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?
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.
High Street Bottle
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
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.