For many years English Wine has been sneered at with a snobbery similar to that which befell screw-caps; a cheap plonk that’s no match for its revered French and Italian counterparts and less celebrated than the New World Wines.
In the past two years much has changed, there’s been a rumbling beneath the vines that is impossible to ignore. The tables are beginning to turn as English wine starts its rise to recognition and finally to silence its critics by packing out the trophy cabinets.
English wine is now so firmly on the map that it even has its own week in the calendar, English Wine Week – Saturday 23rd May to Sunday 31st May. The campaign aims to raise awareness of our home-grown wines to both the public and the retail sector, nationally and internationally and recent statistics would say that it’s paying off. In honour of the week-long celebrations, we’ve been getting amongst the vines at Norfolk’s Winbirri Wines to see what it’s all about.
Vine hectarage is currently at its highest ever in the UK; in the last decade the acreage has increased by more than 140%. There are currently 450 vineyards in England and Wales with 3500 acres turned over to the production of wine – last year producing the equivalent of 6.3 million bottles. Sparkling wine accounts for 66% of production with white at 24% and red/rosé at 10%.
The rise of English wine is being reflected on the shop floors with Marks & Spencer adding significantly to its range over the past two years and Waitrose now listing more than 100 English and Welsh wines and reporting a 177% increase in sales over the same period a year ago.
If you’re looking for an English wine success story, the small South Norfolk village of Surlingham is a great place to start. Nestled in this quiet, rural village are 40,000 vines that produce award-winning wines which sit side by side with any Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio on the supermarket shelves.
Winbirri’s head wine marker Lee Dyer saw the potential of the Norfolk vineyard in 2010 when he took over from his father who had been producing wine for family and friends as a hobby since 2007.
Determined to transform the land and raise production, Lee enrolled at Plumpton College in East Sussex to study viticulture and oenology. Filled with in-depth knowledge, Lee returned to oversee huge growth at the vineyard and by 2013 Winbirri had started to gain recognition as a serious player in the production of English wine.
From its 2007 roots as a small patch of land with just 200 vines, Winbirri has grown exponentially in the last eight years, currently cultivating 40,000 vines across three fields, producing white, red and sparkling wines. Maintaining the vines is a year round process with planting, harvesting, pruning, bedding down, bud rubbing and shoot tucking – all delicate processes that make the difference between a run-of-the-mill wine and an award-winning wine.
“It’s not a job to me, it really is a way of life. You have to love it and I do” said Lee.
In the East Anglian Wine of the Year Awards 2014, Winbirri picked up its first Gold Medal for white wine ‘Bacchus 2013’ – this grape variety is described as having ‘an elegant nose of grapefruits, passion fruits and floral characters.’ It was joined by ‘Reserve 2012’ which scooped The Founders Trophy for most outstanding red wine.
It’s not just regional recognition, silver awards were received for both ‘Bacchus 2013’ and ‘Solaris 2013’ in the English and Welsh Wine of the Year Awards 2014. To date Winbirri is the proud owner of 14 awards and two trophies with the hope of more on the horizon.
Plans to further increase production and efficiency are already coming to fruition with a second winery unit scheduled to be built in the next few weeks alongside a state-of-the-art automated bottling machine with the capability to fill a staggering 2000 bottles per hour!
Of course, to fully appreciate the labour that goes into the bottle, you have to taste it for yourself. Winbirri runs bespoke Wine Experience Days where visitors can view the vineyards, learn about the growing and harvesting process, see the winery and sample the finished product with a selection of locally produced cheeses and cured meats.
Norfolk has a strong buy-local ethos and we’re very proud of our home-grown producers. This support and willingness to be involved is evident in the production of Winbirri wines. During the grape harvesting season from September to mid-November, the vineyard relies on the help of around 65 volunteers each day. Their delicate hand-picking is rewarded with wine and sees many volunteers returning year after year, helping to engender the sense of a community production.
Norfolk wine is served and celebrated by many of Norwich’s restaurants. At Roger Hickman’s restaurant, the Wine of the Month for May is Bacchus from Winbirri Vineyards and to mark English Wine Week, both The Last Wine Bar and The Last Brasserie are also featuring Bacchus on their wine lists. The Maids Head hotel serves more than 40 wines by the glass in The WinePress restaurant, including three Norfolk wines from Winbirri – Bacchus, Réserve and English Rosé.
Have you tried an English wine that you particularly enjoyed or do you still think there is a snobbery around wine selection? I would definitely recommend the Winbirri Bacchus as a great place to start if you want to celebrate English Wine this weekend!
This is a post I created for VisitNorwich, the City of Stories, to mark English Wine Week