About English wines
Our English wine is enjoying a boom, with 2017 seeing a whopping 64% more bottles released than in the previous year. Much of this is down to a massive investment in plantings and equipment, particularly in sparkling wines – the best of which compares well to the quality of some champagnes (and often come with price tags to match).
Still wines are in the shadow of their fizzy cousins but increasingly deserve attention as their quality improves. They will, though, never be able to compete on price with the pocket-friendly everyday wines we import. Making wine is not a quick or cheap thing to do, especially in a country with high wine duties, no modern wine-making heritage, and where the erratic weather means yields of grapes are lower than in warmer climes.
Many a hedge fund manager has started a second career as a wine-estate owner, because very deep pockets are required – it can take 10 years or more to produce a bottle that’s worth drinking; longer than that to see any sort of return on your investment.
Far rarer are those working on a more modest scale, such as Ingrid Bates, a biologist living in Bristol who rents the land for her vineyards in neighbouring Somerset and makes her wine at a local winery also used by other growers. You are unlikely to find the wines of such small producers on supermarket shelves but they are often found at local restaurants, farm shops and wine merchants, or direct from the winery.
English Wine Week runs from 20 to 28 June and is a chance to discover wines made in your area – vineyards are found in Yorkshire and all points south. Check out englishwineproducers.co.uk for more details.
The best English wines to try…
Lyme Bay Pinot Noir 2016 (£21.99, lymebaywinery.co.uk)
Pinot noir is a tricky grape for English red wines, our chilly climate so often rendering them mean and thin. This award-winning wine doesn’t come cheap but shows just what can be done when it’s in the right hands. Lovely with our baked feta with lentils, chilli and herbs recipe.
Woodchester Valley Cotswold Classic 2015
This Gloucestershire winery uses seyval blanc grapes, grown in vineyards mentioned in the Domesday Book, in this well-priced fizz that would make a great party wine either alone or with our deep-fried cockles with chilli-salt and vinegar recipe.
Co-op Irresistible Limestone Rise 2016 (£8.99, Co-op Food)
Hats off to the Co-op for bringing in an English wine for under a tenner. Made by Denbies in Surrey from bacchus and ortega grapes, its aromatic, grassy notes will appeal to lovers of sauvignon blanc and would be a hit with our home-smoked sea trout recipe.
Dunleavy Vineyards Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 (£12.95, dunleavyvineyards.co.uk)
Made by Ingrid Bates, this is the nicest English rosé I’ve tasted, delicate and precise, and up there with those from Provence. Drink it in the sun with our salmon tartare with soy-cured egg yolk on recipe.
More on English wines
Vines have been grown in England since Roman times but our chilly climate, more suited to grain and apples than to grapes, mean beer and cider became the booze of Britain and winemaking was left to our cousins across the Channel. But things have changed in recent years thanks to warmer summers, improved winemaking techniques and serious investment. There are now over 500 wineries in England and Wales, and some of their wines are serious contenders.
The chalky soils of southern Britain are cut from the same geological cloth as those of Champagne, so it’s no surprise that sparkling wine is where the English shine. Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV (M&S and others, around £28.50) and Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 (widely available, around £25) scooped the top two places at a blind tasting last year, knocking into a cocked beret such hot-shot champagne names as Pol Roger and Tattinger.
Still wines tend to be trickier as the high acidity of grapes grown in cool climates can be hard to balance with their lack of ripe fruit, which is why whites and rosés generally fare better than reds. But quality overall is improving and, while low yields and high land prices mean our wines will never be found on the ‘two for a tenner’ shelves, you can find very serviceable wines at reasonable prices.
As Brexit looms, cheap wine from Europe may soon become an expensive luxury so we’ll all be drinking vin d’angleterre. Yet more good news for the UK wine industry, perhaps?
Best English wines
It pays to think ahead and stock up on well-priced reliable wines so there’s always something to hand for impromptu summer drinking.
Dunleavy Vineyard’s Pinot Noir Rosé 2015 (£11.50) hits just the right balance between fruit and acidity, while Three Choirs Payford Bridge 2014 (£8.95) bursts with gooseberry and zippy citrus freshness that will appeal to lovers of sauvignon blanc. Chapel Down Blanc de Blancs 2011 (£29.99) has some classy bottle age which gives it a rich and savoury complexity and enough weight to drink with food. Try it with crab and berkswell tarts.
Best high street English wine
Denbies Noble Harvest Ortega 2014 (£19.99) Waitrose is a big supporter of English and Welsh wine and is the first supermarket to stock an English sticky (dessert wine). This is silky and aromatic; honeyed but not heavy. Try it with buttermilk burnt rice pudding.
In The History of Wine in 100 Bottles, Oz Clarke romps through 8,000 vinous years with his usual infectious enthusiasm and engaging style. 100 wine-based stories entertain and enlighten in equal measure and will appeal to wine connoisseurs and novices alike. (£20, Pavilion Books)
Where to buy English wines
Although supermarkets are slowly catching on to it, sourcing English wine can be tricky. Check out the shelves of your local independent wine merchant or, better still, visit your nearest winery and buy the wines direct. Most vineyards are open to visitors and will let you taste before you buy, and most do mail order. Find more information at englishwineproducers.co.uk.