Monday, 23 August 2010

English wine tasting

We all know about the merits of English sparkling wine – Ridgeview Estate's Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 recently won the UK Sparkling Over £10 Regional Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards, making it a contender for the Sparkling Over £10 International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards ceremony dinner on 1 September, where it will be competing on a level playing field with heavyweight vintage Champagnes.

Sparkling wines aside, when my flatmate Jimmy Smith, who runs the West London Wine School in Fulham, mentioned he was hosting a Best of British wine tasting, I was the first to sign up, excited about trying the still wines on offer.

A modest and manageable eight wines were on show – four whites, one red and three sparklers. We seem to be experiencing something of a wine boom in England – planting is at an all time high. The 2009 figures show 1,215 hectares under vine, with Champagne grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being the most widely planted, followed by trendy grape Bacchus, named, of course, after the Roman god of wine.

A whopping 75% of England's vineyards are in the south, clustered around Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Although winemaking in England dates back to AD43, when the Romans brought vines to Britain, it's only over the past 20 years that we've started to be taken seriously as a quality wine producing country. And things are on the up, with both foreign and local investment, a surge of skilled winemakers coming up through the ranks, and the effects of Global Warming, England is emerging as a serious player in the wine world.

There are currently 381 vineyards in England, stretching as far north as Yorkshire, and 116 wineries producing around 2.2m bottles a year, and a record 3.2m in 2009. Jimmy's tasting began with Stanlake Park Regatta White 2007, a blend of Ortega (named after the Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega), Madeleine Angevine and Schonburger. The stunning, sprawling Stanlake Park manor house wouldn't look out of place on the Left Bank. The wine however, failed to impress. It had some attractive green fruit and crisp acidity, but was too light bodied to get me excited.

On to wine 2; Denbies Flint Valley NV from the Surrey-based winery boasting the biggest single vineyard in the UK. I have to admit to being both proud and nostalgic about tasting this wine. I was born ten minutes from the vineyard in Godstone a year before it was founded in 1984. There is something wonderful about trying a wine from where you were born. I felt the same pride (albeit disproportional) as natives of Bordeaux and Champagne do about their wines. A blend of Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay, it had a slightly oily texture, with a flinty, mineral core and sharp green apple and citrus notes.

Two Chapel Down wines were on show – Bacchus 2009 and Brut Sparkling NV. With 19 vineyards scattered across Kent, Chapel Down has won a slew of awards over the past few years. Along with Ortega, Bacchus is making a name for itself as an exciting variety to watch. The pronounced nose showed passionfruit, nettle and lime, while the sharp palate was filled with puckering lime and gooseberry - we just might have found England's answer to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The only red of the night, Bolney Estate Dark Harvest 2008, came from Bookers in Sussex. Made from the early ripening Rondo grape, with a small amount of inky Dornfelder thrown in, it was liquid proof of how far we've got to go with our reds. It tasted like a church – dusty and musty, but there were faint, pleasurable hints of Pinot Noir through its smoke, spice and soft red fruit.

We ended with a trio of sparklers – Chapel Down (as previously mentioned), Somborne Valley Rosé 2006 and, for the grand finale, Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2005. Sharing Champagne's clement climate and limestone and chalk soils, England has the perfect terroir for sparkling wine – production is set to double in 2010, from 3m to 7m bottles a year. The Somborne had an odd, almost cheesy nose, but a wonderfully elegant palate of apples, strawberries and raspberries, with a creamy, lemony mousse. But the Nyetimber 2005 stood out like a diamond in the dirt. A rich golden hue, if I were to get this in a blind tasting, it would be almost impossible not to place it in Champagne. The nose sang of rich autolytic notes - biscuit, toasted almonds and brioche. The palate was rich and creamy, like a plate of hot buttered croissants.

The tasting has given me a lot to think about. Not only are we now making sparkling wines that can hold their own against the best vintage Champagnes, we seem to have found our own homegrown version of super seller Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in Bacchus, and a rising star in Ortega. There is so much to celebrate in English wine right now - the future's bright.


  1. Hi Lucy - was keen to attend this event but couldn't get there so interested to hear your thoughts.

    Re. Stanlake Park, I'm not sure if you've tried any of their other wines but I would definitely recommend the Hinton Grove - good enough that i bought a few bottles home with me when i visited recently. Was much more complex and aromatic than I was expecting. Its a shame the one you tasted was a disappointment as they do produce some pretty drinkable stuff.

    P.S - i also share your pride in Denbies. I grew up pretty nearby and can remember tasting some of their win over ten years ago. The improvement when i tasted some of their sparkling and stills recently was pretty marked thats for sure!

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