Until I read this interesting book, I had no idea that the postcode in which I live in northeast Essex is the finest terroir for wine in the country. It was all I could do to resist ripping up the lawn and planting vines. Indeed, Henry Jeffreys quotes one of the country’s leading authorities on English wine as saying that ‘England’s answer to Château Pétrus’ could be found somewhere in Essex. Of course it could.
Jeffreys has talked to key people in the English wine industry about the development of the business here. He paints a pretty comprehensive picture of how things are today and how they have reached their present, flourishing condition. A lot of people have invested a lot of money in English wine in the last forty years – and, it seems, lost a lot of it too. The typical English vigneron appears to be someone who made what City boys call a ‘shedload’ in a hedge fund and then found it burning a hole in his pocket. However, it is not least because of the sacrifices such people have made that we have moved on from the point where, not long ago, a British ambassador to Paris who tried to import some English wine for a dinner attended by the late Queen was told by French customs that there was no such thing as English wine.
This is not a work of propaganda, though in telling what amounts to the adventure story of a group of pioneers who have put English wine in the global marketplace, Jeffreys sometimes makes it sound like one. All the winemakers he speaks to talk up what they are doing, since they have little interest in doing anything else. What the English business has to overcome is memories of the dark days of the second half of the 20th century, when English wine – which, whatever the French thought, did exist – was generally foul. I doubt I am the only member of my generation, who came to drinking age in the 1970s and 1980s, for whom the phrase ‘English wine’ is a byword for ‘paint stripper’. Indeed, I recall a friend coming to visit about thirty years ago and bringing a bottle from one of the Essex vineyards rapturously described by Jeffreys. He did so as a joke. It looked like a surgical sample and, judging by what little of it we managed to consume, tasted like one. Things have, we are told, improved.
Back in the days of paint stripper, the industry was going through the ‘bloody awful weather’ years, which made wine production all but impossible. There were frosts, it rained at the wrong time and there were too few hot days in summer. That time is now over, though