Thursday, 24 May 2012

English wines - cause to celebrate

The Diamond Jubilee, the 2012 Olympics, the rain letting up – there are many reasons to celebrate this summer and while you're digging out the Union Jack bunting and thinking about resurrecting the barbecue, don't forget the English wine.

The wines we produce in this country, nay this very county, have improved immeasurably over the past few years. Sparkling wines in particular, are the jewels in the English wine crown and the best can match Champagne for quality, while retaining their unique English character.

There is always a little frisson of surprise and a ruffle of feathers when English fizz “beats” Champagne in a blind tasting, the latest of which is Bolney Estate's Cuvée Rosé which recently came out ahead of Moët et Chandon in a consumer tasting. While I'm delighted that news stories like this raise the profile of our own produce, walloping Champagne is really not the point.

English wines' reputation will not grow and the industry become more successful purely by measuring themselves against wines made elsewhere: comparisons are odious, as Elizabethan poet John Donne had it. Or perhaps more apposite for wine is Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing: comparisons are odorous.

Having said that, it is gratifying that English sparkling wines have again made a strong showing at recently announced major wine competitions:  Trophies and medals of all colours have come home to Blighty in this year's International Wine Challenge, Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Nowadays you don't have to get in the car and drive to a vineyard to be able to buy English wines: Waitrose has long been a supporter of our home-produced wine and has even planted a vineyard at its Leckford farm in Hampshire, destined to produce sparkling wine. Sainsbury's has launched a Taste the Difference English Sparkling wine which, sadly, I wouldn't recommend. And now Asda has announced the addition of two English wines to its range. Call it a bandwagon, but if it helps give a boost to a truly homegrown product, then the more the merrier I say.

The annual English Wines Week takes place this year from 2nd-10th June, which coincides nicely with the Jubilee double bank holiday weekend. There will be events (including the one I'm involved in, see below), vineyard tours and promotions taking place all over the country, giving everyone a chance to get out and tuck into some English wine.

Whatever your reason for flying the flag this summer, there are English wines to suit every palate – and wallet. Here are some of my current favourites:

Brightwell Bacchus 2010 - £9.49 from Waitrosewine online
Bacchus is England's answer to Sauvignon Blanc: aromatic, slightly floral with bright acidity and a grassy, herbaceous edge. This delicious example from Brightwell, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, is delicate and dry, with fine acidity. Wonderful if you're wheeling out anything involving smoked salmon.

West Street Vineyard Rosé 2011 - £10.99 from the vineyard
Don't let the odd-sounding varieties put you off: Faber, Madeleine Angevine and Zweigelt. All you really need to know that the lightly aromatic nose leads onto a dry, textured palate of juicy fruit. Try this with asparagus and hollandaise sauce.

Chapel Down Brut NV – around £18, quite widely available
Chapel Down draws on the biggest vineyard area of any winemaker in the UK, with growers stretching from the Isle of Wight to East Anglia, via Sussex and Kent. This is a blend of the three classic Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, plus a little Pinot Blanc. It offers plenty of drinking pleasure, with its fresh, clean and lively palate.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2009 – around £23 either from the vineyard, Waitrose or The Wine Society
For my money, Ridgeview has the most consistently high quality range of sparkling wines in England. The classic Champagne trio of grapes are here, with Chardonnay in the majority, giving it elegance, finesse and fine structure. My only beef is that it would be even better with a couple more years of bottle age.

Bolney Estate Cuvée Rosé 2009 - £23.50 from the vineyard and soon to be available at Naked Wines
Sam Linter, hairdresser turned winemaker, seems to have a gift for Pinot Noir, both as a still red wine and as here, as a pink sparkler. If fizz says celebration, then pink fizz says it a bit louder, so this would be a delicious way to mark a special occasion – it has class and delicacy of fruit with lasting flavour.

If you would like to enjoy the cream of English wine including many medal winners, then come along to an evening dedicated to top quality English wines which I am co-hosting:

English Wines Event at Barracks Farm Barn

 Thursday 7th June - 7.15pm
English Wines with Five Course Set Tasting Menu

 As part of English Wines Week, come and taste the best England has to offer, from top notch fizz to crisp white wines and fruity rosé - even red wine. A suitably appropriate event for Jubilee Week!

You'll be greeted with a glass of sparkling English wine and a range of canapés, then we'll go on to taste five more delicious wines, matching each one with a plate or bowl of food to show the quality and versatility of our home-produced wines.

The evening will end around 9.30pm with coffee.  There will be plenty of time for questions and there will be information sheets to take away.
This will be a relaxed, fun and informal event, hosted by Kate Doyle of Food for Occasions and Heather Dougherty, wine educator and columnist. 
Cost £45.00 per person or come with a friend and get our great rate of £65 for two tickets.  To reserve your place - phone Kate  01372 743135
or email   

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Jura - land of the laughing cow and yellow wine

Have you ever had a wine from the Jura? I'm guessing that for most of you, the answer is no. This little (and little-known) region is tucked away in a hilly region of eastern France, above Switzerland and about level with Burgundy. It's a land of rolling green hills, a prelude to the Alps, rich for agriculture and famous for two things – wine and cheese.

In fact you have more chance of having tried the cheese: Comté. It's one of those big, flat wheels that we used to call “Swiss cheese” and it does have similar flavours to its Alpine neighbours, Emmental and Gruyère. The story of how it is made tells us much about the land here.

Comté is made primarily from the milk of cows, mostly Montbeliards, which graze the rich pastures of this region known as Franche-Comté. The isolated farming communities need a way to turn the milk into a food that keeps over the long winter months. Artisan cheeses such as this are made from a single day's milk, so if each small-holding farmer were to make cheese from his own small herd, only a small cheese would result, which would have limited keeping capabilities. In order to make a more sizeable and slow-maturing cheese, neighbouring farmers pool their daily milk production, which is collected by the specialist cheesemaker, or fruitière.

The fruitière undertakes the process of turning the milk into cheese. Each fruitière's cheeses have subtly different flavours, informed by the milk of the cows that produced the milk that day – outside, eating fresh spring grass mixed with wild flowers; indoor in the winter eating hay and so on. There are myriad different elements that go to make up the final flavour of the cheese – yes, cheese has terroir too.

Once the cheese is made, the job of maturing it is handed over to another specialist: the affineur. There isn't really a ready English translation of this term, but it means someone who matures (and often sells) cheese. The affineur will buy cheeses from a network of different fruitières, to give a range of quality and flavours to sell to the consumer. As the cheeses slowly mature in the cool dark conditions of the affineur, they are tested to determine their readiness and quality.

Top quality stuff is destined to be sold for eating. Those which have not quite reached the pinnacle are sold as suitable for cooking. Any that does not make the grade at all is sold to the “Vache Qui Rit” (The Laughing Cow) processed cheese factory down the road. I did say you had probably tried the cheese!

I do not need to tell you that there is often a strong link between the food and wines of a region, and the Jura is no exception. If you would like to enjoy the Jura food and wine match par excellence then you need to search out a bottle of Vin Jaune (literally, yellow wine) to go with your slice of top quality Comté.

Vin Jaune's story is at least as idiosyncratic as its cheesy partner. Savagnin grapes are harvested and made into wine in a pretty straightforward way, but they are then matured in oak barrels for at least six years and three months. This is the time needed for the special ageing process that gives Vin Jaune its unique flavours.

The barrels are not completely filled at the beginning, leaving space for a layer of yeast, or flor, to develop on the surface of the wine. Sherry aficionados will recognize this, as this same process plays a vital role in the production of fino, the light, dry style of sherry. The yeast flor protects the wine from oxidising and turning to vinegar and promotes the production of nutty, complex flavours. Unlike sherry, however, Vin Jaune is not fortified.

Vin Jaune is made all over the Jura, but the finest examples are widely regarded as coming from vineyards surrounding the small town of Château-Chalon. Its quality has long been recognized – indeed Prince Metternich, the power behind the throne of the Austrian Empire in the early 19th century, is said to have told Napoleon that the best wine in the world came from Château-Chalon. Though perhaps he was just trying to keep on the right side of his belligerent neighbour.

Where, I hear you say, can I buy such sought after and precious wine in Surrey? Les Caves de Pyrène, at Pew Corner, Artington, has a great selection of Jura wines, from Pinot Noir-like reds from the Trousseau grape; pale, almost rosé-coloured and sometimes funky reds made from Poulsard – and Vin Jaune, including this delicious Château-Chalon.

Château-Chalon 1998, Marie et Denis Chevassu, £39.49 for a 62cl bottle
Why a 62cl bottle? This is, apparently, the amount of wine left from a litre after evaporation during the ageing process. The wine itself is deep gold in colour with a complex mix of nutty, sherry-like aromas and flavours – some even find curry spice in there.

Trousseau 2009, Domaine Daniel Dugois - £16.99
An attractive garnet-purple colour and with plenty of clove-tinged, juicy berry fruits, this is a more straightforward and user-friendly introduction to the region. Try it with new season navarin of lamb.

As for where to find top class Comté in Surrey to accompany your glass of Château-Chalon – try a really good local cheesemonger and please don't settle for a triangle of Laughing Cow if you can't find any!