English wines are at an awkward adolescent stage in their growth. They are past the early years when they were viewed as something of a joke, and not a very funny one at that. Today, more and more consistently enjoyable wines are being made across England (and Wales) and conditions seem right for a growth spurt to take them into adulthood with the other big boys of the wine world.
Of course wine-making in this country is not a new thing: the traditional view conjures pictures of Roman Britons lounging in their villas (presumably with the hypocaust turned up high), downing goblets of locally-produced wine. Sadly there is no evidence to support these imaginings: grapes seem to have been grown here in Roman times, but there is nothing to suggest that any wine was made from them.
However, it is true that wine was made, probably in a rather patchy and piecemeal way, over the intervening centuries. Wine was intimately connected with monastic and church ritual, but any lasting progress was hampered by the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries, easier trade routes with wine regions further south and climate change. The renaissance of English wine began shortly after the second world war, when the first commercial vineyard was planted at Hambledon in Hampshire.
So perhaps, given this long history, it’s churlish of me to talk of English wines being still only adolescent. Well you have to recognize that we don’t have the ideal climate for grape-growing and wine-making. If you’ve visited other wine-making regions around the world, you can’t help noticing that they are, well, warmer than here. Our climate is the limiting factor on our wine industry: it dictates which grape varieties can be grown, and only then in the most favoured spots, and only in the warmer years too.
These tricky conditions have led English wimemakers to plant grape varieties specifically bred to survive and ripen in our marginal climate. There’s nothing wrong with these varieties per se, but mostly they were developed in Germany and have correspondingly Germanic-sounding names: Huxelrebe, Schönburger, Würzer, Dornfelder. These are not names to tempt English wine drinkers – if those varieties are any good, why aren’t they grown elsewhere? Never seen a Siegerrebe from Chile or Australia, have we? And any combination of “Germany” and “wine” is commercial poison. There’s also some, perhaps correct, snobbishness about these varieties: they are mostly hybrids (made from crossings of other varieties) and there is a view that hybrids can never produce good quality wine, certainly not great wine.
As time has gone on, many of these older Germanic varieties and hybrids have started to die out in favour of other grapes, as our climate has warmed, as vine-growing and wine-making know-how have improved. They are still there and still used, but their names are not trumpeted on labels; they are mostly blended together in wines with inoffensive-sounding names like Autumn Spice or Surrey Gold.
Varieties that have proved themselves over time and which look likely to grow further in popularity are Bacchus, for white wines and Pinot Noir for reds.
Bacchus, despite being pretty much unknown outside these shores does have some advantages. It doesn’t sound German and even sounds like it might have something to do with wine. Perhaps more importantly (but only perhaps), it makes wines that are attractive to the average wine drinker. Bacchus wines have some things in common with our current favourite white, Sauvignon Blanc: fresh, herbal and nettley-smelling with attractive fruit.
Pinot noir – ah, finally we get to grow a variety that people have already heard of, that is actually grown in other countries. Pinot noir is the grape that makes red Burgundies; it is also one of the trio of grapes that are permitted to make Champagne. That’s quite a pedigree and, by some stroke of good fortune, we English seem to be able to grow it here.
Making red wines in England has been a bit of a struggle, frankly. Red grape varieties are more difficult to ripen here, so growers have had to resort to those unfamiliar-sounding hybrids in the past. Now, however, Pinot Noir has arrived and seems to suit the climate – and perhaps the climate has changed a little too, to meet it halfway. You still see other varieties in bottles of English red wine, but the future looks increasingly pinot-tinted. And, as a bonus, if the weather isn’t good enough to ripen the pinot noir to make red wine, then growers can use it to make sparkling wine instead.
Sparkling wines are perhaps the area where English wines have taken the greatest strides in the last few years. In Ridgeview and Nyetimber, both based in Sussex, England has sparkling wine makers whose ambition is to emulate Champagne itself in style and quality. People may have found the idea laughable not so many years ago – but they’re not laughing now. Indeed the Queen, it is said, serves Nyetimber sparkling wine at Buckingham Palace – though I don’t believe her Majesty is obliged to divulge all expense receipts (yet), so I can’t be categorical.
English Wine Week – 23rd – 31st May
This is the annual celebration of all things English and winey and a great excuse to get out and visit a vineyard or two. Over the course of the week vineyards across England will be opening their doors to welcome visitors and offer a variety of activities, including tours, tastings and sales or hosting special events. Details of all activities are available on www.englishwineweek.co.uk.
Recommended English Wines
A highly personal selection of my current favourite English wines.
Ridgeview Fitzrovia Brut 2006, £21.95 from Ridgeview themselves or £21.99 from Waitrose
Ridgeview’s take on a rosé Champagne, made authentically from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. All of Ridgeview’s wines are worth a try and their commitment to quality is always impressive – the only trouble being, their wines sell out so quickly that it’s hard to buy them at their peak of maturity.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2001/3, £25.99, from Waitrose
Nyetimber are, by far, the largest sparkling wine producer in the country and further expansion is planned. They don’t suffer from false modesty and consider their wines on a par with Champagne. It’s a fine and elegant sparkling wine in any case.
Camel Valley Brut 2006, £19.99 from Waitrose, £19.95 from the vineyard
Unlike Ridgeview and Nyetimber, at Camel Valley, based in Cornwall, they pursue a more English idiom of sparkling wine, rather than apeing Champagne. This fruity and easy-going wine is made from a blend of Seyval blanc, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner grapes.
Chapel Down Bacchus 2007, £9.49 at Waitrose, £9.99 direct from the vineyard in Tenterden, Kent
If you’ve yet to try Bacchus, this is a good place to start. Chapel Down is the country’s largest wine producer, making wines from grapes from their own substantial vineyards, as well as buying in grapes from growers all over Kent, Sussex, Essex and even the Isle of Wight. Although described as a dry wine, this wine is essentially off-dry, which is I feel the best way to appreciate most English white wines. The small amount of sweetness helps to round out the palate and enhances the fruit.
Bookers Vineyard Dark Harvest 2005, £7.99 from Waitrose, or £8.95 at Bookers Vineyard
What I really wanted to recommend is Samantha Linter’s pinot noir – but, sadly, she hasn’t had ripe enough grapes to make any in the last two summers, and the 2006 vintage is now sold out. One of only a small handful of female wine-makers in England, Samantha seems to have found her niche with her attractive, scented pinot. The Dark Harvest is made from the more reliably performing Dornfelder and Rondo grapes. Its jewel-like purple colour is matched by plenty of juicy berry fruit.
Denbies Hillside Chardonnay, £13.50 from the vineyard
I couldn’t write about English wines without mentioning Denbies, the largest single vineyard in the country (rather than the biggest producer). Denbies make a wide range of wines and, overall, quality is high and consistent. They can’t get the chardonnay grapes ripe enough every year to make a still, 100% chardonnay wine, but this is a great signpost of what English wine is capable of in the right hands and with favourable weather. No funny-sounding grape varieties, no hiding behind residual sweetness, just a well-made chardonnay that doesn’t automatically make you think, “OK for an English wine”.