Many varieties thriving between 50 and 60 north
If, like I have attempted to do (twice, unsuccessfully), you’re looking to gain the sort of qualification that would allow you do do what Wendy Gedney does in the Languedoc, you can do worse than try a course with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.
Unfortunately, I seem to have spent too much time working on the practical side of wine, instead of the theory and for that I apologise to Nina Davies of the Wine Wise Company, who has been very patient, but by now probably sees me as a lost cause.
But I have picked up one thing. UK viticulture doesn’t figure very highly in the WSET course work. Maybe that will change with the effects of a warmer climate in the more northerly latitudes, and it’s clear that particularly in the south east of England, wine making is becoming much less of a niche industry.
If you look at the UK as a whole - including the bits at the very top and the very bottom - it sits roughly between 50°N and 60°N, which is much further north than the rich European belt between the mediterranean and northern France and Germany.
Generally, then, we’re cooler and wetter than the places where the big boys play, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the game - and it’s not like we haven’t been doing it for a while.
Simple geography dictates that in the UK we will be restricted to a more limited variety of grapes, although in Shropshire alone we’re probably growing around 25 different types - the majority of which are lesser-known white varieties and many of them fairly recent hybrids and crosses.
Probably the best-known whites are Chardonnay, which has a moderate presence in Shropshire, and Pinot Blanc, which is minimal.
White grapes in production in Shropshire, in order go from Solaris and Phoenix, which are most popular followed by Madeleine Angevine; Ortega and Chardonnay; Seyval Blanc and Bacchus; with smaller amounts of Siegerrebe, Schöenburger, Pinot Blanc, Orion, Madeleine Sylvaner, Kerner, Huxelrebe, and Regner.
In terms of volume, however, reds are very much more in evidence, with the best-known Pinot Noir to the fore, if not exactly at the forefront.
Most popular reds are Rondo, Regent and Pinot Noir; followed in order by Triomphe, Pinot Meunier and Dornfelder; Monarch, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
I have to confess, I’m more of a white wine drinker, but with due deference, let’s do due diligence and first look at the difference between the reds, in order of their popularity:
Rondo is a dark-skinned grape that produces a rich red wine which is good for blending. It is grown in many places in northern Europe - including Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark and Sweden. It’s estimated that more than 100 UK vineyards are growing Rondo, which is an early-maturing variety that is reasonably resistant to the twin threats of frost and downy mildew. It was created in what was Czechoslovakia in 1964 as a cross between the Zarya Severa and St Laurent varieties. The hybrid was first protected in 1997 under the name Amurensis Walk (Amurensis from the Vitas Amurensis in its pedigree and Walk from the name of it’s first commercial planter in Ireland). It was renamed as Rondo two years later.
Regent is another dark-skinned hybrid, again with a high resistance to things like mildew. The grape has a vibrant skin colour that produces deep red wines which, although only moderately acidic, can be heavy in tannins. Often Regent grapes produce what are called high ‘must weights’, which is a measure of the density of alcohol it can produce. Basically, it is the amount of alcohol that could be produced if you all the juice is allowed to to ferment rather than being left as sugar. Must weight is also the measure used to decide how ripe grapes are, and therefore the timetable for harvesting. Regent has a lot of it…
Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape which derives its name from the French for ‘pine’ and ‘black’, because of the tight cone-like clusters of the fruit. Wines produced from Pinot Noir tend to be light in colour with little in the way of tannins.
While it is said the best Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy and the Champagne regions in France, as well as far-flung west coast America and New Zealand, it is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. According to WinesGB, the trade organisation representing wine growers in England and Wales, it now accounts for nearly 32% of grapes planted - more than 800 hectares, which is up from a little over 300 hectares in 2012. Most of the crop goes to producing fizz.
Triomphe is a fast-growing Alsace variety, well-suited to the cooler UK climate. The small grapes tend to ripen early, but can be harvested as late as October. Not as hardy as some reds, it can fall victim to mildew in a wet autumn.
Pinot Meunier, like Pinot Noir, is one of the key components of Champagne, alongside Chardonnay. All three grow in Shropshire, which points to a fizzy future for the county. Meunier is French for Miller and the variety was first mentioned back in the 16th Century. Previously in the shadow of its more illustrious band-mates, it is being recognised more and more for the backbeat it brings to the party. Abracadabra, it’s the Pinot Miller band…
Dornfelder is another of those fairly recent lab creations from the bench of August Herold, a prolific German grape mixologist. The grape is a hybrid of hybrids which has been in production since 1979 and was named after a civil servant who helped to start a school for viticulture in Germany. Originally developed to blend, Dornfelder is now recognised in its own right as full-bodied and complex and is particularly valued after fermentation in oak casks.
When you know the history of Dornfelder, to discover that Monarch is itself a hybrid cross of Dornfelder and Solaris you get an idea of the complex family trees of European grape varieties. It’s red, fungus-resistant and has big grapes, which produces wines similar to daddy Dornfelder.
Cabernet Sauvignon in the UK is like Italian footy genius Andrea Pirlo playing in the MLS. It is one of the best-known grape varieties in the world, and it’s everywhere, so why not here? It was the world’s most planted grape before Merlot took over in the 1990s, it grows in a variety of soils and does particularly well on the type of soils found in Shropshire. Cab-Sauv produces deeply coloured, full-bodied wines rich in tannins.
Cabernet Franc is Cab-Sauv’s lighter brother, mainly grown for blending. It tends to produce a brighter red wine that adds that extra something to the ’nose’ of other wines. It works well in a cooler climate and with more clayey soils, so again, it suits Shropshire.
Solaris is another recent addition to the palette of viticulture, created in 1975 to be resistant to fungus and to frost. Solaris produces wines which are dryish, reasonably acidic, with a high alcohol density and a low sugar content. Shropshire growers are increasingly turning to Solaris for a variety of styles, including blends and sparkling wines.
Phoenix is a child of the 1960s, the product of a marriage between Bacchus and the hybrid Villard Blanc. The benefit for growers is that it doesn’t take much looking after and, although it’s not in wide production, it is quite often used as a table grape.
Madeleine Angevine is one of those grapes which, while it is itself a hybrid, is also being used in further hybridisation with other grape varieties. It’s popular in Germany, the UK, the Pacific North West of America and Central Asia, so it must be doing something right. Fruity and flowery, it produces a crisp dry wine with reasonably high acidity.
Ortega is another cross - between Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe and was named for the Spanish poet and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Müller, by the way, is German for miller, like Meunier in French. You never know, it might come up in a quiz. You’re welcome. Ortega is an early ripener, frost resistant and with quite high alcohol densities. It’s often used for sweet wines and, like Phoenix, you might find it in bunches at the supermarket.
You see Chardonnay wines by the shelf-full, anywhere wine is sold - and in vineyards pretty much all over the world. Chardonnay has suffered from it’s WAG associations - footballers’ wives and all that - but the reason it’s popular is that it tends to take on the characteristics of the place in which it is grown, but they say it can develop very high sugar levels late on which reduces its acidity. Suited to a variety of soil types it’s reckoned that more than 150 vineyards in the UK are now growing Chardonnay.
Seyval Blanc is an outlaw grape, in that it’s not recognised by the EU for high quality wine production because it’s a hybrid that contains non-vinifera (that is to say, non-cultivated) genes. No surprise, then, that it is popular in the UK, where it is often used for blending. It’s an early ripening grape, suited to cooler climates.
Another popular grape in the UK, where the colder climate tends to maintain a higher, if not high, acidity in the grape, even if yields can be moderate. It’s a hardy grape that doesn’t take too much looking after, which is why it is probably in the top five varieties in terms of planting in the UK. Tends to have a strong flavour when it’s allowed to mature.
Yet another German cultivar, Siegerrebe was created in 1929 and released for cultivation in 1958. It’s either a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer, or a self-pollinating Madeleine Angevine depending on which history you believe.
Schöenburger has grown in popularity in the UK in the last 20 years or so, having been released in Germany in 1979 as a cross involving Pinot Noir, Chasselas and Muscat Hamburg varieties to create a full, fruity wine. It’s an early ripener, but can be affected by types of mildew.
Pinot Blanc is like the water carrier of white varieties, often seen but rarely heard. You’ll find it in France, Italy, Germany and Austria and, occasionally hiding in a champagne blend pretending to be Pinot Noir. Pinot Blanc is a blender with medium to high alcohol levels and a decent level of acidity. Could be a duck or a goose, but very possibly a swan.
Orion is another 1960s baby from the German grape baby farms. It’s a cross between Optima and Villard Blanc. Born in Germany, it is now mainly settled in the UK. It ripens early with high yields good for short growing seasons. Lightly acidic, it’s another good blender and may literally sparkle in fizz.
If one of these isn’t climbing up a south-facing wall, you could very well be eating Madeleine Sylvaner grapes from the supermarket. It’s a variety that does really well in the UK, though not exclusively in wine production.
Kerner is a hybrid that was really popular in Germany until around the 1990s, behind only Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. It was named after a poet, Justinus Kerner, who also wrote German drinking songs, which is probably why it blends well and doesn’t really mind where it rests its head. It’s productive, high in acidity and does well as long as it avoids the frost.
Huxelrebe comes from the same stable that brought you Siegerrebe and was bred a couple of years earlier. You get a choice with this variety, leave it alone and it will produce loads of grapes, but low quality wine, stop it from going mad and it will bring you high quality dessert-type wines. Suited to the UK’s cooler climate.
Regner has a fairly exotic European pedigree, being the product of the Italian Luglienga Bianca grape (known as Seidentraube in Germany) and the French Gamay. It’s grown mainly in Germany, but becoming more popular in the UK because it’s an early ripening variety with good sugar levels and middling acidity.