- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

DORKING, England — A drizzly wind blows and heavy gray clouds hang low over the sprawling Denbies Wine Estate as workers in high rubber boots and rain jackets wind vine after vine around guide wires.

It’s hardly perfect weather for grape-growing.

But Denbies and a handful of other growers are serious about trying to build an English wine industry, and they insist the country’s notoriously cool, rainy climate won’t stop them.

Some of their wines get passing marks from critics, but there’s a long way to go before British drinkers greet the idea of homegrown vintages with something other than a giggle.

“This is no longer the joke that it was,” insists Frazer Thompson, managing director of English Wines Group, a company with vineyards in Kent, the county of rolling green hills just across the English Channel from France.

He says improvements in grape-growing techniques and wine-making technologies make serious production possible in once-marginal areas.

“Of course, we’re small, but we’re niche and we’re surviving and thriving,” said Mr. Thompson, whose vineyards produce about 500,000 bottles a year. “We’re starting to actually make a profit, which is fantastic news.”

Like other growers here, Mr. Thompson predicts global warming eventually will enable English growers to produce more and better grape varieties. The company just got $3.5 million in new investment and plans a big expansion, he said.

Nonetheless, England’s production is on a tiny scale and likely to remain so.

English growers produce about 3 million bottles, or 585,000 gallons of wine a year. That’s a blip against France’s 1.35 billion gallons and California’s 494 million gallons.

The best grapes traditionally have grown in warm, dry areas that get lots of sun — not soggy climes like Britain’s. But serious wine-making has spread to dozens of new regions in recent years, with vineyards appearing in once-unlikely locales as chilly as Ontario and the upper Midwest.

Chris Foss, head of wine studies at Plumpton College, an agricultural school in southeastern England, says English wines have improved in recent years as professional growers entered a field that long had been dominated by enthusiastic amateurs with backyard plots.

English soil and climate conditions produce terrific sparkling wines, he said. The region is also suited to making light, fresh-tasting white wines, but not fuller-bodied whites or reds, Mr. Foss said, because grapes ripen less than in hotter regions and are therefore more acidic, lacking the sugars that create rich flavors in wine.

“We can’t make a California chardonnay in England. That’s not what we’re trying to do; it’s just a different thing,” he said.

Amy Wislocki, editor of the wine magazine Decanter, said England’s sparkling wines are of high quality, well-regarded in the industry, but “I don’t think the message about English wine has really got out” to the public.

Non-sparkling styles are less impressive, and often more expensive than equivalent imported wines, she added.

That is a drawback in the British market, which is the world’s biggest wine importer and provides drinkers with good, affordable wines from Continental Europe, Australia and the Americas. English wines account for less than 1 percent of wine purchases in Britain, Mr. Foss said.

Even those browsing the gift shop at Denbies vineyard in Dorking, Surrey, just 20 miles south of London, are skeptical.

“So-so,” suggested Paul Mason, 72, from Ashtead, a few minutes’ drive from the vineyard. “They’re pretty good, but I’d choose French wines every time.”

He said he finds Denbies’ varieties too light and prefers fuller-bodied wines.

Irene Bailey, 70, of nearby Reigate, agrees. “They’ve got a long way to go. It just hasn’t got the same flavor as a lot of the French wines.”

Denbies’s general manager, Christopher White, whose 265 acres produce about 400,000 bottles a year and sell in local shops and several supermarket chains, is more upbeat.

“There’s no reason we can’t compete with the Champagne region of France,” he declared, noting that southeastern England’s chalky soil is similar to that of Champagne.

Those who laugh at the thought will be proved wrong, he promised.

“The French were saying the same about Australian wines five or six years ago, but now they’re having to compete with the Australians,” he said. “So wines which they have joked about in the past have become serious competitors.”

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