Simon reviews Henry Jeffreys' book Vines in a Cold Climate, which deals with the English wine revolution of the last few decades.

If you need proof that English Wine is serious business these days, just look at the number of recently published books on the subject. Stephen Skelton’s The Wines of Great Britain was published in 2019, followed by Oz Clarke’s English Wine in 2020 (Already in its 2nd edition, published 2022). Ed Dallimore’s The Vineyards of Britain (2022) profiles no less than 140 estates, all visited personally by the author. Abbie Moulton and and Maria Bell’s New British Wine (2023) bravely tries to re-purpose a term that has been demeaned by regulatory madness for decades.

All of these publications fit broadly into the guidebook paradigm. Skelton’s is the driest and most textbook-like, Dallimore’s the most encyclopedic. Oz Clarke’s offering is typically breezy and well produced. Moulton and Bell’s visually stunning work presents a more niche selection of winemakers, in a hip coffee table format. Given these diverse options, do we really need another book on the topic?

Henry Jeffreys’ Vines in a Cold Climate – The People Behind the English Wine Revolution, published August 2023, convinced me that we do. Unlike all of the aforementioned volumes, Vines in a Cold Climate adopts a narrative non-fiction approach, exploring the hearts and minds of the people who transformed English Wine from “a joke to world class”. It’s Jeffreys’ fourth book, but actually the first that is purely devoted to wine. Empire of Booze (2016) dealt with the whole cornucopia of adult beverages whilst his following two publications were about cocktails. Here, Jeffreys tackles the subject not from the position of an impassioned cheerleader (as is so often the case with wine), but instead as a sceptic in need of convincing that it’s anything more than a curiosity item. It’s a refreshing approach full of disarming moments, as Jeffreys not only gets his boots dirty exploring English wine country but frequently finds his own preconceptions challenged.

Recounting his first memories of trying English wine in 2000, he describes “acidity so hard it reminded me of the stone floors of my boarding school”. But by 2017, attending a press event at Domaine Evremond (Taittinger’s new winery and vineyard in Kent), it’s a different story. “The quality was high, with none of the searing acidity that has sometimes characterised English wines in the past” he writes. These experiences frame the narrative, which explores why English wine was so bad in the beginning, how and why it improved, how the focus on sparkling wine developed and what’s been happening more recently. The first few chapters are more or less chronological, kicking off with “False Starts” which provides a potted history of vine growing and winemaking in the UK from the 12th century up until the 1970s. It’s pretty concise, but feels a bit drier than the following chapters, as it is inevitably straight-up history without the colour and spice from Jeffreys’ in-person interviews.

As ever, Jeffreys writes with gentle wit and an informal style that neither overplays the bonhomie nor condescends. Much of the book is based on interviews and visits to leading wine estates and their owners, winemakers and commentators. The text is peppered with insight not just from producers but also retailers, distributors, sommeliers and just about anyone else who could conceivably have an opinion on English Wine. I do keep referring to “English”, as Jeffreys opted not to venture into the wilds of Wales or Scotland and focuses just on southern England. Even if I’d have liked to read about some of the Welsh estates, I understand the decision. As Jeffreys notes, the south is where around 90% of the UK’s wine is made.

With ancient history out of the way, the book picks up the pace and we’re introduced to the pioneers who survived “the bloody awful weather years” as Peter Hall (Breaky Bottom) puts it. Jeffreys does a great job of characterising his interviewees. He leaves us in no doubt about those he respects and those he is more dubious about, but this is achieved without any meanness of spirit. Rather, Jeffreys just lets the blowhards gently cook their own geese. I was fascinated by just how amateur the industry was in its nascent phases, but also by how quickly it moved forward. As Jeffreys outlines, the big changes came with people such as Bob Lindo (Camel Valley) or Sandy and Stuart Moss (the original owners of Nyetimber), who brought truly entrepreneurial, hard-headed business sense to an industry which had hitherto been overrun with retirement projects or vanity operations that had no hope of ever becoming financially sustainable.

The book focuses on around 25 wineries in total. Many are well known names: Camel Valley, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Ridgeview, Nyetimber and so forth. Jeffreys does profile a handful of more up-and-coming or avant-garde estates including Blackbook, Tillingham and Westwell. He also dishes out some fascinating statistics: there are around 500 vine growers in the UK, but only 100 of them actually make wine. Contract wineries – what would be called custom crush in North America – are big business. Also worth noting is that despite impressive growth, the UK still only produces around 15 million bottles of wine a year. Compare that to the Champagne region alone, which produces 300 million, and it becomes clear that this is still a niche sport.

Jeffreys puts a lot of stress on the UK’s cold, wet climate, and both the book’s title and its marketing reinforce the point. There were moments when I worried he was turning into a climate change denier, but thankfully the topic is tackled head on in chapter 18 “Warming up”. As you might expect, no-one denies that the warming climate has had a major and beneficial influence on English wine in terms of riper fruit, but it’s clearly a double-edged sword in terms of unpredictable weather patterns and unseasonable frosts.

A cluster of chapters in the second half of the book tackle various pressing issues such as the growth of wine tourism, overseas acquisition of English vineyard sites and the changing views on which grape varieties should be planted. Another chapter focuses on the growth of interest in organic and biodynamic viticulture. Jeffreys feels the need to include a lot of technical detail to support this latter theme, which comes at the expense of the book’s easygoing feel. This is an issue that often crops up in wine non-fiction. Does every specialist book need to include a beginners guide to what organic agriculture means? It’s a vexed question with no easy answer. Either way, it feels as though Jeffreys is outside his comfort zone here.

It’s a rare lapse in a book that is otherwise well paced, engaging and packed full of interest. It’s also incredibly well researched and balanced. Jeffreys doesn’t shy away from presenting some controversial views, but there is always a counter-piece and an opposing voice. Much of the book was eye-opening and educational for me – and it left me wanting to visit the estates mentioned in the text and taste some more English wines ASAP. It also reminded me that as a wine obsessed Englishman, I ought to know a lot more about my country’s domestic production than I do. For anyone – Brit or otherwise – who still needs convincing, Vines in a Cold Climate comes highly recommended.

Vines in a Cold Climate is published by Allen & Unwin and available now.

My copy was provided for review.