europe

Booze Cruise Anyone?

It appears that the traditional cross-Channel booze cruise to Calais is making a come back.

The popularity of booze cruises grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s. A perfect storm of cut-price ferry tickets, the opening of the Channel Tunnel, a strong pound, low duty and the removal of limits on the amount of alcohol that could be purchased fueled the rush to Calais. Many of the major supermarkets and wine sellers even had their own bases in Calais to meet demand.

Following on from the global financial crisis, the slump in the exchange rate combined with the increasing competitivity of supermarkets in the UK, meant that the day trips waned in popularity. Even if the ticket price for alcohol was still cheaper across the water, it was no longer economical to make the trip.

However, the recent weakening of the euro against the pound and lower taxes in France mean that filling up your car in France may now be more profitable. The exchange rate is currently around £1 to €1.40. So currently a €5 bottle of wine would cost £3.55. The same €5 bottle would have cost £4.27 in May 2013.

According to Caxton FX there has been a 56% increase over the last two years of Britons buying goods in French Carrefour Supermarkets. The Calais Wine Superstore has reported a 15-20% year-on-year rise in sales which the owner puts down to dedicated shopping trips.

However, if it seems like too much hard work to trek over to France to find good quality wine, please check out our selection of fine wines, which will be delivered direct to your door!

The image is of the iconic P&O ferry, the Pride of Canterbury, by Fabian318 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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How Victorian Botanists Unwittingly Changed European Winemaking Forever

A few select European wines are sold as:

“produced with grapes from ungrafted rootstock”

Ever wondered what that means? Let us tell you!

Vitis Vinifera, the common Europe wine grape, has between 5,000 and 10,000 varietals. Of these, only a few account for nearly all European wine production (we posted about the lack of grape diversity previously).

The current method for growing vines in Europe relies on grafting Vitis Vinifera onto the rootstock of North American vines. A small number of wines are produced using grapes from “ungrafted” vines, but these are usually phenomenally expensive.

Grafting is time consuming and can be difficult. So, why don’t we use ungrafted vines for all European wines?

The short answer is, we can’t.

Grape phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards, makes the use of ungrafted vines impossible almost everywhere in Europe. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease.

Grape species native to North America, such as Vitis Labrusca, have developed some resistance to phylloxera. The roots of American vines can secrete a sticky sap that clogs the mouths of phylloxera. If the insect manages to cut into the roots of American vines then once they have moved on the vine can grow a layer of tissue over the wound to prevent bacterial or fungal infection.

North American vines are equipped to defend themselves against phylloxera. However, Vitis Vinifera is not.

French colonists tried to grow Vitis Vinifera in North America in the 16th Century but the vineyards inexplicably failed. Discovering the cause was made all the more difficult by the behaviour of phylloxera. Once the roots have lost a large percentage of sap the pest moves on. Usually, this is before the vine shows any signs of distress. Digging up a dying vine will not likely reveal any of the insects in the roots.

It was subsequently assumed that European vines simply couldn’t be grown in North America. Nobody could understand why.

In the 19th Century it became common practice to import exotic non-native plants into Europe. This was very much a feature of the Victorian era, with Botanists excitedly experimenting with growing plant species gathered from far away places.

With the advent of steamships, crossings of the Atlantic could be carried out in record time. Hence, it is thought that phylloxera began to survive the crossing in the roots of North American vines imported into Europe.

Of course, the inevitable happened, and European wine making was forever changed by what became known as the Great French Wine Blight of the 1850s. That century somewhere between 66% and 90% of all vineyards in Europe were destroyed by the ensuing phylloxera epidemic.

The only known method found to combat phylloxera was proposed by two French wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, in the 1870s. This technique, namely rootstock grafting, is still in use today. European vines are grafted onto the roots of North American vines. This allows the vines to produce fruit as normal and the roots to have some chance of surviving phylloxera.

A few vineyards did escape the phylloxera epidemic and now produce the only examples of European wines as they were before the epidemic. These ungrafted vines produce grapes which are made into very expensive wines, such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises Champagne, and Quinta do Noval’s Nacional Vintage Port.

The debate about whether or not grafted or ungrafted vines produce the best grapes is still ongoing to this day.

Image is “Phylloxera cartoon“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Another Glass Of Sussex Please!

Sussex is famous for many things. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the Long Man of Wilmington, and Bodiam Castle (pictured). Its is also (weirdly) where banoffee pie was first created in 1972. If these things are not enough to show Sussex as exemplary, then why not Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for it’s wines?

A few days ago Decanter Magazine reported that English wine producers are making a bid to obtain PDO status for wineries in Sussex. PDO would bring them the same protected status as wines from Champagne.

PDO is the most prestigious of the three geographical indications offered by the European Union for the protection and promotion of agricultural products. The other two are Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG).

PDO is the strictest designation. It states that a product has been entirely produced within a region that gives the product unique properties. For example, beef produced wholly on Orkney has PDO status and can be labelled as Orkney beef. Beef produced in Scotland, including from Orkney, has PGI status and is labelled Scotch beef. So If the beef comes from cows raised in Orkney, but is prepared in the Outer Hebrides, it can only have Scotch beef PGI status as it wasn’t wholly produced on Orkney.

The UK already has 65 products with protected status. Far less than Portugal (125), France (217) and Italy (267). If successful, Sussex wine would join PDO holders such as Native Shetland Wool, Jersey Royal Potatoes and our favourite cheese, Swaledale. Given that English wine has already been granted a PDO, what advantage does a Sussex PDO designation bring?

Well, English wine may be enjoying its most successful years, but presumably it’s easier to market Sussex sparkling wine rather than English sparkling wine. For example, ordering a bottle of Sussex in a restaurant sounds more pleasing than ordering a bottle of English…

And why not have a go! English sparkling wines have been racking up the awards. In the 2014 International Wine Challenge competition they were awarded 5 gold medals and two trophies. Obtaining PDO status would be another big boost to the reputation of wines produced in Sussex, and England in general.

It is perhaps debatable how the varying landscape of Sussex can be realistically expected to imbue the geographical characteristics a PDO is meant to guarantee. But with the English wine retail sector forecast to hit £100m this year, and the number of wineries in the UK at an all time high, this latest PDO is clear evidence of a confident market.

Interestingly Nyetimber, one of the most famous UK producers, has two thirds of its vineyards in Sussex and a third in Hampshire, and so would be excluded from applying the PDO designation to its’ products.

Image is “Bodiam-castle-10My8-1197” by WyrdLight.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.