A few questions for the Roman empire’s ghosts: when the messenger arrived at your villa, bearing instructions to proceed directly to a rainy, Druid-infested little patch off the coast of Gaul, what did you pack? Was space allocated for wine, now that Rome had extended the glories of civilisation across the Mediterranean, incorporating pretty much every decent inch of contemporary vineyard? It seems likely, given that amphorae from the era have been uncovered in Britain, but how did the fine Falernum or Gaulish rotgut fare, rattling down those preternaturally straight roads towards the ends of the reasonable world, and what happened when the drinker arrived and it ran out?
Probably, these beleaguered patricians planted vines, or at least influenced their woad-daubed subjects to do so. Certainly by 1086, the Domesday Book could list about fifty vineyards across southern England – not bad when the country probably had a population of just a few million, although hardly adequate to meet the needs of people who drank in astonishing quantities.
English wine production faltered after the Black Death removed much of the workforce but staggered on even after Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine brought Bordeaux into thirsty English clutches, before collapsing almost entirely until the vigorous defibrillation of the past few decades.
The wine would have been dreadfully unpredictable: this country simply doesn’t get enough reliable sunlight for grapes to ripen with the careless ease of those in Italy or Greece. Our lack of consistency has led us to crave the opposite, which is one reason that sparkling wine has become the focus of the English wine industry. The gargantuan slab of Cretaceous chalk that stretches north from France gives Sussex the same geological foundations as Champagne. The artful blending of three grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – to achieve a drink that effervesces continually yet remains comfortingly constant in flavour probably has something to do with the climate being rotten over there, too.
It is exhausting never to be able to predict whether summer will be hot, or winter cold. If denizens choose to soothe that exhaustion with a liquid the colour of sunshine that tastes reliably the same, whatever the weather, who can blame them?
The better English sparkling wines – Gusbourne, Ridgeview, Nyetimber, Camel Valley – find themselves squeezed between the iron reliability of the biggest champagne houses, the grandes marques, and cheaper fizzes from Crémant to cava to New World sparklers, designed to give poorer drinkers more pop for their pound.
There are other financial issues. Lord Byron – in Don Juan, aptly – pointed out, “An English autumn, though it hath no vines . . ./Hath yet a purchased choice of choicest wines.” The English drinker still inhabits the world’s most varied wine shop. Faced with such choice, the best route to drinkers’ hearts is through the polished glasses of good restaurants, but the grandes marques often offer incentives to feature their products and, says Julia Stafford, whose Wine Pantry shops are as passionately Anglophile as she is, English sparkling wines can’t compete. She counteracts this by offering well-priced taster glasses but cannot fix the annoying reality that English wine frequently lacks the cash, gravitas and acreage. This may change as the world warms and winemakers become ever more skilful. For now, we English drinkers need no longer sip from the bitter amphora of agricultural inadequacy: we can have our wine and everyone else’s, too. Faintly, from the direction of Rome, I hear ghostly imperial applause.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War