In recent vintages, English wines have gained a new reputation for quality, reliability and individuality. No longer a curiosity, made as a hobby and tasted as a duty, they give real and individual pleasure and have a distinct place among the wines of the world. If you haven’t tried them for a while, you are in for some pleasant surprises.
- Most recent figures show that the UK has 416 vineyards and 116 wineries.
- On average, the UK produces more than 1.6 million bottles of white wine and almost 400,000 bottles of red wine per year.
- The modern age of winemaking in England begun in 1951, when Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon in Hampshire; the first to commercially produce wine since 1875.
- Although wine production is largely concentrated in the south, there are vineyards as far north as Yorkshire, Lancashire and Anglesey.
- The most planted varieties include Seyval Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus grapes.
Winemaking is not new to England. Vineyards were listed in 46 places in the Domesday Book, and by the time of Henry VIII, 139 vineyards were in the hands of the king, the church and the nobility. For reasons of climate, economics and politics, the industry declined over the centuries until interest revived after World War II. Since then, however, production has by far overtaken medieval levels, with more than 400 vineyards established on about 3000 acres of England and Wales.
Established wisdom used to be that the British Isles are too far north for successful vine growing. As the debate over climate changes rages on, some facts are irrefutable - the climate in southern England now is akin to that of the vineyard areas of northern France some 50 years ago.
As one would probably expect, most English vineyards are in the south of the country. The highest concentration is in Sussex and Kent, but significant vineyard plantings extend as far north as Shropshire and Leicestershire and right across the breadth of England and South Wales. Incidentally, though it may be hard to swallow for the talented Welsh winemakers, wines made in Wales are often classified as English! ‘British Wine’ however, is something else entirely, not to be mentioned in the same breath – although 'made' in Britain, it uses concentrated grape must imported from any available source, reconstituted and then fermented to the desired strength.
In the heart of Hampshire, Waitrose have identified plots on their farm at Leckford that are suitable for the successful production of vines and have planted them with the classic champagne varieties. However, viticulture is a long-term investment, and it will not be until 2014 that the first English sparkling wine to be produced by a leading retailer will become available. Watch this space!
Grape varieties selected for planting in England and Wales are of necessity those that will best thrive in our unpredictable summers. Most of these were developed in Germany, due to their similar climatic features, so many of our varieties have Teutonic names such as Reichensteiner, Muller-Thurgau (also called Rivaner) and the red Dornfelder.
In more recent years, encouraged by a run of warmer summers, considerable plantings have been made of the classic champagne varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The objective is to make high quality sparkling wines and much has already been achieved in meeting and matching champagne on its own terms. Rumours abound of the champagne houses themselves seeking to buy land in Sussex to explore the possibilies that England has to offer.
The grapes below are a few of the most important varieties to be grown in the UK:
Bacchus is a German crossing that when fully ripe gives highly scented whites which can lack acidity. To counter this, it is usually picked slightly under-ripe, when it produces wine of a herbal aromatic character not unlike Sauvignon Blanc, often with a scent of elderflowers.
Madeleine Angevine is another white variety that produces aromatic grassy wines, but less like Sauvignon and more reminiscent of hedgerows and new-mown hay.
Muller-Thurgau (Rivaner) is not often seen as a single varietal, but is often used to add body to white wines and is seen as almost a blank canvas on which to construct character using other grapes.
Seyval Blanc, a French white hybrid, is particularly successful in England. At its best, when low-cropped and carefully vinified, it makes wine with a Chablis-like steeliness and poise, which can also age for a few years to a honeyed richness.
Siegerrebe is another white German crossing, with Gewurztraminer in its parentage. It has a heavily perfumed quality which can add charm when used with discretion.
Rondo and Dornfelder are the most successful grapes for making red wine in our cool climate, producing attractively fruity wines with blackberry and plum flavours and good colour.
There are many influential voices who say that the future of English winemaking lies in quality sparkling wine. There have been headline-grabbing reports of the best wines bearing favorable comparison with big name champagnes. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée and Ridgeview Cuvée Merret certainly stand up in this company. It is encouraging, too, to see other sparkling wines gaining recognition, not for imitating champagne but for establishing their own style. The Camel Valley winery in Cornwall enjoys great success for its Pinot Noir based Brut made from the naturalized ‘English’ varieties. In addition, Chapel Down Reserve Brut, which uses Reichensteiner and Rivaner along with Pinot Noir, has a faithful following for its inviting scent of English hedgerows.
It is a happy coincidence that many of the varieties used in making these wines contribute, along with the climate and the predominantly chalky soil of our southern uplands, to a particular English character which wine lovers now recognize. Descriptions such as grass, hedgerows and white flowers frequently arise when English wines are tasted, and it is hopefully not too fanciful to detect something of the English countryside reflected in the bouquet and taste of English wine at its best.