(Above) Our hosts when we visited Bristol and Three Choirs Vineyard

La Dolce Vita: English wine industry yet to find legs

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When we began making plans to visit England, one of my desires was to visit an English winery. English winery? Yes, there are a few, and we knew that only because British friends who live part of the year in the Creston Valley brought some over for our wine group to taste a couple of years ago.

So there we were three weeks ago, tooling along the freeway with those same friends, heading toward Three Choirs Vineyard, a good hour northeast of Bristol, in a triangle whose points are formed by Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. The country is rolling and lush green, even in late March, and it looks for all the world like it should be able to support a wine industry, until you think about the long periods during which residents experience mostly grey and gloomy skies. The sun-drenched skies we experienced in Bristol and London were, we were told, an anomaly.

When we arrived at Three Choirs Vineyard, we were greeted with a surprisingly unattractive sign, the words “Wittingtons Brewery” appearing more prominently than the name of the winery. The winery and vineyard offer a variety of appeals to the visitor, including tourist accommodations and a five-barrel brew plant. Whether that is an indication that the wine business isn’t a big moneymaker isn’t clear to me.

Our group had lunch reservations for the restaurant at Three Choirs and we had to hustle to make it in time — we were driving from Lacock, a fantastic historical village that has been the setting for some filming of the Harry Potter movies.

Lunch was very nice and we enjoyed a bottle of Three Choirs 2010 rosé and there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. As memory serves, we had the same response to the British wines we had sampled a few years earlier. They were well made and gave us nothing to complain about.

And therein lies the rub. For centuries, British residents have had quick, easy and often cheap access to wines from France, where long history and a marginally better climate gives winemakers a distinct leg up over the relative newcomers in England and Wales.

One suspects that the success of wineries and vineyards lies more in their novelty than anything else. The British don’t have any disdain for the French and they also have historically held close connections to the Spanish and Portuguese wine industries. Unless the buy local movement takes off, if it has even started, I’d say wine producers in England are up against it.

Statistics seem to bear that out. In 1992, English winemakers produced about 3.2 million bottles of white wine and in 2010 they produced just under 3.3 million bottles. But in 2007, that number dropped to just over a million. Obviously, production quantities are extremely weather dependent. And when I stopped in to check out the selection of wines at a shop in London, I learned that French wine prices can easily meet or beat those of English wines.

All that is likely an indication of how much is going on at Three Choirs. A brewery. Tourist accommodation. A restaurant. Cooking courses. An adopt-a-vine program. And, perhaps even more telling, the use of Geneva double curtain vine trellising, which I haven’t seen used in any other vineyard I have visited. This system “effectively doubles the cropping potential of each vine”, according to signage in the vineyards. We noticed the wide spacing between plants and the long woody stems kept to support the coming year’s crop of grapes, both signs that quantity and not quality are the major concern.

In some ways, the English vineyards seem to be where the B.C. wine industry was 30 years ago. Better grape clones, improved vineyard management and yes, climate change, have all helped our own industry blossom. England is neighbor to some of the great wine producers of the world, so it would seem that climate change is the country’s best bet for the future. It isn’t something I’d base an investment on.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.