A few years ago the thought of drinking English (or Welsh…mustn’t forget the Welsh!) wine was met with a bit of a chuckle and a shake of the head…boy how things have changed. Lying at a latitude of >50 degrees North our climate is just about at the margins of where grapes are able to be grown and ripened successfully (although Global warming is undoubtedly making things a tad easier) but today with regular improvements in production techniques and a growth of wine education (thanks Plumpton College!) English wine has never been in finer fettle.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a stone over the last couple of years you can’t fail to have become aware of the emergence of English sparkling wine on the market and whilst many consumers veer towards the cheaper mass produced wines from Prosecco, the quality of English sparkling has never been better – even prompting luminaries from the Champagne region to begin buying up land in the South East of England.
But enough of the chat on sparkling, today I want to look at good ole’ English still wines which don’t receive anything like the coverage or the plaudits…and whilst the High Street is enthusiastically taking Sparkling wines to their bosom and amply stocking them, the same can’t be said for still wines.
I’m surmising here but I suspect many people veer away from English still wines due to
a) perception issues
b) availability issues
c) the simple fact that you have never heard of or in some cases can even pronounce the grape variety!
Note: I have name checked a few wines throughout the blog, whilst M&S and Waitrose remain the best of the High Street options you can also source the wines direct from the wineries online or better still if you fancy you can contact me about arranging small group tours to the Kentish or Sussex Wineries and pay them a visit in person!
Before we get to the wines, a quick overview of the Quality classification system and what to look for on the bottle:
All English and Welsh wines are subject to EU laws and have to be made from UK grown, freshly picked grapes (no concentrate or imported juice allowed – unlike the rather revolting and cheap “British Wine”).
The best wines will be PDO or PGI classified which means they have proven geographical origins of their wine and they will have undergone more stringent quality controls:
PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) wines may also include a PDO logo on the label or just state “Quality wine”,these are top quality wines
PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) wines may include a PGI logo on the label or just state ”Regional wines” – these have slight less stringent controls/checks/requirements but are still good quality wines.
You may also find: “Varietal wine” – which don’t come from a particular geographical location in the UK and are just labelled by their variety. They don’t undergo the same quality checks or production limitations as PDO/PGI wines.
Whilst the majority of our grape production goes into the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Pinot Meunier (for use in Sparkling wine production) there are a number of other grapes which perform very well in our marginal climate either used as single varietals or in blends. The main thing they all have in common is acidity (usually quite a lot of it!) and lower alcohol levels (11-12%) due to the more challenging ripening season.
We grow mainly Germanic grapes – our climates are rather similar so the grapes which originally grew well there, also tend to grow well here, thus the preponderance of Germanic sounding names in the below list.
Bacchus – my favourite and how apt that we grow a grape named after the Roman God of Wine! This grape is a crossing of (Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau, and I believe it has the potential to be our answer to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – quite possibly offering English still wine a real point of difference. It ripens quickly so is well suited to our rather inclement weather and produces wines which retain good acidity in our growing conditions, the result being refreshing, easy to drink aromatic light bodied whites with aromas of grass, nettles, elderflower and hedgerows…could anything be more English?! Infact it was an English Bacchus producer who sent shock waves throughout the industry last year when the Winbirri Bacchus 2015 picked up the Decanter Platinum Best In Show: Best Value White Single Varietal! Other good producers to look for include:Chapel Down and Camel Valley.
We are starting to produce some pretty good Pinot Gris here too – the better ones retain good acidity alongside aromatic fruit exhibiting the classic notes of spicy pear. Look for Stopham Estate who also do a rarer (for the UK) Pinot Blanc. For something a bit different Albourne Estate do an Estate Selection blended white from Pinot’s Gris, Blanc and Bacchus which I enjoyed.
Ortega – another crossing of varietals this is another grape to watch. It ripens to good sugar levels so often gives wines that are light to medium bodied and often off-dry in style. General characteristics include zesty citrus and apple notes. Biddenden in Kent make varietal wines from this grape you can try.
Most English still wines however do tend to be blends from white varieties that may include Huxelrebe, Riechensteiner, Seyval Blanc or Madeline Angevine. For example Halfpenny Green Tom Hill – which won an IWC Silver medal in 2016 and Denbies whose dry white Flint Valley can be found in Waitrose.
We also produce a number of really good stickies (Sweet wines), from late harvest and botrytis affected grapes ie Denbies Noble Harvest (a 2017 Decanter Gold Medal Winner) and quite a few Rosé wines which tend to be blends of the below red varieties.
Talking of reds… the main thing to note is the risk of under-ripe, rather green tannins – I have yet to drink many single varietal international varieties of sufficient quality to be worth the money – Pinot Noir will get there with time but we are very much at the whim of the weather each year so vintages (and thus ripeness) vary greatly and most of the best Pinot Noir grown is still tending to be mainly used for Sparkling wine production, but if you fancy trying one then Denbies Redlands which picked up a bronze at the IWC in 2015 is an option.
As with the whites it is crossed red varieties which are most common:
Dornfelder – The most popular of the red grapes (outside of Pinot Noir and Meunier), produces deeply coloured wine with good acidity. If you’re a fan of bigger bodied reds then this won’t be for you but if you like lighter/medium bodied reds that are fresh and fruity, this could be worth a punt.
Rondo – makes some interesting reds as well – a crossing (spot the theme here!), these wines tend to also be quite deeply coloured, with juicy fruit and high in acid and in truth are still most often used as a blending grape. That said, Bolney’s Dark Harvest is a Rondo dominant blend with Dornfelder you can pick up in Waitrose.
I hope the above has given a bit of confidence to explore English still wine a bit more but remember this is still a relatively fledging industry so baby steps, it will get better and better!
Just remember, our marginal climate alongside small production means that bang for buck, English wines will never be cheap – these are boutique wines generally made in small quantities (not mass produced bulk wines shipped over in large inflatable bags and bottled in the UK to keep prices down). Perhaps in this time of uncertainty around Brexit with the risk of higher prices for imported European wines, we should look to the local market and raise a glass to English wine instead?