No longer the poor relation

15 June, 2007

If you don't read the Guardian you may be unaware of the debate that has been fermenting about English wine. Eve

n if you do, you may think the subject belongs in the "small earthquake in Chile; not many dead" category - that's to say worthy of a glib paragraph or two, but not much else.

Most of the time, I'd agree with you. I'm increasingly impressed by the quality of some of our sparkling wines, but given that they account for only 20 per cent of what we make, and that the whole industry supplies less than 0.35 per cent of national wine consumption, English wine is not a subject that engages my professional attention very often or for very long.

The fact that a national paper has devoted several thousand words to it within the space of a fortnight must be some kind of a record. One moment the Guardian was telling us that Le Vin Anglais Est Arrivé, the next it was asking "is English wine really that good?" and slagging off a number of medal winners from the International Wine Challenge as "arrogant", "boring", "flabby" and "unripe."

The link between the two was a typically provocative letter from the old Superplonker himself, Malcolm Gluck. I won't rehash his entire argument, or what passed for it, but his main points were as follows: "English wine is, in the view of most wine critics and retailers, a joke," and no English wine comes "within a whisker of being comparable to even the cheapest supermarket own-label Champagne".

I'd take issue with Gluck on both counts. First, English wine is not a joke. It's not as good as English beer or English cheese, but at its best it's palatable and more. Thanks to warmer summers and autumns (and less severe winters), quality and, just as important, reliability have improved significantly in the past five years. English wine is not as good as French wine, Spanish wine, Italian wine or Australian wine, but to compare it with "Isle of Dogs olive groves" is fatuous.

If anything is a joke, it is Gluck's second point. Has he tasted a range of basic supermarket Champagnes recently? There are some very good wines out there, particularly from Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, but at its worst Champagne can be gum-assaultingly awful. I'd rather drink sparkling wines from the likes of Camel Valley, Denbies, Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Ridgeview than many comparably priced Champagnes. I suspect you would too.

So why the, er, pop at English wines? I'm a long way from being a little Englander (in fact, I consider myself first and foremost a European) but I think anyone who makes wine in this country deserves qualified praise rather than a kick in the nether regions. Gluck's stand says more about his nose for self-publicity than it does about the actual quality of English wine.

Do I have an agenda here? Yes and no. I make no secret of the fact that I am a co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, and I obviously disagree with Gluck's contention that "wine awards mean so little", but that doesn't colour my view of English wines. Those that won medals in the IWC were tasted blind and deserved them. Yes, some of them could be cheaper, especially if they enjoyed the subsidies and low duty rates that producers enjoy in other parts of the European Union, but I think they stack up against similarly priced wines from other countries.

I don't know how English Wine Producers plan to respond to Gluck's criticisms, other than by removing him from their Christmas card lists, but they could do worse than challenge him to a blind tasting. Why not put half a dozen English wines up against similarly priced bottles from other countries. Would Gluck be able to tell the difference? I don't know, but I'd certainly like to watch him try.

Education and information

Is the government planning to crack down on wine consumers as part of an assault on middle England's drinking habits? It would certainly appear so, given recent statements from the Home Office and the Department of Health.

We've all read the figures about the cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS - estimated at somewhere between £1.3 billion and £1.7 billion - and there can be no denying that a significant number of people drink too much. But what is the wine industry planning to do about it?

Proper information about units of alcohol is one answer, but so is education about the dangers of excess drinking and the role that wine can play in a balanced diet. Taxation is a dead end in my view. If the government increases alcohol duty again, there is no guarantee that it will be passed on as a consumer tax. It's the producer, not the consumer, who will be expected to foot the bill. And, in the end, that helps no one except the Treasury.


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