English Wine: on the up in 2016!

All images provided by the wineries listed, unless otherwise stated.

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One of the beautiful views at Exton Park Vineyard. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

English wine is making the news these days. With 503 commercial vineyards comprising 133 wineries spread over approximately 5000 acres of land (2015 figures), the latest harvest produced over 5 million bottles and, according to English Wine Producers, by 2020, that figure is expected to double. Sparkling wine, made by the 'Traditional Method' with a secondary fermentation in the bottle, is the real success story, comprising two-thirds of wine produced, but still wine should not be overlooked. All styles are regularly winning medals in global competitions and in a recent showdown in Paris, a group of restaurateurs rated English sparkling better than the French equivalent in two out of three head-to-head blind tastings, with 13 out of 14 confusing Nyetimber's Blancs de Blancs 2009 with the French fizz! It is no surprise, therefore, that the traditional Champagne varieties occupy three of the top five most planted grape varieties, Chardonnay (1st), Pinot Noir (2nd) and Pinot Meunier (5th and set to grow further given its suitability to the English terroir).

Well-draining chalky soils, south-facing slopes, earlier springs, later autumns and warmer temperatures have all contributed to this phenomenon. Already, two Champagne Houses have committed to making sparkling wine in the south of England. At the end of last year, Champagne Taittinger bought 171 acres of land near Canterbury in Kent, in order to plant just under 100 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for wine production under the brand name Domaine Evremond. More recently, Champagne Pommery announced a partnership with Hampshire's Hattingley Valley to produce English fizz. Furthermore, the end of May saw the first time that the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS) took place in the UK, bringing together leading experts in cool climate viticulture, winemaking, business and marketing.

Stop Press: July 2016

English Wine Producers won the International Wine Challenge (IWC) Consumer Campaign of the Year for this year's English Wine Week, which took place between Saturday 28th May and Sunday 5th June.

Furleigh Estate, based in Dorset, won The IWC James Rogers Trophy for its Rosé 2010, awarded to the best new wine entered into the competition in its first year of production.

A big boost for the industry has also come with the news that The British Bottle Company has agreed a deal with New Jersey-based Vine Street Imports to distribute the wines of four English producers. This will be the largest portfolio of English wines available in any market outside of the UK. Even the government seems to be taking note with Ridgeview and Chapel Down now becoming the official sparkling wine suppliers for 10 Downing Street!

On Monday 9th May, London played host once again to the English Wine Producers Annual Trade & Press Tasting. With many wineries represented and a centre table of 115 wines, there were many star performers on the day, so here is my rundown of a few favourites:-

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Regarded as one of the pioneers and finest producers of English wine, Nyetimber’s vineyards were the first to be devoted exclusively to the three main Champagne grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Located in the South Downs on south-facing sites with either sandy or chalk soils similar to Champagne, they were the first English winery to release a single vineyard sparkling wine with all grapes specially selected from a single vineyard site among its 438 acres under vine. Tillington 2010 (RRP £75.00) is the second vintage of this wine, made from a blend of 78% Pinot Noir and 22% Chardonnay and only 4,117 individually numbered bottles were produced. On the nose, red fruit notes and hints of toast are evident, while the palate is elegant and complex with lemon cream, nuts, cherry stone and brioche touches. It shows great potential for ageing if you feel that way inclined!

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Established in 2008, launching its first release five years later, Hampshire's Hattingley Valley has quickly become one of England's most respected vineyards. With 60 acres on two sites, the winery was also the first in the UK to adopt solar power and is committed to eco-friendly viticulture. Their Blanc de Blancs 2010 (RRP £34.95) is partially fermented in old Burgundy barrels (the winery's signature touch) and shows notes of lemon, green apple, melon, caramel and butter.

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Chapel Down Winery.

Chapel Down, based in Kent, produces a well-known range of sparkling and still wines, as well as the Curious range of beers & cider. One interesting example from their portfolio is the new release Pinot Blanc 2014 (RRP £13.99). The winery only makes this still dry wine in the best vintages and 2014 was warm and dry with plenty of sunshine. This example is delicately floral with honeyed notes, touches of yellow plum, melon and good acidity. Try this with fish or as an apéritif.

Court Garden

Howard & Jenny Corney of Court Garden Vineyard.

Court Garden, established in 2005, is a family-run, single-estate 17-acre vineyard in East Sussex, renowned for making sparkling wine with long lees ageing from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Since then, plantings of Pinot Gris, Ortega, Dornfelder and Rondo have led to the production of still wine too.

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Their superb Ditchling Reserve 2010 (RRP £29.55), which will only be made in the best years, is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which spent nine months in French oak before bottling and a further four years on lees. The result is a lovely sparkling wine with good depth of flavour combining notes of red fruit, honey, vanilla and toast.

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This renowned winery, established in 1989 by ex-RAF pilot Bob Lindo and his wife Annie, enjoys one of the most beautiful locations of any vineyard in the UK on the sun-drenched slopes by the Camel river in Cornwall.

Winemakers

Bob & Sam Lindo of Camel Valley.

With a worldwide reputation for quality, they produce both still and sparkling wine. Their White Pinot Noir Brut 2010 (RRP £29.95) is a fabulously floral, fruity, light and elegant Blanc de Noirs with notes of red fruit and a delicate touch of spice. Their Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2013 (RRP £26.95) is another well-made red fruit dominant sparkling wine with a hint of apple peel, while the Pinot Noir Rosé 2014 (RRP £11.95) is a light, still, dry wine with intense strawberry aromas, perfect for drinking with barbecued mackerel.

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I discovered and was the first to write about this company in 2013 after they had launched their initial 2009 Vintage Brut and Rosé. The company takes its name from Sir Kenelm Digby, the 17th century philosopher, theologian, writer, pirate and inventor. He was also the owner of a glassworks and, after developing a special technique for manufacturing wine bottles, he became known as the ‘father of the modern wine bottle’. As the first négociant-style English sparkling wine brand, they source grapes from the best vineyards in southern England, focusing on Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay and recently added two superb sparklers to their range. The Brut Non Vintage (RRP £28.99) has a lovely lemon freshness with hints of peach, red berries and nuts plus an elegant finish. The newly developed Leander Pink Non Vintage Brut (RRP £29.99) is the official sparkling wine of the world renowned Leander Club, the most successful rowing club in the world. Refined, stylish and refreshing, this shows notes of red fruit with touches of orange too.

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The 6000-acre Wiston Estate has been owned and managed by the Goring family since 1743 and today is in the hands of husband and wife Harry and Pip Goring. Its 16-acre vineyard, planted in 2006, is located on the south-facing chalk slopes of the South Downs in West Sussex. With strong environmental credentials and a commitment to sustainability, the winery does not spray herbicides on the soil and they use a mechanical hoe for weed control. Additionally, solar panels are used as a source of renewable energy. They are also the sole winery in the UK and one of only four outside France to use the traditional Coquard press, which allows very gentle pressing of the grapes to extract juice of the highest quality. With distinctively elegant labels, bottles certainly stand out for all the right reasons and I particularly like the Wiston Rosé 2011 (RRP £35.95), made from 57% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier. Grapes ripened well during a very warm September and yields were low, resulting in this delightful sparkling wine with a delicious fresh strawberry, green apple, delicate oak and cream profile - the perfect reminder of an English summer!

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Autumn view at Denbies Wine Estate. Image by Helen Dixon.

Located near Dorking in Surrey, Denbies was established in 1986 and is currently the UK's largest single estate vineyard, comprising 265 acres of vines on the picturesque North Downs. The south-facing slopes, combined with a chalky soil and micro-climate contribute to its success in making excellent quality wine. Red wines are not so common in England due to the difficulties growing and ripening red grapes in the British climate. However, one successful example is Denbies Redlands 2014 (RRP £11.50), made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Dunkelfelder and Rondo. This delightful deep crimson-coloured wine, a proportion of which has spent eight months in barriques, exhibits a fruity nose of red and black berries with a hint of tobacco and smoke. On the palate, plums, bramble fruit plus hints of vanilla and smoke are evident with soft, silky tannins and good length. A perfect pairing for red meat or cheese, this wine would make a great addition to a summer BBQ and could be quite a talking point too! Another of their wines that really impressed me recently is the Sauvignon Bacchus 2014 (RRP £16.95), which beautifully combines the aromatic, herbaceous and fruity characteristics of these grapes… and yes, there is Sauvignon Blanc in England now!

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

A new vineyard for me this year, I first encountered their wines at the London International Wine Fair the previous week. With two vineyards in the West Midlands, their first crop was bottled at the end of 2014. Among their interesting range of still and sparkling wines, I particularly enjoyed their Signature Cuvée 2013 (RRP £27), made from 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Seyval Blanc, which spent two years on lees and showed notes of lemon, hazelnuts and baked apple with crisp acidity. The winery also makes a delightful Pinot Noir Early Red 2014 (RRP £15.49) from the early-ripening Pinot Précoce. Soft, round and fruity with hints of spice and a touch of oak, this is another good example of a very quaffable English red.

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Founded in 1979 by the pioneering Roy Cook, Sedlescombe, eight miles north of Hastings in East Sussex, is the UK's oldest organic vineyard and in 2010 produced the first biodynamic English wine, First Release. Three years later, it became the first English vineyard to win international recognition for a red wine.

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Among their impressively diverse and distinctive range, I really enjoyed First Release 2014 (RRP £16.95), made from hand-picked Rivaner Bacchus and Johanniter (a new Riesling cross). Fresh fruity aromas and flavours of gooseberry, lemongrass, citrus and a hint of pear make this a wine that's great for summertime drinking or for pairing with Asian food.

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Ten miles north of Brighton, on a hillside location in West Sussex forming part of an area listed in the Doomsday Book, the estate has been making wine since 1976. Their Bacchus 2015 (RRP £16.99) is an aromatic example of England's signature white grape variety with notes of elderflower, gooseberry, pear and a hint of green pepper. Absolutely perfect with goats' cheese!

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

A producer of still and sparkling wine and Vermouth, this South Cornish vineyard makes limited production wines from their own grapes as well as from those grown on other vineyards. I was particularly impressed by their Mena Hweg 2013, a regional award-winner, made from 100% Schonburger. A medium-sweet wine with 38g/l residual sugar, good natural acidity and a low ABV of 7.33%, this is reminiscent of a Mosel style. The name means 'pretty/sweet hill' and is the Cornish translation of Schonburger. It's a lovely, light summery wine with delicate floral and fruity notes of fresh apple, peach and citrus. Another good pairing for Asian food.

I also had the pleasure of visiting three vineyards recently and, for me, they epitomise the renewed confidence and belief in English wine's ability to compete with the best:-

Vineyard House

The beautiful house at Jenkyn Place. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Jenkyn Place is a family-run boutique Hampshire vineyard, owned by property investor and entrepreneur Simon Bladon and his wife Rebecca. In 2003, they were asked by auction house Sotheby's to visit Nyetimber to view some old English oak furniture. When they arrived, the couple enjoyed what they thought was a glass of very good Champagne. However, on learning that what they were drinking was actually English sparkling wine, they decided to return home and plant a vineyard on the abandoned hop fields of their estate!

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Simon Bladon of Jenkyn Place.

With three separate plantings of vines in 2004, 2007 and 2010, their 12-acre vineyard produces award-winning sparkling wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. The soil at Jenkyn Place has a vein of greensand over chalky marlstone on south-facing slopes, similar to Nyetimber. This part of southern England, known in the 1930s as the ‘banana belt’ due to the fruit-growing suitability of its soil, is ideal for cultivating the three traditional Champagne grape varieties.

Winemaker

Winemaker Dermot Sugrue pouring wine at Jenkyn Place. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Irish winemaker Dermot Sugrue, who also makes wine for several other estates, including Wiston and Digby, is passionate about making sparkling wine in this country. "English sparkling wine has a unique taste profile and with the physiological ripeness of grapes due to a long growing season and well-preserved acidity, you are almost guaranteed to make a good one each year." He describes the Jenkyn Place house style as "linear, pure and long-lived."

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The first two vintages of 2006 and 2007 were produced at Ridgeview by the late great Mike Roberts MBE, a pioneer of the English Wine trade. Sugrue's involvement began with the 2008 vintage and the Brut Cuvée 2008 (RRP £28.50) is floral with honeyed tones on the nose and palate, rounded rich yellow fruit with a creamy mouthfeel. The Brut Cuvée 2009 (RRP £28.50) shows notes of apricot, citrus, butter, cream and vanilla with a flinty, mineral edge plus a savoury touch, the sweet fruit noticeable from start to finish. The youthful Brut Cuvée 2010 (RRP £28.50) has a lean style, but will develop in complexity with time. Lemon and grapefruit notes dominate with a touch of butter and pear in this light, delicate wine, which Dermot describes as currently having "a clean, fresh, glacial quality." 2009 was a very good year and the ripest Pinot Noir was kept back for late picking to make the Sparkling Rosé 2009 (RRP £35). With its attractive rosehip hue, this exhibits a delicious freshness yet has a maturity of flavour with notes of red berries, cherries, a touch of smoke and soft, integrated tannins.

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

This relatively new vineyard is set amid the rolling chalklands of Hampshire within the South Downs National Park. With three careful plantings over the last three years, the vineyard now comprises 55 acres planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Winemaking is overseen by successful French winemaker Corinne Seely and vineyard manager Fred Langdale.

Wine Press

Bucher Vaslin Press at Exton Park Winery. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Investment is key with owner and local businessman Malcolm Isaacs, who bought Exton Park in 2009, committed to providing the optimum facilities for his team so that they can produce top quality sparkling wine. This includes two Bucher presses for extracting the juice from red grapes extremely slowly under nitrogen to retain maximum fruit and freshness.

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Corinne Seely & Fred Langdale out in the vineyard at Exton Park. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Distinct terroirs all within the same vineyard area plus individualised canopy management with different plant densities, trellising and pruning systems, allow each plot to influence a separate style of sparkling wine. Corinne Seely is determined to express the uniqueness of English terroir, as she explains: "As a winemaker, I appreciate the importance of terroir, and as a French winemaker I find English terroir fascinating to express."

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This approach is clear to see in the Exton Park Pinot Meunier Rosé (RRP £34.95), the first of its kind in the UK. "Pinot Meunier from an English chalk terroir", she describes, "expresses something different from anywhere else." With only 12 months lees ageing to retain freshness and delicateness, the result is a pale pink/light salmon-coloured rosé, that in Corinne's words "reminds you of an English garden when you smell it". The nose is floral and fruity with delicate notes of red fruits, hedgerows and honeysuckle, while the palate sings of wild strawberries with a hint of ginger spice. With a philosophy of only releasing a vintage sparkler in the best years, another star is the winery's first vintage wine, released in September 2015. Their Blanc de Blancs 2011 (£39.95) is made from 100% Chardonnay grown on the vineyard's oldest plot during a very good year. On the nose, notes of citrus, hints of melon and a gentle autolytic touch of hazelnuts and brioche lead on to a clean, precise palate of toffee, almonds, lemon and cream. The Blanc de Noirs (RRP £29.95) is a real gourmet wine, perfect as a pairing for the local smoked trout. Floral with notes of red fruit and brioche on the nose, the long, round palate is full of red berries with apple and pear hints, touches of spice and biscuit too.

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You can get celebrate your wedding day at English Oak Vineyard. Image taken by Robin Goldsmith.

One of the most romantic places to get married has to be a vineyard and this is one of the facilities offered by Andrew and Sarah Pharoah at their 23-acre vineyard, a few miles away from the spectacular beaches of Dorset.

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Andrew Pharoah in front of the 350-year old oak tree at English Oak Vineyard. Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Planted in 2007, English Oak Vineyard produces only vintage sparkling wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier: their Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs (the 2014 will be their first release) will only be made in the best years. Named after the 350-year old oak tree set within the farmhouse grounds that date back to the 17th century, all their wines are named after different types of oak trees found around the world.

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Image by Robin Goldsmith.

Engelsmann Cuvée 2013 (RRP £27.99) is a zingy Chardonnay-dominant blend of the three grape varieties, resulting in notes of citrus fruit, apple crumble and a hint of pink gooseberries. Chinkapin Rosé 2013 (RRP £29.99) is also over 50% Chardonnay, but with notes of wild red fruits and orange peel, has a very different style. As Andrew Pharoah described to me, one customer referred to it as "Summer pudding in a glass" and I cannot disagree with that! Both these wines spent two years on lees, whereas the San Gabriel Blanc de Blancs 2010 (RRP £32.99) had 4½ years. Made from a delicate clone of Chardonnay, this has a clean citric freshness with notes of lemon and grapefruit sorbet … and the winemaker is the supremely talented Dermot Sugrue – who else?!

So there we are, loads of fabulous wines already, but look out for further releases from 2014, as that promises to be one of the best years ever for English wine. Cheers!

This review is also available on db reader and is the first of two articles I have written exploring the English wine scene in 2016. The second, an investigation into why farm shops, delis and independent food halls should stock English wine, can be found in the September issue of Speciality Food Magazine or here on The Write Taste.

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