Why are cellars so unusual in England
Organic wine from England - Organic wine grows in the land of beer
Reading time: 8 minutes
The road winds its way through a typically English landscape: around the rolling hills you can see sheep pastures everywhere. In between an orchard, separated by hedges. And again and again, romantic cottages or magnificent mansions appear.
Then suddenly the view of a vineyard becomes clear - a sight you don't necessarily expect in England. I'm in the south of England, East Sussex. It borders Kent, the "garden of England".
Wines from the far north
For a long time it was said that wine only grows up to the 50th parallel, the so-called wine equator. It runs right through downtown Mainz, then through northern France and the western English Channel.
The wine equator is no longer the limit of viticulture. While it is becoming more and more difficult to grow wine in southern wine regions due to extensive drought and heat, there are suddenly wines from Denmark, Sweden or England.
The vine's own strength
The boundaries are not only shifting geographically in the world of wine: many winemakers are switching to more ecological cultivation, organic wines are in trend.
Wine is not pure nature, but a cultural product that is over 3000 years old. From planting the vines to the finished wine in the bottle, a lot happens, sometimes too much. The monoculture is susceptible to pests, diseases and freak weather. Those who do not want to intervene with a lot of chemical agents switch to organic, rely on strengthening the vines.
Organic on the rise
The consumption of conventional wine is stagnating - growth is only detectable in organic wine, in production and consumption.
Organic viticulture is more work, but strengthens the individual plants and the soil. There is also a trend towards organic viticulture in the new, northern wine regions.
Demeter wines from southern England
For example at Sedlescombe Organic Winery in East Sussex. Since it was founded exactly forty years ago, only organic wines have been bottled here. Since 2010 the winery has even been Demeter certified, i.e. biodynamic.
Organic, biodynamic, natural wine - what's the difference?
- No synthetic sprays
- Use of plant extracts (e.g. nettle broth), also of copper ("Bordeaux broth" (burnt lime in copper sulphate solution))
- Greening the rows of vines (green manure, the soil and the vines receive natural nutrients)
- as little watering as possible
- Little sulfur (sulfur stabilizes the wine and protects against unwanted oxidation)
- No artificial fining agents (these are used to clarify the wine)
Biodynamic, short bidoynamsich (Demeter certification):
- Based on Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical writings on holistic agriculture in the 1920s
- Vineyard as a holistic ecosystem that is supposed to sustain itself
- Work according to cosmic cycles
- Biodynamic strengthening agents (mostly compost preparations or products made from horn) and copper, as well as sulfur, may be used, but in fixed small amounts and only at certain times
- Conventional synthetic products are not allowed
- Spontaneous fermentation (no artificial fermentation yeast)
- Biodynamic viticulture is now very widespread, a large majority in the Loire Valley work biodynamically, but also very famous wineries in Burgundy such as the Domaine Leflaive. The certification is «Demeter».
- After the harvest, practically no influence in the cellar
- Wines are neither filtered nor fined (clarified)
- many natural wine producers also do without sulfur completely
- Spontaneous fermentation (like biodynamic wine)
- Grapes must be completely clean and healthy, which means: extensive care in the vineyard, early harvest
- No certification, so the work in the vineyard does not necessarily have to be organic. Almost all natural wine producers, however, work according to strict ecological standards.
A large sign in the form of a red wine glass on the roadside welcomes visitors. There are a few small buildings in the middle of the vineyards: a visitor center with a round corrugated iron roof, a shed with an old corking machine and a few wooden barrels, and behind it a small wooden house.
Sophie and Kieran Balmer meet me and show me to the office. Everything is a bit improvised, it is being rebuilt and expanded.
From the teacher's desk to the vineyard
Sophie and Kieran Balmer bought the winery from Roy Cook this summer. The organic wine pioneer built the winery himself, now he wants to retire. He is still a consultant to his successors.
The Balmers do not come from the wine business, were both primary school teachers. Why did you take over the biodynamic winery? «We come from around here and wanted to go back to the country. Our motivation is to preserve the beautiful landscape, from being destroyed by buildings, but also by pesticides. " So they bought this winery without much prior knowledge.
Paul Defais is at your side. The young French winemaker from the Loire Valley joined the winery last year. While the Balmers take care of the renovation of the business, the visitor center and sales, Paul has been making the wines since last year.
Sophie and Kieran Balmer help out, they too work in the vineyard and in the cellar. "We've bought a lot of pairs of rubber boots since we've been here!" Laughs Sophie.
German vines in Sussex
Paul Defais and Kieran Balmer lead me through the vines that are planted around the small group of houses. The ground is muddy, Paul is a little sad that he can only show me the barren vineyards in winter.
The vines stand in long rows, their curled shoots sticking out in all directions like cheeky locks of hair. There are very different varieties, they are written at the beginning of the row: “Reichensteiner”, “Müller-Thurgau”, “Johanniter” are some of them. "At the time, Roy Cook relied on German varieties, they are good in our climate."
Difficult work without chemistry
All sorts of things grow between the vines. Grass, but also welcome weeds: “We leave some things standing or even sow them, for example alfalfa. That fertilizes the soil in a natural way, »explains Paul Defais.
It is not that easy to work biodynamically in such a humid climate and to do without chemical pesticides and fungicides, says the trained oenologist and winemaker.
It takes a great understanding of the place, the soil, the climate in general and the microclimate in the vineyard. For the «terroir».
From France to England
Defais comes from the biodynamic winemaking tradition: "I've never worked any other way." The Loire Valley is a pioneer in biodynamic viticulture: "There are now practically no winemakers there who work conventionally."
Nevertheless, he wanted to leave France: “Everything is regulated there. You can only grow this or that grape variety in this or that appellation, i.e. in a specific, defined and named wine region. And every winemaker is critical, sometimes disapproving, of what the neighbor is doing. "
So he landed in England, via an online platform in which bio and biodynamic winegrowers network.
Less regulations, more experiments
“Here in England there are still no such strict regulations because there are still no classic appellations. I can experiment here as I wish, trying new things every year. What grows best where, develops well during fermentation, which grape varieties can I use to make a good cuvée? What tastes good, is well received? "
Kieran Balmer says: "We want to get bigger and double production in the next few years." And so the Balmers bought new land and planted vines - for example, Sedlescombe vines have been growing on the slopes behind the nearby picture-perfect Bodiam Castle this summer. In three to four years they will be ready for their first year.
The English wine tradition
The fact that wine is grown in England is not as exotic as we think here: there are around 700 wineries in Great Britain, and the trend is rising. Most of them are in the south. But there are also wineries all the way up to York.
Unlike in France or Germany, there is no uninterrupted wine history in England. This is not only due to the climate. Yes, it rains a lot in England, but there is definitely enough sun during the growing season.
Due to the northern location, the vines get even more hours of sunshine on a clear day than further south. The soils are good for wines, and winter is often warmer than here in Switzerland.
Henry VIII and the phylloxera
So why is there no tradition of viticulture? Among other things, Henry VIII is to blame. In the 16th century, he had all the monasteries in the country dissolved and destroyed, the monks were chased away or killed. With them, the knowledge of viticulture that the Romans had once brought to the island disappeared.
As a result, attempts were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, until the phylloxera crisis completely wiped out English viticulture again.
In the 1970s, some enthusiasts began growing and pressing English wine again. What was initially dismissed as the idea of some weirdos is now to be taken seriously.
Few organic wineries
Very few of the approximately 700 British wineries produce organically. There are no exact figures because many of the English wineries are not yet working commercially or only on a small scale.
Kieran Balmer estimates a few dozen. The Sedlescombe Winery is the only Demeter-certified winery in England that operates commercially. However, some wineries are already in the process of converting.
Great pleasure in experimenting
Sophie and Kieran Balmer, the new owners of Sedlescombe, and their winemaker Paul Defais, have a passion: They are still at the very beginning and want to experiment.
The new vintage has just come into the steel barrels. There are currently only two of them in the small wine cellar behind the visitor center. At the moment the cellar has been outsourced, says Kieran Balmer. It is being rebuilt - enlarged and modernized.
“Organic doesn't mean old-fashioned and hand-knitted,” says Kieran with a laugh, “you need modern equipment to be able to work more precisely. The less chemicals you need, the cleaner the work in the basement has to be. "
The new wines won't be available until next year
It's cold in the open cellar. The weather outside is typically English: gray and damp. So we pull ourselves back to the visitor center.
In the cozy room under the corrugated iron roof, there are shelves on the brick walls with the wines that Sedlescombe sells. We are tasting the last vintage of Roy Cook. “Your own aren't in the bottle yet. You have to come back next year to try them, ”says Kieran.
The wines are appealing, sometimes a little strange in their aroma, sometimes a little bit very acidic. That is the local terroir, says Kieran. The sparkling wine is excellent, fresh, dry and still fruity.
"Who will buy your wines?" I ask Sophie. “We have local customers, private customers, but also small businesses. And we go to markets. The local wines are very popular, we sell well. "
Local wine is popular
This is in keeping with the zeitgeist: the pubs that I visit on my trip offer local beers and local cider almost everywhere. And English wine.
If I tell you about my report, I immediately get further tips for wineries in the area. Many menus emphasize that all products are from local agriculture. There is great interest in local, sustainable production, and the supply is increasing.
Cooperation with the competition
Does Sedlescombe Organic Winery fear growing competition? "Not at all," says Paul Defais. “I think it's wonderful how everyone here coexists without envy. We have an online community of winemakers in England. If, for example, a new pest appears, not only is there a warning, everyone immediately shares tips for combating it. You help each other, with vineyards, with work, with experience reports. "
A love of experimentation, a desire for new things and a healthy disrespect for outdated traditions - this is what distinguishes the vintners and winegrowers in England.
The passion and joy is contagious, and with a few bottles of English wine in my pocket, I drive back from the winery, past thousands of sheep. Every now and then the view of a small vineyard opens up between the hedges.
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