The English have never been short of reasons to drink, what with our climate, our rulers and the isolation that only a few crackpots ever really thought was splendid, but at present it’s hard to find reasons to wait until lunchtime, so numerous and buoyant are the sorrows we have to drown.
The last vestige of our world-dominating status may be found on our wine shelves, and it’s a tragic irony that post-Brexit trade barriers may remove that, too. Not quite as ironic as a descent into fascism precipitated by myths of Nazi-beating, plucky little islanders, but upsetting nonetheless.
Because England was once great, the world’s wine came to our shores: we are still the biggest export market for regions from Champagne to South Africa. And England’s greatness was partly thanks to wine: Edward III expanded our navy partly to ship wine from Bordeaux, then under English rule, back to the thirsty motherland. Our naval powers ended up capable of sinking the Spanish Armada and building an empire, but not before losing Bordeaux back to the French at the end of the Hundred Years War – a conflict that Edward III had started. The English propensity for shooting ourselves in the foot is of long standing; in contrast, English exceptionalism is simply a myth. We win some, we lose some, and we are currently on a losing jag that would make a gambling addict quail.
Thank goodness, then, that English wine is on a winning streak. More than 3,500 hectares of England and Wales are now under vine; if imports go through the roof, we can just drink homegrown, and won’t that make our masters happy, as they sip viciously overpriced claret? Some sparkling, in particular, is terrific: Sussex estates Limney and Ridgeview; Coates & Seeley and Black Chalk in Hampshire. Try for yourself at Wines of England (winesofengland.uk), which comes to Canopy Market in London’s King’s Cross this Bank Holiday weekend, and is “a showcase of the best wines England has to offer”, according to creator Julia Stafford.
Stafford, founder of the tiny Wine Pantry in Borough Market, is English wine’s biggest champion. She has lived her own Hundred Years War, expanding into a City shop she then lost when a business partnership went wrong, starting again while pregnant only to lose that space in the aftermath of the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack. “Some businesses were able to adjust and recover better than others,” she tells me. “I was not able to for a very long time. For me, the market was never the same again.”
And yet, here she is. “Hosting an annual event celebrating English wine returns the focus to the wines, the producers and why we began supporting them.” There will be a welcome glass of sparkling wine, samples, masterclasses and a bar, plus the chance to sign up for vineyard tours. Stafford, who is half Greek, is what the Brexiteers claim to be: a supporter of British endeavour, picking herself up no matter the obstacles; a genuine plucky little islander. So are many of the people she supports: making wine in the UK, global warming notwithstanding, is hard. There’s also the looming lack of an export market – but that may not matter, as we collectively seek comfort in the sparkling wines bubbling up from our unlikely terroir. If Champagne is the celebration wine, perhaps English can be the wine of commiseration, at least until we once again have reason to rejoice.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy