Stephen you have had an impressive career working in and advising many parts of the wine industry. When did you decide that wine was going to be your future?
In 1974, when we were house-hunting, we saw a house with a small vineyard attached (Nettlestead Vineyard near Maidstone – now long gone) and my interest was kindled. I looked into the practicalities, joined the English Vineyards Association and went from there. My father-in-law, for whom I worked and who was a farmer, supported us and said ‘if you get trained, I will finance the farm’, which is pretty much what happened. I went to German for 2 years and came back and planted what today is where Chapel Down are at Tenterden.
You have written a number of books on the English wine industry 'Vineyards of England' and ‘The Wines of Britain and Ireland' to name two. Where did the inspiration come from to write these books?
I have written 5 versions of the UK Vineyards Guide, with a 6th coming out this May. That’s called ‘The Wines Of Great Britain’ and is part of the Classic Wine Library. I have also written a highly acclaimed book called “Viticulture” which has sold almost 9,000 copies and is a textbook for Diploma and MW students, plus “Wine Growing in Great Britain” which is a handbook for cool climate grape growing and given the subject matter and the price (£30-£35) has sold over 1,000 copies to date. I have also contributed to about 3 others and am almost ¾ way through a book on the development of the sparking wine bottle and the part played by Sir Kenelm Digby and others in its production.
What lead you to lecturing on viticulture at Diploma level in Norway and Canada?
I was doing the WSET Higher Certificate and had already presented a paper on UK Viticulture at the WSET and when the lecturer that did the Higher Cert and Diploma Viticulture modules was badly injured and off work, they asked me if I would take over. This was in about 1982. Most WSET courses are given by independent course providers, and they can use whoever they want. Only the syllabus and the exams are set by the WSET. Both the Norway and Canada course providers are fellow Masters of Wine and they asked me to lecture. I have also done them in Dublin and London, but have given up Norway now and just do Calgary and Vancouver. The WSET Diploma is not really for ‘wine lovers’ more for wine professionals i.e. people in the trade, sommeliers, people wanting to change careers. It’s a requirement in most cases for joining the MW programme.
With your experience of working and advising many parts of the wine industry, how do you think English wine has been received around the world?
Well of course its only available in very small amounts and most of the world has never seen it. People who have tasted the sparkling wines generally like them. The still wines (which are exported even less) are a mixed bag.I think exports will grow, but very slowly.
With a limited amount of space to keep growing vines, what do you think is the future for English wine?
The UK used to grow 60,000 acres of hops and 45,000 acres of apples, most of which would probably be OK for vines. There is no lack of space to grow vines in the south of the UK.
Do you think it would be best for the English wine industry to focus on producing one style, such as sparkling wines?
No. Our sparkling wines are good and getting better, but Charmat method wines are appearing and carbonated cannot be far behind, especially with the volume of wine from 2018 now available. On the still wines, again, they are getting better and new styles and new varieties will appear. We also need to continue to develop all alcoholic products produced from home-grown grapes and as we have seen recently, gins, vodkas, brandies, marcs, and vermouths are all appearing.
You must have come across some amazing wines in your career. Has there been a wine which really stood out?
I have had some amazingly good wines in my life, both UK grown and foreign grown. Best wines ever were probably some really old sweet German wines when I lived and worked in the Rheingau.
Do you have a favourite wine of choice?
Not really. I like trying new wines. I have about 1,500 bottles in my cellar from all over the world. Lots of classics, Bordeaux, Burgundy, both red and white, Sauternes, Alsace, Rhône, lots of Germans, Californian, good Chianti - I could go on. For day to day drinking I like white Italian wines, dry Furmint, South African Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand Chardonnay.
What takes pride of place in your collection of wines?
The 2005 Bordeaux’s are the most valuable if that’s what you mean? Otherwise the magnums of 2000 and 2001 blanc de blanc wines from Ridgeview which are still on lees and which they disgorge for me when I need a bottle are maybe the rarest.
There has been some talk of English wines being able to develop into identifiable styles, similar to that of the regions throughout France. Do you think this is possible and the best route for the English wine industry to go?
No. The regions in France (and most countries for that matter) are massive compared to the UK’s. We are such a small planted area (UK 2,750-ha Champagne 38,000-ha) and about 35-40% of all UK grapes are traded each year from vineyard to producer (and that percentage is rising), that regional styles will probably never emerge for sparkling. After all, Champagne is by-and-large a multi-variety, multi-site, multi-region, multi-vintage wine without any sub-regional characters so why should the UK be much different? I think that our Chardonnay-based blanc de blancs have an English style, but not a regional one. Also, the big vineyards are hedging their bets by establishing supplies from across the UK so as to avoid differences in climate across the country. Chapel Down gets grapes from about 10 counties, Nyetimber from 4 counties, Camel Valley from 3, Hattingley from several and so on.
There may be pockets of wines with a certain style, but probably more single-varietal still wines. But take Bacchus for instance, there are no real regional differences and most of the differences are due to site differences and of course, winemaking decisions. Maybe Kent (for instance) might become known for its red Pinot noirs, but I doubt it.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
My main worry for the future of English and Welsh wine is that for it to be sustainable for the long-term, it has to be economically sustainable. Throwing large sums of money at establishing vineyards, building wineries, and creating a brand is almost the easy bit; producing wines at a price which is profitable for the long-term sustainability of the business is another. OK, so 2018 was an amazing year volume-wise and most people achieved at least 3 tonnes-acre which (depending on how you sell it) is above break-even price, but many, many vineyards struggle to achieve more than 2 t-acre over the long-term and at these yield levels, you can rarely hope to make enough return to pay for the huge capital costs of establishing vineyards, wineries and brands. Hopefully, the weather will continue to improve for the next 30-50 years, which will give today’s vineyard owners time to improve their cropping levels. As an industry, we need much more data collection and research into what yields people are achieving, how the top 25% are performing and how the top 25% are managing to beat the others.