October 27, 2017
PETERSFIELD — Earlier this fall, yellow leaves dotted the green pastures beneath a grey sky with the occasional blue hole that let sunlight filter through. At the corner of a small path in the rolling hills, an old red brick pub, "The Bat and the Ball," stood with a sign for its "famous' fish and chips.
We're just outside the town of Petersfield, in Hampshire County, a scenic stretch of southern England. But just a few kilometers away, as the landscape winds around — surprise! — we find ourselves between two rows of vines. Bordered by trees on either side, the path turns towards another brick building that overlooks the Hambledon estate vineyard where fieldworkers are already busy in the fields. Behind it, the winery house's presses, vats and bottles. October harvest is approaching.
Stocky and grey-haired, Didier Pierson, 50, has a firm handshake and a warm demeanor. A French winemaker from the Champagne region, he owns six hectares of vines in Villers-aux-Bois, where he produces 80,000 bottles of Champagne per year under his label, Pierson Whitaker. Now, he also has the distinction of being the first "Frenchie" to cross the English Channel and set up shop in this stretch of the United Kingdom.
In 2005, he bought five hectares of land on the southern slope of one of the main hills in the Meon Valley, not far from the Hambledon estate, to plant his new vineyard. His business partner in this venture is Ian Kellett, a British agro-industrialist who took over Hambledon in 1999. Created in 1952, with an original size of 25 hectares, the estate fell into disuse but has since come back to life. Acting on Pierson's advice, Kellett uprooted the old German vines and replaced them with grapes for Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
"Before making my decision, I spent a year studying the climate and soil in South Downs," recalled the winemaker. "I wanted a chalky soil as similar as possible to that of the famous Côte des Blancs, in Champagne."
Now, the hill bordering the Meon Valley is covered with two types of Champenois vines to make sparkling wine, according to the regional methods. "Don't say ‘Champagne,"" said Pierson. Here, the winemakers call it "sparkling wine" and nothing else. The Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wines makes sure of that.
Since 2011, Pierson has produced 5,000 bottles per year under his new label Meonhill. But this past year, he zoomed up to 30,000 bottles. His association also claims 120,000 bottles per year for his different Hambledon vintages.
This resurgence of southern English winemaking has sparked more and more curiosity and interest among French Champagne producers. This past year, the Taittinger Champagne house arrived, purchasing 60 hectares of land near Chilham, a village in Kent county, 15 kilometers from Canterbury. "It used to be planted with apple trees," notes Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who runs the storied Champagne brand. "We have already planted over 20 hectares of vines. We're aiming for 40. The rest will be used mainly for reception areas for our clients and the winery."
A colorful personality, Taittinger has vowed his investments will increase to up to 10 million euros ($11.85 million) over the next decade. "The English have a profound sense of harmony," said the French Champagne maker. "What's more, in 1962, while my father Jean was deputy mayor of Reims, that city twinned with Canterbury."
The vineyard plots are divided between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Kent County has chalky soil, like that in Champagne, which dates from the Cretaceous period, when England was still attached to the European continent. The first grape harvests will happen in 2019, but the wines won't be available for sale until 2023 or 2024. "I hope to produce 250,000 bottles of sparkling wine per year. Later on, we may consider producing non-sparkling wines, either red or white," Taittinger says. The aim is for vintages to be top quality, and to be baptized Evremond, a nod to the 17th-century French moralist and libertine critic Charles de Saint-Evremond.
The vines are moving north
The Vranken-Pommery house also moved to Hampshire in 2015. It entered the capital of England's Hattingley Valley estate, where it will grow some 10 hectares of Champenois vine species. Other big Champagne houses could follow. On the other side of the Channel, the new wine-growing environment has attracted discreet Champagne spies.
There are many factors to explain the English wine renaissance, but chief among them is climate change. "In the Middle Ages, an episode of global warming helped develop wine culture around monasteries in the south of England," explained Jean-Marc Touzard, a researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Inra) and director of research on wine and climate change.
Today, the same causes are producing the same effects. "The vines are moving back up north. New regions will be able to participate in wine culture, whether that's in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland or Russia," predicts Touzard.
Didier Pierson notes that over the next 30 years, the temperature in the south of the United Kingdom will have increased by 1.6 degrees Celsius.
Simultaneously, the French climate is going awry. Winters are milder, and so the vines are maturing earlier. The late winter freezes, while there is growing risk of rain and hail that can endanger the vines. "This year, we lost about 30% of our harvest due to having to sort out rotten grapes during the harvest," said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.
Touzard notes that southern England's chalky soil offers an interesting alternative. "The big Champagne houses have a vested interest in diversifying their production sites for the largest market of sparkling wines," he explains.
Another factor in UK wine expansion is the British royal family, which is very attached to the development of national vineyards. The Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles, the second wife of Prince Charles, was at the Hambledon estate opening party in 2013, notes Didier Pierson. The English have always adored sparkling wine, and that love can only flourish if they produce it themselves.
Another factor is financial: property value is largely in South Downs' favor, with the price of a planted hectare ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 euros. "We have complete freedom in our choices here," explains Pierson. "We can plant what we want. There are no time constraints imposed on our harvest. Compared to Champagne, where the harvest takes place over two weeks and the dates are fixed by decree." British liberalism has some benefits.
As a result, the development of English vineyards is accelerating across all varieties. English Wine Producers, one of two associations of UK winemakers, predicts a record planting in for this year, with one million feet of vines getting added to the existing stock. In terms of surface area, that's the equivalent of London's Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park combined. Since 2000, English vineyards have more than doubled in area, reaching a bit more than 2,000 hectares today. The association anticipates growth of about 50% between now and 2020. Statistics from the United Kingdom Vineyards Association reveal that production has grown from a little more than one million bottles in 2012 to more than 5 million in 2015. But the UK bubbly is just a small percentage of that. English wine producers are also faced with tough competition from other sparkling wines, such as Italian Prosecco.
Is Champagne at risk of disappearing from British tables? Not at all. The British are the second-largest consumers of the drink in the world. But British vineyards are still limited in comparison to the 35,000 hectares of Champenois vineyards.
In 2013, an American study predicted the disappearance of nearly 66% of French vineyards due to global warming. "But it didn't consider the proactivity of French winemakers and their capacity for innovation and adaptation," declares said Jean-Marc Touzard. "Tomorrow is not the end for vineyards in Burgundy, Bordelais or Champagne. As for England, it will take at least 30 more years to create and establish a real vineyard label."
For now, top-quality English sparkling wine is still reserved for a happy few. But in the years to come, and with the help of the experts from Champagne, it may be toasted around the world.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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