English or Welsh but not "British"!
IndexWhat's in a name?
The origins of confusion
Conditions for confusion
A recipe for confusion
Now you're not confused - an action plan
Tell us your views and experiences
Confusions breed confusions
You search the shelves and you find yourself facing a dilemma. Out of the several hundred wines on display you find just two or three wines described as "English" and a few more described as "British". The English wines are priced between £3.50 and £6.00, the British wines much cheaper. Which to buy? Oh, to hell with it, let's go for the cheapie and see what it's like.
You try it. "O.K. well it was cheap. But if that's what comes out of vineyards here then, well - next week it's back to Oz".
But, just a question - did you read the label? "Yeah, it said 'British Wine', so that's it!".
Sadly, all too frequently one suspects, people think they've tried English wine when what, in fact they've tried is "British wine".
British wine is fermented and bottled in Britain, but from grape juice, usually in concentrate form, grown abroad. The process is in principle just the same as the one you follow if you buy a home wine kit from Boots, though obviously it is industrial in scale and sophisticated in the technological control of the process. The result, arguably, is not unlike that which can be achieved by a competent and practised home wine-maker. "British" wine is produced from imported grape juice, normally in concentrate form, and shipped in to harbours such as Shoreham in Sussex and tankered up to factory sized fermenting plants in London and elsewhere. The industrial scale of the process allows the production of British wine at a low unit cost per bottle - unfortunately, the fact that the grapes have been converted into concentrate to be shipped to the UK tends to ensure that the final product is, in quality terms as well as price, at or near the bottom of the market. It does, however, meet a need - especially the predeliction of older British drinkers for sweeter wines which are not so well catered for by winemakers in the countries where the grapes actually grew. Sadly, however, for English wine-makers the mere existence of British wine has been - and still is - a recipe for confusion of the consumer shopping in supermarkets and off-licences.
If you had read the label carefully you would have seen that it said "made in the U.K. from imported materials" or a similar phrase. So the maker has not mislead you, but, unfortunately, you have come out of the experience thinking you've tried "English wine", when you haven't. Worse, you've resolved not to try English wine again.
Loser number 1 is you. You think you know what English wine is like. You think you don't like it and won't try it again. So you don't, and you are denied the considerable pleasure of getting to know and enjoy actual English or Welsh wine.
Loser number 2 is the English wine industry, which is small (some 400 vineyards spread thinly throughout the southern half of England and Wales (with just a few further north) and comparatively recent in origin (the oldest English vineyards are only about 40 years old). To grow and prosper, English vineyards obviously need their wines to be judged on their own actual merits, not confused with bottom of the market plonk made from imported concentrates.
By contrast the "British wine industry" has its origins in the days of the British Empire, when British tastes were for sweet wines and even sweeter "sherry" style fortified wines from Cyprus or South Africa. From such origins grew up the "British wine" industry which found it convenient to import the raw materials in bulk and in factory scale industrial plants ferment it into low priced wine. As British tastes, educated by cheap foreign holidays, from the 1960s onwards, began to embrace dryer wines, these manufacturers endeavoured to produce products that would suit the changing market - wines such as "Concorde" were the result.
One suspects that such a subtle and easily confusing naming regime would never have got past the starting post in France, Germany or Italy where the native wine producers are, by virtue of the size of their industries, very influential.In Britain the situation was the reverse, with, no doubt, the fledgling English and Welsh wine industries seen as eccentrics who would give up in a few years. The Ministry did not foresee the emergence of a serious home viticultural and winemaking industry, with professionally trained growers and winemakers running over 400 vineyards and producing several million bottles of English and Welsh wine.
But not, now, for you. Now you know that "British wine" is not the same as "English wine". Now, there are two courses open to you:
1. Next time you go to your local supermarket or off-licence seek out those bottles of English or Welsh wine. Sure, they're dearer than the "British", but in this life you tend to get what you pay for. Over a few weeks try the wines of a number of English vineyards - you may find a better selection in a specialist wine merchant or one of the smaller off-licence chains than in large supermarkets (though some supermarkets are now making a point of stocking wines from local vineyards).
2. Visit some English vineyards. As ever, the best place to buy wine is from the vineyard which grew and made it. It's true in France, California, Australia or Germany. It's true in England and Wales too. See the vineyard, and the winery. Talk to the proprietor, ask his advice, taste his wines. Buy the ones you like.
By the time you've followed this advice and visited half a dozen vineyards (you may be surprised to find out how many there are in easy reach of your home - why not visit those on this website?) the overwheming likelihood is that your views of English wine will have transformed - for the better - and you'll be a convert informed and enthusiastic enough to educate your friends and relations. If so, please do - the English wine industry needs people to know it and judge it on its actual product, not by confusing it with something else entirely.
The fledgling English and Welsh wine industry has a trade association which used to be called "The English Vineyards Association". A perfectly good name you might well think, but not, of course, if you happened to be a Welsh vineyard proprietor, nor, if you were a Eurocrat, did the word "English" happily cover all the parts of Great Britain.
Clearly, and understandably, the association couldn't possibly be renamed the "British Vineyards Association" because that really would notch up the confusion with "British" wine! So what could it be called? It struggled to decide. Finally the name "United Kingdom Vineyards Association" (UKVA) was settled upon which, one fears, may actually have further obscured matters.
Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that the underlying problem is that consumers may not realise they are confused and may, as a result, believe they have tasted English wine when they haven't.
© 1999, 2003