An essential guide to UK wine
As English wine enters a golden age, we look at how this remarkable transformation came about, plus where to buy and enjoy the best bottles
Right now, UK wine is fizzing with energy. Pioneering sparkling wine producers have turned a former joke, English wine, into an internationally award-winning force, the success of which is attracting new producers as UK vineyards grow rapidly.
According to industry body, WineGB, Britain is now home to 165 wineries and 770 vineyards. Their output is not huge – around 9-16 million bottles are produced annually, in a country which drank 1.7 billion bottles last year, reports IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. But what this craft industry lacks in size it makes up for in quality.
Last year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition named, not a French champagne house, but Dorset’s Langham Wine as the world’s best sparkling wine producer. That did not surprise Charles Carron Brown, sommelier at Simon Rogan’s Henrock in Cumbria, one of many top restaurants now taking English wine seriously. “English wine,” he says, “is entering a golden age.”
Supermarket sales back that up. UK rosés and reds are flying at Waitrose. At M&S, another early supporter, UK sparkling wine sales are up 89 per cent.
The sparkling wine explosion
Remarkably, in 2017, French champagne house Taittinger opened a vineyard in Kent. It confirmed what UK producers had long maintained – that, with its mineral-rich soil and short summer, southern England (home to 94.5 per cent of UK vines), is as suitable as northern France for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes to make traditional-method sparkling wine, aka, champagne.
It has taken UK makers decades to master that craft. But, says M&S winemaker, Sue Daniels, “site selection, viticulture and wine-making techniques” have all improved. “Winemakers are taking full advantage of the land and making exceptional sparkling wines,” agrees Sandia Chang, co-owner and sommelier at London’s Kitchen Table.
Despite its similarity to champagne, advocates maintain that English sparkling wine is distinctive: drier, zestier, lighter, fruitier. This is partly due to how acidic UK grapes are balanced with so-called dosage sugars, but that's not all, says Sandia: “The terroir. Champagne has gravel and limestone, we’re more clay and chalk.”
Sunny Hodge, owner of London wine bar Diogenes the Dog, argues that English sparkling wines often lack “a sense of place”. “They’re essentially going for the champagne model: same style, grapes and similar subsoil,” he says. In contrast, the best UK still wines (Sunny name-checks Blackbook Winery’s “very precise chardonnay”), expose the grapes’ character in a way that evokes their specific English origin: “You can’t compare Blackbook wines to French or Italian wines. They’re unique. When you’re a new wine-making region, that’s what you have to do – something different.”
The price of English sparkling wines can be an issue. Land, machinery and storage (it takes at least 18 months to mature these wines) are costly and UK wines can seem expensive compared to established global brands. But as volumes grow, prices should fall. So do your bit and order a second bottle.
Still wine: the next generation
Making still wine requires plenty of sunshine and ripe fruit. Due to global warming and experimentation with different grape varieties, both are becoming more common in the UK. Alongside established whites made with bacchus and pinot gris grapes, the UK is now producing great single varietal rosés and reds made from pinot noir and rondo grapes.
“I used to be really rude about English still wines,” says olive's wine expert, Kate Hawkings. However, Kate found several wines made with 2018’s bumper harvest, revelatory: “It’s not just the climate – as vines get older they’re better for still wines, and expertise is improving. For me, still wine is the most interesting English wine.”
Certainly, many UK producers are going their own way: opting to farm organically or biodynamically for maximum sustainability, often producing natural wines using ancient, low-intervention techniques. Charles Carron Brown, who also runs thenaturalsommelier.com, extols such wine that “speaks of the land and tastes really, really good”.
The wine list: 10 restaurants celebrating UK wine
Henrock at Linthwaite House, Bowness-on-Windermere
Keen to promote UK sparklers and still gems from Hush Heath and Furnace Projects. Mains from £24; henrock.co.uk
One of four Gladwin brothers restaurants which source wines from the owners’ Nutbourne Vineyards. Pair queenie scallops with Nutty Brut. Mains from £18; sussex-restaurant.com
English and Welsh wines only. Craft, for instance, matches Montgomery Vineyards’ smoky rondo red with chef Andrew Sheridan’s wellington. Dinner from £45; weare-craft.co.uk
The Whitebrook, near Monmouth
Chris Harrod’s Michelin-starred restaurant-with-rooms carries more than 20 sparkling, red and white English and Welsh wines. Dinner £95; thewhitebrook.co.uk
UK welcome drinks (Nyetimber, Tickerage) and wines from Norfolk’s Flint. Chef-owner Richard Bainbridge recently paired trout and pea fricassee with Stopham Estate’s 2019 pinot blanc. Dinner from £56; restaurantbenedicts.com
Isaac At, Brighton
Sommelier Alex Preston’s all-British drinks list includes rarer vintages from producers including Black Dog Hill, Poynings Grange and Hidden Spring. Dinner from £30; isaac-at.com
Lympstone Manor, Exmouth
Chef Michael Caines’ flagship has 17,500 vines in its grounds (first sparklers released 2023), and wines from Lyme Bay and Sharpham in its cellar. Dinner from £140; lympstonemanor.co.uk
Seasonal plates served with low-intervention wines, several English. Check the dry white Horsmonden from Fenn favourite, Davenport. Larger plates from £14; fennrestaurant.co.uk
Where to buy: from cellar door to high-street store
At vineyards or online, direct sales have been pivotal to UK wine growth. Check the directory at Wine GB. Waitrose and M&S both have significant UK wine selections, while Morrison’s includes The Best English Sparkling Brut Vintage 2010 (£18), winner of best sparkling wine at the 2020 olive Wine Supermarket Awards. Want to get nerdier? Head to Cambridge’s Grape Britannia or theenglishwinecollection.co.uk and iconicwines.co.uk.
Winemakers to watch
From mighty Chapel Down, supplier to 10 Downing Street and managing 950 acres, to dedicated minnows such as St Martin’s on the Isles of Scilly, whose vines occupy just two and a half acres, the UK wine scene is dynamic and incredibly diverse. Here are some notable names to check.
There are older UK wineries. Essex’s New Hall, famous for its work with the bacchus grape, dates to 1969. But in wowing chefs such as Rick Stein, Cornwall’s Camel Valley, established in 1989, was pivotal in getting foodies to take UK wine seriously.
Big fizz players
From Enfield’s 10-acre Forty Hall Vineyard to North Yorkshire’s Ryedale Vineyards, “the most northerly commercial vineyard in Britain”, UK wine is made in some surprising places. The 31 Welsh vineyards include White Castle, whose pinot noir reserve 2018 took gold at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards.
In the past decade, vineyards such as Sedlescombe Organic and Albury Organic Vineyard, helped establish a thriving UK culture of organic, biodynamic and natural wine-making. While those terms are not interchangeable, they collectively underpin the ethos of a low-intervention British wine-making scene whose stars now include Tillingham, Davenport and Ancre Hill.