When you picture a typical vineyard, you might think of vines basking in the Italian sunshine or grapes growing on the gently rolling hills of Burgundy. It’s unlikely that you'll conjure up a winery in the West Midlands.
Yet Sixteen Ridges vineyard in Ledbury, Herefordshire, which has been making wine since 2013 and produces 133,000 bottles each year, is going up against its French counterparts by creating the first English version of beaujolais nouveau, a red wine made from the gamay grape in the eponymous region of eastern France.
There is an annual buzz surrounding beaujolais nouveau, a wine which takes less than eight weeks to produce and is traditionally released on the third Thursday of November each year (which is today). In a typical year, its release is celebrated with festivals around the Beaujolais region (not to mention races to bring back the first bottle to London), and the wine is exported all over the world; four million bottles were exported to Japan alone last year.
This year's Beaujolais Nouveau Day also happens to be when Sixteen Ridges’ English Nouveau, made with the same fermentation process as the French wine, will hit the shelves of Waitrose.
It marks a significant step forward in the English wine scene not least because the industry has previously struggled to make red wines. “We’re very, very good at sparkling wines and crisp and fruity white, still wines,” Simon Day, the production director at Sixteen Ridges tells me, “but, partly down to climate change as well as using the right varieties, we are now able to ripen red grapes sufficiently to make a decent red wine pretty much every year now – and that wasn’t the case 15 or 20 years ago.”
Day has seen big changes in his 30-year career in the wine industry, and climate change is one of the main contributing factors. “Our warming climate is definitely benefiting English wine in all styles,” he says. The harvest has come forward by two or three weeks, meaning grapes can fully ripen before the weather turns colder.
Once, Day and his fellow English winemakers had to rely on a process called chaptalisation, adding sugar to the unfermented grape juice to increase the alcohol level because the grapes weren’t ripe enough to reach even 10 or 11 per cent ABV. This had a knock-on impact on the quality of the wine. “If you’re putting sugar into a wine, you’re effectively diluting the flavour,” Day explains.
“Decades ago we’d be waiting and waiting for the grapes to ripen and they’d barely be starting to ripen when we’d harvest them,” Day adds. “Some of those flavours just hadn’t had a chance to develop properly, so we ended up with very thin, uninteresting and lower ABV wines, or over-chaptalised.” These days English wines “tend to be fuller, more fruitful, more flavourful”, Day argues, and naturally reach 11-14 per cent alcohol levels.
The Sixteen Ridges English Nouveau is made with pinot noir, which ripens better in moderate temperatures, but still delivers some of the traditional characteristics of the French wine ("tropical fruit aromas like papaya and banana skin") – with some subtle differences. "When you taste it, it has much more of a strawberry and raspberry character," Day explains. "A bit of cranberry comes across."
He predicts that a wider variety of grapes will become available to English winemakers as the climate continues to shift. “In 20 or 30 years time we will start to see more warm-climate varieties – the cabernet sauvignons, the merlots, those sorts will no doubt start to be planted in the UK.”
He is optimistic, too, about the industry's "rosy future"; last year, the UK produced 15.6 million bottles of wine. In the next decade, Day predicts this could shoot up to 40 million bottles per year. By contrast, he argues, “the hotter areas of the world, such as Italy, Spain, even Bordeaux, are going to struggle because they will be too hot to create the wines they’re famous for.” Already, he says, the Champagne region is “finding it increasingly tricky to maintain style”, due to ever-increasing ripeness levels; some champagne houses have set up shop in the UK “because they’re recognising that they need to have insurance in place”.
The landscape of the English wine industry is set to drastically change over the next decade, Day predicts. Currently, Sixteen Ridges is one of 82 vineyards in the West Midlands, but in the future they may need to relocate. “As climate change happens, it becomes more viable to plant vines ever further north, or even further up hills.” Indeed, there are already savvy winemakers who are planting vines in Yorkshire and even Scotland, preparing for the shift in climate.
For now, the biggest challenge for most English wineries is the pandemic. Sixteen Ridges has seen a “massive drop in sales” over lockdown, due to loss of trade with bars, restaurants and pubs. Encouragingly, however, website sales have been “incredible” as the winery has adapted to home deliveries.
And surely that warrants raising a glass of English Nouveau.