Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The state of the (English wine) nation

Every year London hosts the English Wine Producers’ tasting, featuring hundreds of English - and Welsh - wine, though no Scottish wine (yet) that I’m aware of. I manage to get along to the tasting most years and there is no denying that the overall quality of the wines on show is getting better and better as the years pass.

Proof, if any were needed, that English sparkling wine is really coming of age, is that the Champenois have a bit of a bee in their bonnet about it. Last year, apparently, they were all abuzz about the threat of Prosecco; this year, it’s English fizz that is exercising them. And I’ve already written about Champagne Taittinger’s investment in vineyard land in a joint venture in Kent (see Surrey Advertiser 22 April edition or read it online here: http://yourliquidassets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/the-irrestistible-rise-of-english-wines.html.

Some styles of wine are always going to be a challenge to produce in the UK: it’s just not possible to reliably make red wines in our cool climate. There are usually some red wines made, somewhere in England, every year. But it’s unusual for the same producer to be able to make a red wine, year in , year out.

New World winemakers often talk about some of their wines coming from cool climates, but it’s all relative. They should stand in an English vineyard on the North Downs in March if they want to know what cool climate really means.

Still white and rosé wines are a much safer bet in our climate, but it is, still, the sparkling wines that are England’s vinous crowning glory.

My thoughts following the English Wine Producers’ tasting this year:

  • Red wines, even in the favourable conditions of 2014, are still a niche style (together red and rosé wines account for just 10% of total production).
  • English still rosés do best when they do not try to copy other countries, but develop their own style, with the emphasis on delicate, red fruit, a tiny bit of sweetness to balance the crisp acidity and lowish alcohol.
  • There remain too many still white wines that are rather lollyish and floral – a legacy of using Germanic hybrid grape varieties designed to withstand the cold weather.
  • Sparkling wines are still the pinnacle of our national wine scene, witnessed by the huge medal haul achieved in international competition this year. Some of the best producers have been at it for a while (such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview), but there are some really exciting newcomers too, including Hattingley Valley and Exton Park.

Here is a smattering of some of my favourite wines from the tasting:

Greyfriars Pinot Gris 2014 - £13.50, available from the vineyard/online
Mike and Hilary Wagstaff took over this vineyard in 2010 and have been focused on growth and quality improvements ever since. This has lovely Pinot Gris juicy stone fruit with a touch of spice. It’s low in alcohol (11.5%) and pleasingly dry. Check out their sparkling Blanc de Blancs too.

Chapel Down English Rose 2015 - £10.49 from Majestic, £10.99 from Waitrose and elsewhere
I think the Rose – not Rosé – in the name is quite intentional. Chapel Down are a long-established name in the English wine scene and manage to make consistently good still wines, as well as sparkling. This Pinot Noir dominant blend makes for a lovely combination of strawberry fruit and a whiff of English hedgerows in Maytime.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 – widely available at around £33
One of the pioneers and still showing its class. I like the way they release their wines with a bit of age – the naturally high acidity in English wine means they benefit from the mellowing effect of more time maturing on the lees and in the cellar before drinking. This is a blend of the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir (just over half the blend), with Chardonnay and a little Pinot Meunier. It’s a classically rich style with baked apple and bready flavours.

Where to find English wines
English wine lovers should get themselves to a branch of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer. Both have been supporters for a while, but are both in the process of radically increasing the number of English wines on their shelves.

English Wine Week
You can get up close and personal with English wines during English Wine Week, which takes place from Saturday 28th May to Sunday 5th June. Details of events, vineyard open days and more can be found here: http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk/news/eww/

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