Stuart Smith is a man with a difficult mission: growing grapes and making wine where others are only drinking it. In recent days, he and his pickers in England's northernmost and probably coolest vineyard brought in the last of the harvest. Ryedale, in the county of North Yorkshire, is farther north than Hamburg, and yet, says Smith, "the vintage is good, very good, in fact" --- plump grapes, plenty of sugar and low acidity.
Three years ago Smith planted his vines, most of them cold-resistant varieties from Germany. The 2008 vintage gave him the first 400 bottles of a dry white wine, and even garnered him an award in a wine competition. Smith expects to produce "at least 2,500 bottles" in 2009.
He estimates that within five years his production will have increased to more than 20,000 bottles. Smith is one of the few people who welcome global warming. For his business, he says, the supposedly imminent climate catastrophe is "something of an insurance policy."
The concept of English wine was once as absurd as German bananas. But England's summers have been warmer and drier from year to year. The effects of climate change have been tangible in the British Isles for some time, and oenophile Britons are trying to take advantage of those effects to make wine. The pioneers of the 1980s were practically treated as wine-drunk lunatics, but now the exotic industry is experiencing a veritable boom. Whether in Cornwall in the southwest, in the wild landscape of Wales or near London, there are now 416 winegrowers in the United Kingdom -- the highest number ever. Their vineyards are generally tiny, but they are growing rapidly. In the last five years, the amount of land devoted to winegrowing has increased by more than 50 percent.
Some of the wine being pressed by former sheep farmers tastes awful. But the quality of many of the English wines is remarkable. When the G-20 heads of state rushed to London in April to save the world economy, one of the wines they were served as No. 10 Downing Street was a British bubbly -- a 1998 Nyetimber Blanc de Blanc with a fine bead, produced in Sussex in southern England.
English wines are now achieving respectable results at blind taste tests like the International Wine Challenge, one of the world's biggest wine competitions. They captured 24 medals at this year's event, including a few gold medals. However France, with its 729 medals, is still the undisputed leader.
At England's largest vineyard, only 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of London, long rows of grape vines line the southern slope of the Denbies Wine Estate. A group of vigorous pensioners has just brought in the last grapes at the 107-hectare (264-acre) vineyard, to the great satisfaction of the winery owner. This year also promises to be an excellent year at Denbies. July was too wet, but the weather in the ensuing months was perfect for winegrowing -- warm, but not too hot, allowing the grapes to mature at an optimal rate and gradually develop their aroma. The grapes now in the presses and fermentation tanks will be enough for more than 500,000 bottles of wine: white, rosé, red and, most of all, sparkling wine, produced in accordance with the methods used in the French Champagne region.
Denbies was once a dying farm, with cornfields, hogs and cattle. Adrian White, an entrepreneur who made a fortune with sewage treatment plants, bought the farm in 1984. Two years later, he planted 300,000 vines on a hillside, something that no one had ever tried before in that location. He uncorked his first bottle in 1989. The vineyard's harvest and quality has increased almost every year since then.
Expanding into England
Richard Selley, a professor emeritus of geology at the Imperial College London, was the one who advised White to grow grapes at the time. Selley had found that the chalky soils in southern England are identical to those that promote winegrowing in Champagne. He argued that grape vines should thrive on selected hillsides with southern exposures. Even the ancient Romans had cultivated vines in England, Selley said, at a time when the climate was relatively mild and stable. But the Little Ice Age, near the end of the Middle Ages, put an end to those vineyards. Grapes do not tolerate temperature fluctuations.
Selley's wine prognosis proved to be correct. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the grape varieties grown in France's Champagne region, are all doing surprisingly well in England's new climate. Experts have already confused what the British call "bubbly" with real champagne, which is why top vintners looking for expansion opportunities, like Louis Roederer, have already started looking for land across the English Channel -- where it can be had for a tenth of what it would cost in France.
To be on the safe side, the Champagne vintners should also try searching much farther north. Geologist Selley predicts that as the earth grows warmer, winegrowing could be possible as far north as the Scottish Highlands. He is convinced that even the hillsides surrounding Loch Ness will produce an excellent Riesling by 2080. In fact, southern England could already be too hot for such varieties by then. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, would grow as well there as they do in California today -- while drying up in many of France's best winegrowing regions.
Chris White, 33, the son of the owner of the Denbies vineyard, is already preparing for that future. He wants to try growing Sauvignon Blanc, a variety that would normally be unthinkable in England's climate. "They laughed at us 20 years ago, when we planted Pinot Noir," says White. "And now that's our best grape."