but not
too hot, allowing the grapes to mature at an optimal rate and
gradually develop their aroma. The grapes now in the presses and
fermentation tanks will be enough for more than 500,000 bottles of
wine: white, rosé, red and, most of all, sparkling wine, produced in
accordance with the methods used in the French Champagne region.
Denbies was once a dying farm, with cornfields, hogs and cattle.
Adrian White, an entrepreneur who made a fortune with sewage
treatment plants, bought the farm in 1984. Two years later, he
planted 300,000 vines on a hillside, something that no one had ever
tried before in that location. He uncorked his first bottle in 1989.
The vineyard's harvest and quality has increased almost every year
Expanding into England
Richard Selley, a professor emeritus of geology at the Imperial
College London, was the one who advised White to grow grapes at the
time. Selley had found that the chalky soils in southern England are
identical to those that promote winegrowing in Champagne. He argued
that grape vines should thrive on selected hillsides with southern
exposures. Even the ancient Romans had cultivated vines in England,
Selley said, at a time when the climate was relatively mild and
stable. But the Little Ice Age, near the end of the Middle Ages, put
an end to those vineyards. Grapes do not tolerate temperature
Selley's wine prognosis proved to be correct. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
and Pinot Meunier, the grape varieties grown in France's Champagne
region, are all doing surprisingly well in England's new climate.
Experts have already confused what the British call "bubbly" with
real champagne, which is why top vintners looking for expansion
opportunities, like Louis Roederer, have already started looking for
land across the English Channel -- where it can be had for a tenth
of what it would cost in France.
To be on the safe side, the Champagne vintners should also try
searching much farther north. Geologist Selley predicts that as the
earth grows warmer, winegrowing could be possible as far north as
the Scottish Highlands. He is convinced that even the hillsides
surrounding Loch Ness will produce an excellent Riesling by 2080. In
fact, southern England could already be too hot for such varieties
by then. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, would
grow as well there as they do in California today -- while drying up
in many of France's best winegrowing regions.
Chris White, 33, the son of the owner of the Denbies vineyard, is
already preparing for that future. He wants to try growing Sauvignon
Blanc, a variety that would normally be unthinkable in England's
climate. "They laughed at us 20 years ago, when we planted Pinot
Noir," says White. "And now that's our best grape."