The English wine industry is going from strength to strength. Regularly winning prestigious international awards, wines from a country previously regarded as unsuitable for grape-growing, are gaining a worldwide reputation for quality. Historically, it is generally accepted that the Romans introduced the vine to Britain and there are now around 430 vineyards in England and Wales, covering over 1,400 hectares, producing both sparkling and still wines. Over two millennia, vineyards have come and gone, influenced by various factors, such as the advent and enduring influence of Christianity, invasions by the Vikings and Normans, Dissolution of the Monasteries and climate change. However, the modern revival began last century, first in the 1950s with the planting of new vineyards and the entrepreneurial brilliance of pioneers like Ray Barrington Brock, in particular. The 1960s and 1970s then experienced a large expansion of viticulture in England and Wales. However, the last 20 years has seen huge growth and modernisation in the industry, plus a move away from the previously dominant Germanic wine styles and grape varieties towards alternatives, in particular those based on the traditional Champagne grapes. Furthermore, in the last two years, 500 hectares of vines have been planted and English Wine Producers (EWP) report that the 2013 harvest was the biggest to date. This equates to the highest ever volume of wine produced in England and Wales (almost 4.5 million bottles).
Although plantings are predominantly in the southernmost parts of Britain, vineyards are found as far north as Yorkshire, as well as in East Anglia, the West Country and the Midlands. These encompass a range of grape varieties, including well-known international ones, plus others that are recognised to be well-suited to the British climate, including those of German names or origin, such as Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Bacchus and Dornfelder. Additionally, hybrid grape varieties, i.e. those with non-vinifera parentage, used in particular for their disease resistance, such as Seyval Blanc (white) or Regent and Rondo (red), have also proved popular, especially within blends.
Given the chalky soils in the South of England, the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay have flourished. As a result, the success story so far is dominated by the production of world-class sparkling wine (over 60% of total production now). Awards keep flowing in and according to EWP, no other country can match the success of the last 15 years - eight trophies for Best Sparkling Wine and four trophies for Best Sparkling Rosé in the world. Whereas England used to be considered too wet and too cold for serious wine production, this is not the case anymore. It is certainly no longer a huge shock when an English sparkling wine beats Champagne to win a major international competition.
With the background of such phenomenal achievement, overall expectations of quality and consistency are increasing and so it was with great anticipation that I attended the English Wine Producers Trade & Press Tasting, held in London on 7th May. Boosted by a record number of exhibitors and visitors, including a delegation from France, this year's event was a showcase for prize-winning wines and exciting new prospects. The International Wine Challenge (IWC) English wine results were also announced at the trade fair with a record-breaking 66 wines (52 sparkling) receiving Gold, Silver, Bronze and Commended awards. Additionally, for the first time, two trophies were awarded to English wine producers. Nyetimber, from West Sussex, won the Sparkling English White and overall Sparkling English Wine Trophy for their Classic Cuvée 2009.
Camel Valley, from Cornwall, won the Sparkling English Rosé Trophy for their Pinot Noir Brut 2012. These two wineries have consistently garnered praise and received many awards over the years. Indeed, in addition to their trophy and gold medal for the sparkling rosé, Camel Valley also took gold for their Chardonnay Brut 2009. So where better to start my review of the highlights of the show than with these world-class wines…
Nyetimber is undoubtedly one of the founding fathers of quality English sparkling wine. Their vineyards, planted in the Champagne-like soils of the South Downs, were the first in the UK to be planted solely with the associated grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Since their initial 1992 vintage, from which their Blanc de Blancs was thought by many to be French in a blind tasting, the winery has regularly won international awards. Their Classic Cuvée 2009 (55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier), from one of English wine's finest vintages of recent times, is supremely elegant and classy. Fruity notes of baked apple, melon and hints of apricot and citrus, backed up by vanilla cream and classic biscuit/bread flavours are complemented by a fresh, crisp minerality plus a good finish. The Bronze Medal-winning Demi-Sec NV (100% Chardonnay) is a medium-sweet fruity burst of ripe melon, citrus, apple and honey with a hint of sweet nuts and herbs.
It is a great testimony to the team at Camel Valley that from the 2012 vintage, disastrous for many producers (Nyetimber completely abandoned that harvest!), Camel's Pinot Noir Brut has become a world beater. Another serial award-winner, the winery is located in Cornwall and benefits from non-calciferous soil, particularly slate, which imparts an elegant minerality and structure to their wines. The trophy-winning Pinot Noir Brut 2012 is fresh, floral, expressive and full of character with strawberries prominent on the nose and palate plus a touch of caramel and good acidity. Their Brut 2012, made from 50% Seyval Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and 25% Reichensteiner, won a Silver-Medal. Floral and fruity with notes of green apples, citrus and hints of pineapple, this is a good example of how non-Champagne grapes can be used within a blend to produce a top quality sparkling wine.
Other stand-out sparklers from the tasting include the following:-
Gusbourne Estate, from Kent, is a family business awarded the IWSC trophy for English Wine Producer of the Year in 2013. Their Brut Reserve 2009 (77% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier), a Gold-medal winner at the IWC 2014, is full of apples, brioche and nuts with citrus hints.
Ridgeview, from the South Downs, is another family company, one which has been at the forefront of the English wine revolution since bursting on the scene in the mid-1990s. Regularly garnering praise and winning top awards, this year was no exception. Their Ridgeview Knightsbridge Blanc de Noirs 2010 (50% Pinot Noir and 50% Pinot Meunier) with its fruity red berry and apple characteristics and the Cavendish 2011 (38% Pinot Noir, 31% Chardonnay and 31% Pinot Meunier) with its rich red fruit and apple cream notes, both earned Bronze Medals in the IWC 2014.
Henners Vineyard, from East Sussex, took an IWC Bronze Medal for their Vintage Reserve 2009 (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir). This elegant sparkler shows green apple, citrus and brioche characteristics with the yeast notes coming from 32+ months ageing on lees.
One winery new to me was East Sussex's Court Garden. Established in 2005, this is a small vineyard with big ambitions, having already won several awards, the latest being an IWC 2014 Bronze Medal for the delightful Vintage Blanc de Noirs 2010. Made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Pinot Meunier, this displays delicate notes of apples, citrus, nuts, herbs and minerality with hints of red fruit too.
Another producer whose wines I tried for the first time was Charles Palmer Vineyards. Their south-facing, 5-acre vineyard, lying one mile from the Sussex coastline, is another success story, with 2009 being the first vintage, producing a total of 956 bottles. Their Brut 2009 (70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay), with lovely soft notes of apples and cream plus subtle hints of nuts, raisins and bread, was awarded a Commendation Medal at the IWC 2014.
Jenkyn Place is another consistently good producer of sparkling wine. Based around a 17th Century Grade 2-listed house, the estate covers 12 acres on the south-facing chalk slopes of Hampshire's North Downs. Their IWC 2014 Silver Medal-winning Brut Cuvée 2009 (65% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier) has beautiful characteristics of apples, almonds, lemons, herbs and minerality.
Hush Heath, from Kent, has always made it a mission to produce world-class sparkling rosé and their Balfour Brut Rosé 2010 (46% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay and 9% Pinot Meunier), a Bronze Medal-winner at the IWC 2014, is a fine example. A delicate, subtle, fruity nose leads on to an elegant, rich and rounded palate of red berries and citrus with a touch of peach plus good acidity.
Unsurprisingly, Nyetimber's offering in this category was also a prize-winner, in this case an IWC 2014 Silver Medal for their Rosé 2009 (53% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay and 2% Pinot Meunier). In many ways, this stood out at the tasting for its richer and fuller profile plus vibrant colour. A complex, predominantly fruity nose with hints of nuts and spice leads on to a fresh, elegant and spicy palate with notes of redcurrants and raspberries.
Jenkyn Place's Sparkling Rosé 2009 (80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay) is an IWC 2014 Bronze-Medal winner, showing notes of red berries and citrus with a touch of salinity and a mineral freshness.
Hampshire's Hattingley Vineyard received an IWC 2014 Bronze Medal for their Rosé 2011 (40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Noir Précoce). An elegant wine with a delicate minerality, this demonstrates gentle notes of raspberries and peaches with a subtle salty tang and a hint of toast.
I also enjoyed East Sussex's Bluebell Vineyard's Hindleap Rosé 2010 (61% Pinot Noir and 39% Pinot Meunier), which is fresh and fruity with notes of strawberries, peaches and a hint of herbs.
Bolney Wine Estate, from a historic part of rural Sussex, has been making wine since 1972. Their Cuvée Noir Brut 2010, from the Dornfelder grape variety, has notes of raspberries, blackberries and cherries plus a hint of spice and a creamy richness from the 18 months' lees ageing. This would make a good pairing for a summer fruit salad.
Although sparkling wine dominated, there were plenty of still wines to sample at the trade fair and some of these are mentioned below:-
Bacchus, named after the Roman God of wine, is often regarded as England's signature white grape, with its aromatic, fruity and herbaceous profile. It is, in fact, a cross of Silvaner and Riesling, crossed with Müller-Thurgau and in English growing conditions thrives, with differences in expressions evident throughout the country. Camel Valley showed two wines based on this variety and one, Bacchus 2013, received an IWC 2014 Bronze Medal. Fruity and floral notes, reminiscent of elderflowers, lemon rind and herbs, define this wine. Their Darnibole Bacchus is named after a particular 1.5 hectare vineyard, built on ancient slate sub soil and a steep south-facing slope, for which an EU application for PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin) was submitted by Camel's owner, Bob Lindo. The 2013 vintage is characteristically steely with elderflower and herbaceous notes complemented by honey, pear, tropical fruit and spice nuances.
Chapel Down, based in Kent, source their grapes from across the south-east of England. Their oak-aged Kit's Coty Estate Chardonnay 2012, winner of a Commended Medal at the IWC 2014, is made from grapes grown on the chalky soils and south-facing slopes of the newer of their two Kentish vineyards. It is deliciously smooth with notes of green apples, stone fruit, butter, caramel and a touch of spice. The Flint Dry 2013 (38% Chardonnay, 28% Reichensteiner, 9% Müller-Thurgau, 7% Huxelrebe, 6% Bacchus, 5% Pinot Blanc, 3% Ortega, 2% Schönburger and 2% Siegerrebe) has notes of apples, citrus, nuts, green peppers, minerality and a persistent finish.
Warden Vineyard is a community vineyard in Bedfordshire, run on a not-for-profit basis. From a site dating back to one of the earliest Cistercian settlements in England, the project supports local charities and schools to offer learning and skills development opportunities. Their award-winning Reformer 2010 (51% Bacchus and 49% Reichensteiner), of which only 1200 bottles were made externally at Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, is fresh, aromatic and mineral with notes of gooseberries, touches of kiwi fruit, elderflowers and grapefruit.
Wraxall Vineyard, from Somerset, was rescued by the current owners in 2007 when it had fallen into disrepair. New vines have since become established, including Madeleine Angevine, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Noir and Bacchus. The latter has produced a dry white wine (Bacchus 2013) with notes of gooseberry and a fresh minerality.
Bolney Wine Estate's Rosé 2013 (100% Rondo) is fresh, aromatic and crisp with red fruit notes and hints of butterscotch.
Camel Valley's light, dry and refreshing Rosé 2013 (100% Pinot Noir) is full of red fruit notes and is recommended by the winery as a good accompaniment for BBQ mackerel.
Brightwell Vineyard is an award-winning 14-acre estate in the Thames Valley near Oxford. Their Pinot Noir 2012 displays notes of cherries and dark berries with hints of coffee, chocolate and spice on the nose and palate. Tannins are integrated and there is certainly a degree of richness and elegance in this wine, which apparently impressed the French delegation at the show. The same company also makes an interesting English Brandy, called Rush, which is aged in oak casks and has a lovely spicy finish on the palate.
So what of the future? Given the success of the modern English wine industry within a relatively short time, the outlook looks very rosy indeed. Furthermore, predicted effects of climate change suggest that many winemaking regions in the world may in future be too hot for growing their traditional grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, whereas current cool climate regions and new areas may become better suited to these grapes. This particular variety has already been planted in England, notably at Denbies Wine Estate, already home to the UK's largest vineyard covering 265 acres, and other grapes are sure to follow at some stage. New, young and innovative winemakers, backed up by experienced and knowledgeable industry experts, herald a bright new future, despite concerns over possible consolidations within the trade in the near future. Whether through small or large-scale enterprises, a few things are certain. English wine will continue to improve, winning over doubting critics, surprising many and becoming further established as a quality product to be enjoyed for its own qualities, rather than being compared to anything else … and I'll drink to that!
English Wine Week, which brings together the trade and consumers to celebrate English wine, takes place from 24th May to 1st June. Additionally, English Wine Producers will have their own stand at the 2014 London Wine Fair (2nd to 4th June).
This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.