U.K. Steps Up Its Wine Game

Feb 18, 2018
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This next story is about an NPR reporter getting to drink some wine - a good job if you can get it, right? But there's a catch. He's at a vineyard in the English West Country, not a place known for its fine wines. But that's changing, reports our Frank Langfitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLING MACHINE RUNNING)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: A machine slaps labels on bottles of Camel Valley's sparkling wine produced here in Cornwall, about a five-hour drive west of London. Owner Bob Lindo planted his first vines here about three decades ago when English wine was a punchline.

BOB LINDO: There was this lovely joke at the time which we used to laugh at. It was, how many people does it take to drink a glass of English wine? The answer is four. One was the victim. Two people to hold him down and another to pour a glass down his throat.

LANGFITT: Today, Lindo sells 130,000 bottles a year. To demonstrate how much has changed, he walks me to his tasting room...

(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)

LANGFITT: ...Pours a glass of wine and shows me a cabinet stocked with trophies.

LINDO: I won the first-ever gold medal in International Wine Challenge for U.K. wine. And we've got one, two, three, four International Wine Challenge trophies.

LANGFITT: Lindo, who's 68, even beat the French at their own game. He reads a newspaper story on the wall.

LINDO: (Reading) Camel Valley wines in Cornwall knock champagne giants off their pedestal.

This is a telegraph.

LANGFITT: In that competition, Camel Valley beat 450 other wines from around the world. We stroll amid the grape vines which blanket the hillsides.

Before, English wine was not known for being even good. So what happened?

LINDO: It has got warmer. So over the last 30 years - and that's irrefutable because we've measured it.

LANGFITT: How many degrees warmer is it today on average than it was 30 years ago when you started growing?

LINDO: Probably about a half a degree - doesn't sound much, but that's every day of the year. That makes a massive difference.

LANGFITT: Lindo came here in 1986 after he broke his spine in a plane crash flying for the Royal Air Force. He planted grapes as a lark. While the climate here slowly warmed, Lindo taught himself how to make wine.

LINDO: I never stopped reading books. And I was almost obsessive. I read no other books. For ages, I just wanted to read about viticulture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

JULIE FANT: I do like chardonnay. I do like a chardonnay...

LANGFITT: In a scene that almost feels like Tuscany, Julie Fant sips a glass of pinot noir rose sparkling wine on a terrace overlooking the vineyard as the sun sets. The homemaker from Essex thought the wine here would be like the kind she drank years ago.

FANT: You used to drink it and go (gulping). But I kind of thought it would be something you'd sit and think, oh, it's a lovely view, but the wine's not great. But I was blown away.

LANGFITT: Richard Hemming's a master of wine, of which there are less than 400 in the world. He's bullish on English sparkling wine but says there are limitations.

RICHARD HEMMING: The U.K. isn't a huge country. And finding the right type of land is difficult. It has to be preferably south-facing to get the best exposure to the sun. It has to be well-drained. It has to be not too damp.

LANGFITT: Not too damp isn't that easy here.

HEMING: Exactly.

LANGFITT: And there's a lot of competition.

HEMING: Of course, you've got prosecco from Italy and cava from Spain. So there's no shortage of sparkling wine in Europe.

LANGFITT: And there's also Champagne, the global benchmark. Only sparkling wine from the famed French wine region can be called Champagne, which is why English growers must call their product sparkling wine, which is just fine with Bob Lindo.

LINDO: I say to people, if you go to Champagne, and you find them calling it Cornwall, tell us we're not having that. You know, we have a name. I'm proud of that - Cornwall.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, in the southwest of England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.