Gail Treuer (engl.)
...from the UK has lived on the river Nahe since 1988. She gives an insight into viticulture in England. Read why her country has a lot more to offer than Brexit, Bernie Ecclestone and other bad news. Here we go!
The English, wine producers? Don`t be ridiculous …
Having lived as a “Brit” in good old Germany now for over 30 years, I have often been kindly informed by my fellow Germans that England, or rather the United Kingdom, is definitely not a wine country. Well, it’s high time this opinion changed. And the other very serious dilemma I need to remark on: "Why can’t I get a good German wine when home on a visit to England?"
I’ll begin with the topic of English wine. Few people even see England as a wine producing nation – which, I agree at first glance, is understandable. I’ll kick off with my national fellows, my wine-drinking, wine-making British natives. And I say “British”, because wine is actually produced not only in England, but also in Wales and Scotland. Yes, as far north as the Shetland Isles, for example. Having said that, perhaps the Scots should stick to what they are good at: making whisky. Something which many people are unaware of is that the British have made many positive contributions to the wine branch over the centuries. We do, indeed, have a very “winey” history. Many connections, due, mainly, to politically advantageous royal marriages on the continent, have meant the import of good quality Claret from Bordeaux in France, for example. Unfortunately, also some bad.
But the Brits do like their tipple. Also partial to a glass of mature port or sherry, we have been known to sail as far as need be, in order to quench our thirst. During periods of conflict between French and English crowns, wine supplies became difficult to get hold of and hence prices rocketed. Alternatives were sought for which brought Spain and Portugal on the scene. The preservation of goods during lengthy shipping became more important than ever.
Which leads me to our first interesting fact in the history of wine: Many innovative “wine essentials”, today indispensable, were invented by the English. The “tough” glass wine and cider bottle for example, is credited to Sir Kenelm Digby in the 1630s. Reverend Samuel Henshall, a religious official in Oxford, received the world’s first patent for a corkscrew which was soon brought onto the market in 1795. The cork itself had not long replaced the glass bottle stopper at that time.
Something which indeed needs little if any assistance in escaping its bottle, is the champagne cork. Wack “Champagne” into Google and you will find a hoard of information on the subject. Including praise (a little too much, in my opinion) to a certain French Benedictine Monk named Dom Perignon who, in 1693, claimed to be “drinking stars”. But he wasn’t actually the man behind the bubbles. Several years earlier, a physician by the name of Christopher Merrett had already presented a paper on winemaking, on 17th December 1662 to be precise. His paper describes the process of intentionally producing sparkling wines.
Mr. Merrett, using the still unknown - now traditional - Méthode Champenoise, discovered that by deliberately adding sugar to a young wine, it became “brisk” (frothy) and sparkling. It seems the French had been having a problem (being British, I won’t comment this) in some of their wine cellars of the region. Chilly temperatures caused fermentation to come to a standstill. The warmer spring conditions reignited the process, which obviously played absolute havoc on the lower decks. Many bottles literally exploded under the resulting pressure. Thicker, more durable glass bottles were a necessity in order to withstand the effervescence. And, fortunately, we Brits had already invented those a few years previously.
Remaining on the continent for now, what solid facts actually influence viticulture in the British Isles? Geologically speaking, the “terroir” of southern England is comparable with that of the Champagne region in France. Our soils contain a great deal of chalky limestone, which the Pinots simply adore. Although the Brits won’t rush to admit it, the UK did at one point in time belong to the European Continent, at least tectonically speaking.
A further and rather interesting piece of information, causing French producers to shiver in their cellar wellies: English sparkling wine is as good as (if not in some cases even better rated than) some Champagnes. Various blind-tastings and international wine challenges over the last few years have confirmed what British wine producers wanted to hear: we are becoming serious competition.
Champagne is, by French wine-law, made using only three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Subsequently and unsurprisingly, five of the top grape varieties grown in the UK are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Bacchus and Seyval Blanc. Varieties coping particularly well in the British climate - at least in the south.
Of course, it’s not just the geology, the grape variety or past inventions which are causing the “Brits” to at last be taken seriously. Neither is it the fact that three of the worlds’ most respected and acclaimed wine critics - Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson and Stuart Piggott - come from England. Nor, the birth of young and innovative well-trained British vintners.
Global warming, the climate and its change are influencing the present success of viticulture in the south of England. And this climatic “menopause” is having both positive and negative effects (as does the male menopause on some men) on wine growing worldwide. But that is a topic to be dealt with another time …
Something, I think, which should finally convince quite a few of those doubting Thomases out there: Two of the world’s largest sparkling wine producers merged just over a year ago: Henkel (Germany) and Freixenet (Spanish producers of Cava). And I happened to hear on the grapevine (sorry, couldn’t resist that) that they are keeping a very close eye on the development of sparkling wine in the UK. No, I don’t expect British “sparklers” to ever become a threat to German producers, as they produce fantastic “Sekt” themselves, but I do think this is enough proof to cause you to take more than just a passing glance.
Wine imports will inevitably become more expensive soon and trade policy negotiations could take as long as up to 10 years. In the 1860s, the liberal government, under Lord Palmerston, supported free trade and cut taxes on imported wines. This was a blow for British wine producers at the time. Today, nobody can foresee the consequences “BREXIT” will impose (I do not wish to discuss the current political situation here), but quite the opposite is likely to occur. The British will want to continue their enjoyment and consumption of good wine, so, considering that 71% of the adult UK population are wine drinkers (the definition of “adult” I will leave to your imagination) and Prosecco imports to Britain are declining, isn’t it time you, too, tried some English wine? UK wineries may have some work on their hands, but also good prospects for the future. A challenge, yes, but not an impossible one!
My own personal dilemma, though, is the poor availability of good German wine in England.
Germany has long since been a popular source for wine drinkers on the British side of the Channel. Queen Victoria herself not only had a love for German wine, she actually married a native - Prince Albert from Coburg. Victoria loved Germany, the people and their wines. The name Hock almost certainly derives from the town of Hochheim, one of her Majesty’s favourite retreats. Hock, if found at all today, is looked upon as a cheap and cheerful, easy to drink, but nothing to write home about “type” of German wine. This also goes for “Liebfraumilch”. And I see Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Black Tower everywhere. In supermarkets, in restaurants, in hotels – and not the cheap ones either.
But I rarely see individual wineries, single site wines, or something dry! I don’t want to brand any names as being poor quality. After all, the cellar master creating these blended wines is a very talented person. The task of producing the same product year after year is a challenge, but what I am saying is: such brands do not represent wines from Germany.
The German Wine Institute works hard to change this. But things won’t happen overnight.
I’ve lived in Germany long enough and have observed the situation for years. It seems to me that the initial marketing of German wines is reduced to and concentrated on the City of London. I understand that one must start somewhere, but London is simply not the only place where potential German wine drinkers live.
I also appreciate that connections are crucial, networks must be established and, yes, marketing costs money. Thank God for those professionals in Britain who are slowly, but surely, doing a very good job in promoting German wines.
For example, Iris Ellman from The Winebarn. She travels to Germany, meets the winegrowers personally, tastes and chooses the wines for her portfolio and then promotes them at various locations throughout the UK – successfully, too. Yet, this is still only the tip of the iceberg. How long will it take for me to be able to enjoy a good glass of German wine in a pub in England? Availability depends on demand. If I, as a wine drinker, have no knowledge on the subject, I’ll make do with what is on offer. So perhaps, we should, initially, think about wine education in general.
I have lived on the river Nahe (no, I don’t have a house-boat), in one of Germany’s best wine growing regions, since 1988. That’s over 30 years and long enough, I think, to justify voicing my opinion. On home visits, wine is always a discussion point. If you hadn’t noticed, I have developed quite a passion for the subject. I don’t claim to be an expert, neither have I studied in Geisenheim, but my palate soon tells me what I am drinking. It sorts the men from the boys, so to speak. My ex-husband was a great asset to a very large German wine concern back in the 80s (the reason for my move to Germany in the first place). A charming character, full of German wine knowledge and an excellent salesman. No wonder: he grew up just a stone’s throw from the vineyards. He brought German wine to life and turned it into an experience. He told the story.
I, too, have since walked miles through the vineyards, seen the seasons change and the winegrowers work, smelt the air in a wine cellar full of fermenting wine.
I have taken part hands - on at harvest time. I have never actually felt the urge to tread grapes with my bare-feet, there’s a machine for that, as far as I’m concerned, and I like to think of health and safety - not only my own, but I’ve listened and smelt, tasted and observed.
Winemakers are a breed of their own and you need to talk to them. That’s easy in Germany, if you speak the lingo, because they are everywhere! This applies to France, too, but not, unfortunately, to Britain. Seriously, when was the last time you bumped into a winegrower at Tesco?
Enjoying and understanding (the latter enhances the enjoyment) are two different “pairs of shoes” as they would say here. I try to educate those around me and although my British family and friends are educated people, their understanding of wine is limited. So why should they look further than Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun or Black Tower when browsing supermarket shelving? This isn’t criticism, just a sad fact.
Foreigners like to compare the British to a flock of sheep: When one runs, we all run. If two queue, everyone queues. So if the neighbours buy a bottle of the new Beaujolais because it’s, apparently, the best thing since sliced bread, we’ll all follow suit, right? We call it: “keeping up with the Joneses“.
Our next problem is the fact that we Brits are not necessarily renowned for our language talents. Why should we be? The world speaks English! An average Brit will not be capable of pronouncing a German wine label, let alone appreciating what’s inside the bottle (presuming it’s worth doing so in the first place). A few glasses of wine might get your tongue around the name, but that could turn out to be your only triumph. A customer friendly German wine label is yet to be designed. They are as complicated as German wine law itself and might just as well be produced in Braille which, in Germany, some actually are!
2017 marked a comeback of Liebfraumilch in Germany. This “relaunch” strategy, meant to remove once and for all any stigma cocooning the brand as being a medium-sweet German white wine, makes me cringe when considering the effects it could have if launched in Britain. Here I am, trying to convince people back home that there is more to German wine than a bland blend - and off goes Germany on a tangent. One with which I just can’t get to grips with. Two thirds of the wine drinking public in Britain have at least heard of the name Liebfraumilch. And, I believe, they will always associate the name with what they always have done. As long as wine-making methods, quality and its classification remain in the dark, this isn’t going to change, at least not on British soil. So, am I losing an already lost battle?
I look forward to my next visit. I will pack my car as usual (half-full with German wine) and hope to find - if not a good German wine on my favourite pubs’ wine-lists - an affordable English one. I will not, as usual, receive a recommendation from the charming bar staff, but I will, as always, smirk when the question of size arises: “Small, medium or large, Madam?” I guess that sums it up. I should also perhaps consider arranging some beauty treatment: Customs may become quite a challenge in the not – too – distant future …
For your part, I suggest that you make a quick visit to the continent, preferably with a good size freight lorry before the borders close and I sincerely hope that you will start trying some of that home-grown stuff. In consideration of the recent BREXIT developments (yes, I have sworn twice now), we should perhaps reconsider a comeback for “arranged royal marriages”. An alternative to entirely cutting the EU strings? 😉
Thanks Stefanie, for the invitation.
Kultur- und Weinbotschafter der Nahe
Anerkannter Berater für Deutschen Wein