WHEN contemplating European wine culture, our thoughts tend to gravitate to the three biggest producers in the world — namely Italy, France and Spain.
We may also consider historic producers like Greece, Hungary and Portugal. Germany with its beautiful Riesling wines also deserves attention, but how about the UK?
Great Britain has never been and probably never will be more than a niche player in winemaking. This is dictated by Mother Nature. Some cite the projected beneficial effects that global warming will have on the UK’s often cold and harsh climate. They envision longer and warmer growing seasons that will allow grapes to properly ripen, but this is still much more a dream than a reality.
The future of the UK as an important wine-producing country remains at best dubious, but no one can deny the weighty influence of Britain in the development of modern wines.
Two of the France’s most important and best wine regions have been profoundly impacted by the British.
One of history’s most impressive dowries was paid 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future King Henry II of England — and a large portion of southwest France including Bordeaux was bequeathed to the English monarchy.
For the following three centuries, Bordeaux and other parts of Gascony helped quench the Brits’ thirst and refine their tastes for Claret, as they called red Bordeaux.
The reds of the time were lighter and less tannic than the Bordeaux wines we know today and, while much beloved in Britain, they were under-appreciated by most Frenchmen who had a long and historic preference for the wines of Burgundy and Champagne.
This started to change at the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 when Gascony and Bordeaux were returned to France. Historic properties on the right bank and in Graves started making wines that even the most fanatical French lovers of wine could admire.
Though back in French hands, Bordeaux wines were indelibly stamped by British influence. The British never lost their love of Claret wines and today the UK remains one of the largest and most influential markets for Bordeaux wines.
Learning the history of Bordeaux may be somewhat illuminating, but drinking it is unquestionably more fun.
Three classic Bordeaux wines traditionally loved by the Brits that are easy to find in Shanghai are the great Pauillac first growth Chateau Latour, which was British-owned for four decades in the 20th century; the Irish-owned Saint Julien second growth Chateau Leoville Barton; and the deliciously affordable Moulis-en-Medoc Cru Bourgeois Chateau Chasse Spleen.
Wine-loving readers will most likely be quite familiar with Latour and Leoville-Barton, but if you haven’t tried Chasse Spleen you’re missing a wine that consistently performs at Grand Cru Classe levels at a much more moderate price. I suggest you exhibit your British wine acumen and try a bottle.
Lovers of Champagne worldwide should give hearty thanks to the British. Champagne as we know it today would not exist if it weren’t for the innovations and palates of the British.
Dom Perignon and his contemporary monks are often given credit for putting the bubbles into the wines of Champagne, but they almost certainly weren’t the first.
In 1662, a full six years before the young Dom Perignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers to commence his winemaking career, English scientist and physician Christopher Merret made a report to the Royal Society in London documenting how the addition of sugar to bottled wine would induce a second fermentation that would results in bubbles.
English merchants who bought wines from Champagne in large wooden barrels and then bottled the wine themselves were almost certainly putting bubbles into the wines of Champagne before monks of France.
Late in the 17th century the English also invented a stronger glass bottle that could safely hold the 5-6 atmospheres of pressure in a Champagne bottle. Prior to this, bottles of bubbly frequently burst when being transported.
In the 18th and 19th centuries most the wines of Champagne were quite a bit sweeter than the wines of today. It was the British market of the 19th and early 20th centuries that demanded ever-drier Champagnes that led to the lower dosage Brut and Extra Brut wines that delightfully pucker our palates today.
If you need greater proof of the English love of Champagne, allow me to quote the greatest British statesman of the 20th century, Sir Winston Churchill.
In World War II, when the English were battling Germany on and over the battlefields of France, he declared, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
He was also credited with the comment on Champagne, “In success you deserve it and in defeat you need it” — a statement he may have borrowed from Napoleon.
In honor of Churchill and the UK’s profound love of Champagne, I suggest you pop a bottle or two of Pol Roger Champagne, Churchill’s favorite producer.
Established in 1848, Pol Roger is a family-run business now famous for their elegantly styled Champagnes. The flagship non-vintage White Label Brut is a delightful floral and lemony sparkler that is still reasonably priced.
Vintage Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc, sometimes also referred to as Brut Chardonnay, is considered one of the most feminine and delicate wines of Champagne.
However, the wine that most resembles the 20th century Pol Roger Champagnes so loved by Churchill is the honorifically named Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill vintage Champagne that was first made in 1975.
Unlike the other wines of this esteemed house that emphasize delicacy and finesse over power and weight, the predominantly Pinot Noir Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill is a powerhouse.
This Grand Cru Champagne is full-bodied, assertive, rich and complex often with wonderful earthy notes. I recently drank a blockbuster bottle from the excellent 1988 vintage that was replete with bold red fruit flavors and pungent notes of white truffles and wild mushrooms.
British influence in the world of wines is by no means limited to France. The two greatest fortified wines, Sherry from Spain and Port from Portugal, also owe their evolutionary development to the English.
The UK also significantly influenced the wines of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. So, perhaps the next time we drink a great wine, we should raise our glasses and proclaim, “God save The Queen”.