Celebrating English wine

Vines at Blackdown Ridge

Vines at Blackdown Ridge - Credit: Archant

English Wine Week (May 23-31) is a national marketing campaign, designed to raise awareness and availability of English wine across the country in both the off- and on-trade and consequently amongst British consumers. Last year saw a four-fold increase in uptake by the trade, with a sharp spike in sales.

‘English Wine is sparkling!’ was part of a headline in the Daily Telegraph last week based on figures released by Waitrose that showed their sales of English wines were up 177 per cent in one week!

They have a 66 per cent market share of English wine sales and list 100 English wines though most stores have only part of this range, mostly wines made in the local area. Waitrose also have their own vineyard, Leckford Estate, producing a brut sparkling wine.

Marks & Spencer are also jumping on the bandwagon of English wines both still and sparkling, adding many new varieties, including one from Tintern Parva in Monmouthshire in Wales, to their range before English Wine Week as they also have seen a positive uplift in sales of English wines recently.

English sparkling wines have built a reputation for themselves and their continued success in world wide tasting competitions when pitted against some of the world’s best Champagnes is ensuring this continues. Their success is based on dedication to producing the best possible wines in an often inhospitable climate that saw one of the biggest producers, Nyetimber, discard their entire 2012 harvest equivalent to 400,000 bottles due to poor quality grapes.

The development of English Sparkling Wines has been remarkably quick given that it was only in 1952 that the first commercial vineyard of recent times was planted in Hampshire. The grapes grown there were those that were deemed suitable to English growing conditions of the time and included Muller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine and Huxelrebe to name but a few.

Many of the good quality English sparkling wines such as those from Nyetimber, Gusborne Estate, Jenkyn Place and Meonhill are all made from the grapes used to produce Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as they are ‘noble’ grape varieties that in Champagne produce a good base wine from which to make a quality sparkling wine by the ‘methode traditionelle’.

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Grapes for English sparkling wines are grown on chalk soils on south/south west facing slopes and in a climate just a little less predictable and cooler than that in champagne.

In addition many vineyards produce still wines and these are increasingly improving in quality as I experienced at first hand myself recently when tasting wines from Blackdown Ridge which is just south of Haslemere in Sussex.

This is a very young vineyard, developed from scratch by Martin Cook after an Italian winemaker friend visited a few years ago and thought it would be perfect for growing vines. It is the highest point in the South Downs attracts a large number of visitors who are now able to taste and buy their first commercial vintage from 2013.

Martin oversaw the planting of Bacchus, the white grape for good English wines that seems to enjoy the chalky soil of the Downs and copes with the climate making dry yet aromatic and fruity wines.

The red is from Rondo and Triomphe d’Alsace and is softly fruity with a lovely aroma and a perfumed rose also from Triomphe d’Alsace.

They are all good examples of contemporary English still wines, and Sharpham, Shawsgate, Brightwell and Frithsden are definitely names to remember.

Why not explore English wines during English Wines Week when many wines will be available for tasting and many restaurants may well pair them with great English food?