“They make wine in England?” This is the reaction I get when I’m in wine-producing countries and I mention my love of English wine. The locals look baffled: Why don’t you just buy our delicious vinho verde or sherry or Saint-Chinian? The next question they ask is, "Is the wine any good?" English wine does not have a glorious recent history (though apparently some great wines were made in the 13th century), but in the last ten years, the wines have improved exponentially.
That’s starting from a very low point, admittedly. English wines used to be a joke. I remember my first taste of an English wine at a wedding in a country house in Suffolk where the winemakers grew their own grapes. It was initially quite sweet, then chalky, followed by masses and masses of acidity. This wasn’t a German mouth-watering acidity; this was acidity so hard it reminded me of the stone floors of the boarding school I attended. It was an acidity that spoke of draughty corridors, bad food and lack of parental affection. And there was no fruit at all.
The problem with England is not just that it’s cold—it is—but that it’s also gray and wet. There’s not enough sunshine to ripen grapes properly and the damp makes them prey to rot. Most English wines were made from ignoble varieties, sometimes hybrids, grown in the wrong place and not properly ripened. It was thought that there was no money to be made, so winemaking was in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs; the results reflected this. Winemakers overcompensated for lack of ripeness by adding sweetness in the form of sugar or unfermented grape juice, which produced pale imitations of bad German wines.