I keep reading that this is the moment when English wine finally takes off. The supermarkets are reporting sales increases over the Jubilee of anything between 90% and 300%. There’s definitely real interest, and a growing popular hope that “English wine sparkling” – yes, that episode of The Apprentice helped too – may be another stick we can beat the French with in years to come.
Even English still wine is beginning to register on the radar. I’ve always felt that until they show they can make wine from noble grapes, the English wine industry stands no chance of competing, or even turning up, in the global marketplace. So I was pleased when I tasted the wines from Stopham Estate in January. There was a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Blanc, both good quality. I just preferred the Pinot Blanc, with its white flower nose, lemony flavours and good acidity. I was looking for an English wine for our Summer list – but I assumed it would be sparkling. I never expected to find a still wine I liked.
Of course, it was really too expensive for us. I wanted to put it on by the glass, to encourage people to try it with our British Summer Like No Other set menu, but I could only do that if I crashed my margin through the floor. So that’s what I did. Call me a sentimental fool, but sometimes you just have to buy British. I bit my lip and took a tiny cash margin.
I hadn’t bargained on it being chosen to be served aboard the Royal Barge on the day when the only boat missing from the Thames pageant was Noah’s Ark! Now our guests have taken to calling it The Queen’s Tipple and ordering it with a royal wave. We've sold 10 cases in a fortnight. At this rate, the 2010 vintage won't last long - and the smaller 2011 vintage is even more expensive. Maybe we should market English wine like Creme Eggs - "not here forever, Trevor".
Anyway, to make the most of having a wine from so close to home, I decided to take some of our team to Stopham to see the operation. The vineyard and winery are near Pulborough, only 15 miles from our nearest pub. If we needed reminding that making palatable wine in the English climate is an exercise in brinkmanship, we couldn’t have chosen a better day. It was mid-June, 11 degrees C and the rain pelted down mercilessly. The water had got into the electrics in Simon Woodhead’s small but nicely-formed winery and what is reputedly a gorgeous view of the South Downs from the vineyard had to be taken on trust. Still, the vines looked healthy and the vineyard, a softly south-sloping 20 acre field dotted with mature native trees, must be a beautiful place on a sunny day. Let’s hope they get enough of them over the next three months to make a decent amount of wine in 2012 – or just when the great British public has developed a taste for it, there won't be enough to go round!