How do you define Englishness? To some, it’s village greens, warm beer, stiff upper lips, pinstriped suits and the changing of the guard. To others, it’s a little less idealised and old-fashioned. As one wit put it when asked to name the five pillars of our national identity: “dipso, fatso, bingo, ASBO, Tesco.”
Whatever the answer — and football and a predilection for synapse-curdling reality television ought to be in there, too – it’s unlikely to include the production of wine. The French, the Italians and the Spaniards all see wine as an integral part of their culture, but for us it’s a sideshow. We may like drinking the stuff, provided it comes from elsewhere, but our own wine industry is all but ignored. Hands up how many of you knew that we’re in the middle of English Wine Week? Yup, thought so.
It may surprise you to learn this, but England makes world class wines. Admittedly, this is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Wine grapes have been grown here since Roman times, but it’s only in the last decade that we’ve become serious international players. Back in 1989 I asked a Notting Hill-based Australian what it felt like to be considered the best winemaker in England. His response was amusingly dismissive: “A bit like being the downhill skiing champion of Saudi Arabia, mate.”
It was a deliberately provocative comment, but it wasn’t that wide of the mark. As recently as 20 years ago, English wine was generally underwhelming and occasionally dire. Even today, much of it is over-priced and made from second-rate grapes such as seyval blanc, müller-thurgau, rondo and reichensteiner. Put most of the dry wines up against comparably priced bottles from, say, France’s Loire Valley and they struggle.
But that’s only part of the picture. Almost without exception, the best English wines are fizzes made from the champagne grapes pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. They also share the same techniques and even soils with the world’s most famous sparkling wine region. Little wonder that a number of major Champagne houses are considering buying land on this side of the Channel.
Top-quality English sparkling wine only emerged at the end of the 1990s. But the success of producers such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Hush Heath, Denbies, Chapel Down and Camel Valley is transforming the English wine scene and encouraging more people to plant vineyards. These are projected to double in size over the next decade to around 2,500 hectares. More significantly, the percentage of that trio of champagne grapes will increase from its current 40% to around 70% as new plantings come on stream. Goodbye seyval blanc and müller-thurgau? Let’s hope so.
Making wine in such a small, crowded island, where the climate is frequently a hindrance rather than an advantage is a costly business. The only way to do it profitably in the medium to long-term is with bubbles. “The sums don’t work with still wines,” according to Mike Roberts of Ridgeview. “You can’t make enough money to reinvest in your vineyards and you enter a vicious circle where the quality of your wines declines because of lack of investment.”
Does English sparkling wine stack up? I think it does. The idea of spending more on a bubbly from Kent, Sussex or Cornwall than on a medium-quality Champagne may seem laughable to some, but again and again in international competitions, the best English wines win gold medals. If you don’t believe me, buy a bottle of each and taste them blind against each other. You could be surprised by which one you prefer.
The English wine industry may be small — you can fit our entire average production of 2m bottles into a single large tank in Argentina or Australia — but its reputation is deservedly growing. As we prepare to watch England’s participation in the world cup, celebrating our national obsession with football, we should pause for a second to toast this country’s winemakers. They may not be as famous as Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole or Steven Gerrard, but they are just as good at what they do.
2004 Chapel Down Pinot Reserve (£19.99 each for two, 12%, selected Majestics)
Chapel Down makes cheaper fizzes, but this is my favourite from its range. The wine combines pinot noir with the non-champagne grape pinot blanc in a mature, malty wine that spends four years in bottle before disgorgement.
2006 Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blanc (£24.99, 12%, direct from the vineyard, 01233 758666)
Gusbourne is one of the newer names in English sparkling wine (the labels aren’t even finalised yet), but this all-Chardonnay sparkler is very refined, with elegant bubbles, a chalky tang and fine, citrus fruit purity.
2006 Ridgeview Knightsbridge (£24.95, 12%, direct from the vineyard, 01444 241441; Harrods; English Wine Centre)
The use of a swanky London postcode doesn’t seem out of place here, because this is one of the best sparkling wines in England: a rich, toasty, complex blend of pinot noir and pinot meunier with a dry, almost savoury finish. Delicious.
2001 Nyetimber Brut Chardonnay (£27, 12%, The Wine Society; Artisan & Vine; Jeroboams; The Sampler)
The 2005 is on the market now, but while there are still stocks of the 2001 out there, you’d be crazy not to buy some of this chardonnay blanc de blancs. It’s bracing stuff, with taut acidity balanced by a creamy, nutty mid-palate.
2008 Camel Valley Pinot Noir Brut (£29.95, 12%, from the vineyard, 01208 77959; www.camelvalley.com)
Camel Valley is one of the few wineries in England whose still wines are as good as its bubblies. This pink-hued Cornish fizz is dry and strawberryish with lovely balance between bubbles, fruit and acidity. Very long in the mouth.
2006 Hush Heath Estate Balfour Rosé (£34.99, 12.5%, Marks & Spencer; Waitrose and Waitrose Wine Direct)
Ambitiously priced to be sure, but this Kentish producer has made a name for its pink fizz over the last two vintages. Fine and dry with mouth-filling bubbles, tongue-tingling acidity and a nip of tannin.
Originally published in The Times