Sunday, 8 May 2011

English still wine can match sparkling - just don't mention Pinot Noir

English wine’s at a crossroads. There has never been a better time to be an English wine producer (that is, a producer of English, and Welsh, wines). The industry is riding high, and you could feel it at the tasting on Thursday in the handsome upper room of One Great George St just off Parliament Square.

There was a buzz like a row of Kentish beehives in Spring. English winemakers are full of confidence: their sparkling wines, which take their place alongside the best fizz in the world, are winning prize after prize (including Decanter’s top gong – the International Sparkling Trophy 2010, for the RidgeView Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006, which saw off competition from the likes of Taittinger Prélude NV, Charles Heidsieck Millésime 2000 and Thienot’s Brut Rosé NV).

Vineyard plantings are increasing exponentially (English Wine Producers reckons they have increased by 75% since 2004), production is going up (4m bottles this year, a total which industry guru Mike Paul reckons will quintuple by mid-decade).

And, leaving sparkling aside the quality of the still wines is extraordinary. The jibe that ‘English wine tastes of rain’ is now vieux chapeau.

Tasting notes are below. I was entranced by the aromatic whites, the finest of which were delicious, refreshing, delicately floral, with scents redolent of the hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder and dog rose.

Some producers seem to have found the winemaker's holy grail: low alcohol with taste. Most of the wines I rated clock in at less than 12% alcohol yet still have body, fruit, acid, and length.

That’s the aromatic whites, but I can’t say the same for the rosés and the reds. The former can be dull, flaccid, unsweet, unacidic, underwhelming, damp. The reds are often unattractively frizzy, hollow and tasting of water-butt.

The big problem of course is price. One consultant told me that still wine just didn’t have a future – the only way to go is with sparkling – witness the Royal project I've just described on, 16,700 Champagne varieties just planted in Windsor Great Park. That will be just for sparkling.

‘The viability of still wine in the UK just isn’t there. To make it work you have to charge prices that can be matched and bettered by superior wines from a dozen other regions around the world.’

Possibly: over thirteen quid for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or quite as fruity or floral as its Kiwi counterpart at £6.49 is pushing it a bit. But £9 for a wine that is so freighted with English terroir you could close your eyes and be there? Compare that with the price of a cinema ticket.

The most succesful of the white varieties seems to be Bacchus, a fickle variety that often fails to set, so gives low yields with corresponding concentration and intensity. Then there is Ortega, another aromatic German varietal, fresh and floral at best.

Bacchus – one of the UK’s most-planted grapes – and Ortega between them strike me as the ones to watch. English Wine Producers lists the different varieties here.

Mike Paul, former head of Western Wines and general marketing guru, says the still wine industry is feeling its way. ‘We need to go on experimenting,’ he told a group of producers and journalists yesterday. ‘Should we be concentrating on Bacchus, or Ortega, or Pinot Noir? We don’t have the answers yet.’

The mention of Pinot Noir made me gape. Paul backed off a bit: ‘Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that is where the future of English wine lies,’ he said hastily.

As well he might. There is a tendency for blinkeredness amongst the English wine crowd. They’re the nicest people in the world, and all in a permanently good mood (especially when they’re showing their wines on a gorgeous spring day), but they do say some odd things.

One salesman yesterday was telling me how superb his red wine was. I demurred, and mumbled something about sunshine and night-time temperatures (the former too scant to ripen red grapes, and latter too cold).

He said, ‘I don’t think sunshine is what we need to be looking for all the time. We’re eight miles from Brighton. Our terroir combines the best aspects of New Zealand, with our fresh spring water, and then we have the fresh salt breezes over the dales, which reflects cool-climate California.’

That’s what I mean by English wine being at a crossroads. When marketers are telling you that sunshine isn’t really that important (admittedly, as any Alsace producer will tell you, it's luminescence that's the important thing, but we don't have enough of that either), you should worry. But that’s not the point: I easily found a still Top Ten that I would happily take around the world as examples of superb winemaking.

English winemakers have cracked sparkling; now the dozen or so producers who are making superlative still wine need to focus, research and identify exactly what they should be planting and where. The rest will follow.

For the record, if I was planting tomorrow, for still wines, I’d back the Bacchus.

Tasting notes – still whites only

All the wines are available through the producers’ websites or at selected outlets – Waitrose, Artisan & Vine etc

Denbies Ranmore Hill 2009
Bright, floral with cut apples, hay and lovely sweet nettley fruit. Good acid  balance, long.

Denbies Bacchus 2009
A revelation. A wine full of the scent of hedgerow, succulent, reminiscent of cow parsley and bluebell and the sweet earthiness of summer fields. Long with very sweet but grippy acids. Excellent wine.

Denbies Ortega 2009
Fresh and bright with juicy acids. Complex and floral – Ortega is related to Gewurztraminer and has the bright perfume you find in that variety, but in the best English wines the perfume is sharper, acidic, with spice and apples. Very good.

Biddenden Ortega  2009
Lovely fruity nose. Sweet, creamy, lush palate with tropical fruit flavours: some pineapple, kiwi, tinged with the distinctive floral English note of elderflower. Delicious, much decorated wine.

Biddenden Bacchus 2009 (pictured)
This was one of the stars of the show. All that is striking about good English wine is encapsulated here: the lovely fresh nettle and wildflower flavours, the spice and gentle earthiness. This is terroir: the wine transports you instantly to a place, the edge of a wood in spring, perhaps, carpets of bluebells giving way to undergrowth and the shade of trees. Delicious
£9.70 Harvey Nichols

Three Choirs Cellar Door Bacchus 2009
Spicy, aromatic, very elegant with gentle though present acids. This is an expensive wine but very well-made, long and full of flavour.

Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Very attractive early palate, sweet and aromatic, with slightly disappointing hollowness at the core – the acids don’t persist and become a bit flabby.

Three Choirs The English House Dry 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Bone dry on the palate with mineral notes and a hint of spice, but towards the end the dryness leads to tartness.

Three Choirs Madeleine Angevine 2009
Lovely floral, nettley character with aromatic spice, great acid balance and good length. Delicious.

Kenton Vineyard Bacchus 2010
Powerful Sauvignon flavours (but in a good way – not sweaty or tinny asparagus but delicate gooseberry and cut apple). The nettle palate almost stings the tongue. Long and sweetly aromatic, bursting with English flavour. Very good, and an excellent price

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