I visited a vineyard recently, on the Kent and Sussex border. It might not seem the best idea, English wine, but this young industry has been gaining more and more plaudits, more and more international awards, in recent times and with it being summer, it felt as though we might benefit from some first hand experience.
English wine has had a bad press (if you’ll pardon the oenological play on words) for years, mocked by the continent, the French, the Italians, the Spanish. Not only was the plonk bad, but the plonkers who insisted on its merits were subject to ridicule, even within home shores. Think of Reggie Perrin’s son-in-law, Tom, and the various horrid concoctions he foisted upon Leonard Rossiter – I recall nettle and plum – and I’m sure the Good Life made humour of a similar kind.
Indeed, even if more recently people might accept that English wine had a purpose in the world, it was as a sparkling wine. Pop the cap, enjoy the fizz, don’t hold on until tomorrow, because it will go flat very quickly.
However, there is something more than that. If we take one particular grape today for an example, that being Albarino. Its certainly more famous in Spain, but the Portuguese have enjoyed certain success with it too, albeit under the name Alvarinho.
They grow it in England now, too, and have for a few years. The first year (if I recall correctly, that was 2015) was a surprisingly good harvest, but the two years since have been a bit poorer, bad weather, poor conditions, and it has had to be mixed with other grapes, for record’s sake, Chardonnay, to make a pleasant and worthwhile vintage.
This year, hot, dry and sunny, we are on course, or so I was told, for a proper, full, exciting harvest, and the signs are already good for it. I am excited by the prospect even though I may have to wait a while. The 2015, and looking back to it, will keep me going until then.
There is an obvious parallel to draw here. The England football team were mocked and ridiculed on the continent, their skills belittled, their abilities mocked and their chances of success written off. For many years, that was correct.
Gareth Southgate has been the figurehead at the front of this movement changing. He has overseen the development of so many of those players who have progressed from Under 21 to full international level. The age group squads have won awards and, if we correlate this 2018 World Cup Squad with the 2015 Albarino, there is much to be proud of.
It was an idea that nobody was quite sure of initially, but over time has proven its wisdom and become so well regarded that a future without it is unthinkable. They have moved past the explosive pop and fizz, that moment that lasts a lifetime in the memory, yet but a moment on the pitch, for something more substantial, more of the Earth and something, undeniably, better.
There is a cautionary lesson, too, that is unavoidable. These players may not bounce to immediate success. Their next campaign may be fallow. This year, the conditions may have been perfect for them, the weight of expectations, the draw, the novelty of it all.
More big games will come
It may take patience. Their next successes may come in other combinations, as parts of club teams that win trophies, but that will only help them in the long run. If John Stones and Raheem Sterling go into the next World Cup with a Champions League or two under their belts, they will handle better, and help those who haven’t handle better, the pressures of such big games. It seems almost inevitable that more big games will come.
The England World Cup campaign of 2018 is, to me, that 2015 Albarino. It was a wonderful, surprising success and should be toasted for as long as you can by those who are able.
Yet the bigger picture of that vintage is that soon, if not immediately, there are better to come. Be it two years, four years or six years, the wait will be worth it. England have made their mark on the world stage, and proved they can compete with Spain, with Portugal, with France.
So raise a glass (your choice, but you know what I’ll be drinking) to Gareth Southgate’s boys’ achievements over the weekend, and toast that which has been, and that which will come. England is in rude health again, though it may have a bit of a hangover for a couple of days.