On a sunny day you could be in the south of France. After strolling along half a mile of country tracks passing grazing farm animals you stumble across two sloping fields covering 10 acres of grapes. It is only when you turn around and see Canary Wharf and the Shard in the background that you prick yourself and realise you are in London.
Welcome to Forty Hall in Enfield, London's largest vineyard since the Middle Ages, which today (1 December) launches London's first commercial scale sparkling wine for centuries — Forty Hall Brut 2013, made with the classic champagne grape varieties.
This is the latest development in the amazing success of English sparkling wines which regularly match and often beat champagnes in international competitions. So far this has been a phenomenon, almost literally chalked up by vineyards in the south of England, many of which share the same geological structure as the terrain of champagne.
But London, which once boasted vineyards in Holborn, Westminster and Southwark, is now joining the renaissance. Before Forty Hall, the biggest vineyard in the metropolis was a crowd-sourced project by Chateau Tooting which gathers grapes from gardens and allotments across the capital and gets them turned into wine by Halfpenny Green, a professional winemaker in Staffordshire. Others include Olding Manor in Lewisham and Hawkwood, a cooperative in Epping Forest run by Marko Bojun which makes wine from its own grapes and for over two dozen people in the neighbourhood. Central London now also has what is claimed to be its first winery — London Cru in West Brompton which makes wine from grapes both imported and grown in this country.
Forty Hall is a community vineyard run by founder Sarah Vaughan-Roberts and a team of volunteers, many with social problems who prune and pick the grapes. It's supported by Capel Manor College which has provided the land and a variety of donors and patrons who are providing finance until the enterprise builds up to full production in a few years time. Although the vineyard itself is a social enterprise its grapes are turned into wine in Sussex by Will Davenport, one of the most respected wine makers in the country. And the quality is expected to be high.
It is in its second year of making very drinkable still white wines most of which went to patrons and volunteers as they are pruning the grapes heavily. This restricts current output in order to increase the chances of better harvests in years to come. The same is true of today's sparkling wine which needs a longer fermentation before it comes into its own.
The best way to get yourself a bottle of Forty Hall Brut 2013 is as a sponsor, although we recommend you hide it away for a special occasion.
There is a fascinating postscript to this for Londoners because it is now accepted, even by the French, that what is called méthode champenoise (making sparkling wine by secondary fermentation in a bottle) was first recorded in London in a paper presented by Christopher Merret to the Royal Society in 1662. Merret was born in Gloucestershire but lived in Hatton Garden. Dom Perignon, often hailed as the inventor of champagne, came much later. It was actually invented in Britain. In this sense Forty Hall Vineyard has a claim to be bringing classic sparkling wine back home to where it first started. Let's raise our glasses to that.