Britain is a land of ale, cider, gin and whisky, but Brits also have a taste for wine both cheap and fine, guzzling down sub-£3 (~$4.50) stuff in huge quantities—and they're currently on track to become the world's largest importer of Champagne. While the British look abroad for the bulk of their wine, fueled by locavore sentiments, the English are also increasingly opening vineyards at home. And some of what they're producing is good enough for royalty.
Following on the coattails of a flourishing English craft beer sector and a rise in artisan spirits, applications to open vineyards in England rose by more than 40 percent last year, from 46 in 2013 to 65 in 2014. In 2012-2013, there were just 31 applications. English vineyards are growing staple grapes like pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot gris, as well as rarer varieties like the sugary schönburger and the rondo, which is comparable to a cross between a tempranillo and syrah. In 2013, England's nearly 500 vineyards and 135 wineries produced almost 4.5 million bottles of wine, a respectable amount but not enough to keep Britain buzzed. The Brits drank nearly 13 million hectoliters of wine last year—a hectoliter being 100 liters.
And what they're growing is often good. Wine from England has in the past been likened to a "Monty Python punchline," but today, English wines like Chapel Down win international competitions, and English sparkling wines have been particularly strong, fortunate for a country that drinks so much bubbly. Nyetimber's Classic Cuvee regularly beats big Champagne houses in blind taste tests, and Ridgeview's blanc de blancs brut has taken home international top honors as well. (Perhaps true, but try telling that to the French.) According to The Guardian, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was in town recently, the Queen served Ridgeview's 2009 blanc de blancs as an aperitif. Prime Minister David Cameron, on the other hand, took President Jinping to a pub for fish and chips and a pint of IPA.
England's well-situated to make good sparkling wine. The BBC notes that Kent and West Sussex, home to England's best sparkling, are just 90 miles north of France's Champagne region, and have chalky soils well-suited to growing champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. To protect the uniqueness of their terroir, England's wine-growing regions have been seeking "protected designation of origin" statuses, similar to France's Appellation d'origine controlée.
Unfortunately, the British authority on Champagne, Winston Churchill, isn't here to issue a verdict on the relative merits of British sparkling wine and Champagne, though having to choose between the two would likely be too much to bear. Churchill said of his favorite brand, Pol Roger, "In defeat I need it, in victory I deserve it." When he died, shipments of Pol Roger to Britain featured a black border on the label, and the house subsequently created a top-of-the-line Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
English wine may also be getting an assist from climate change, as the parallels that have traditionally been considered ideal for growing wine appear to be moving further north as the planet warms up. Even the Swedes are getting in on the action, looking at England as an example of how to develop a wine industry in the north outside of traditional wine-producing regions.
If the planet's screwed and we're forced to huddle closer and closer to the poles, at least we might be able to get drunk on quality, locally-produced wine. Unfortunately, the warming looks also to bring other extreme weather events which may or may not be good for wine or other local crops and industries, not to mention the implied devastation elsewhere. We can't win.
But for now, England appears to be further down the path toward a mature wine industry. That means it will be increasingly likely that you might encounter a bottle in a store near you.
Fortunately, you don't have to have the riches of a queen to drink like one—you can buy a bottle of Ridgeview for under $40 in Manhattan.