[Note that the next English wine tasting is May 3rd - I'll update after it]
‘Ah, English wine, it tastes of rain,’ was a frequently-heard jibe up to a few years ago. Not any more. Now it is commonplace for English sparkling wines to win serious international prizes. The Ridge View Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs for example, won the top gong at the Decanter World Wine Awards two years ago, seeing off the likes of Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck, and Thienot.
English still wines are another story. Southern England, with its chalk and limestone soils and warm maritime climate, is perfect for developing the racy, nervy acids and keen fruit flavours that are so prized in fine dry sparkling wine, but up to now we’ve struggled to coax enough flavour to make anything but rather flabby, thin white wines – tasting, indeed, of rain.
How things have changed. At the last big English wine tasting, on a beautiful spring day in London last year, the hall was buzzing like a row of Kentish beehives. As I went round the tables I became convinced that English still wines are now more than a curiosity.
Tthe finest English whites are delicious, refreshing, delicately floral, with scents redolent of the hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder and dog rose. Many producers have found that sought-after combination of low alcohol with taste. Most of the wines clock in at less than 12% alcohol yet still have body, fruit, acidity, and length.
The best grapes for still whites are Bacchus and Ortega. Both are aromatic and floral – Ortega is a distant relation of Gewurztraminer and has some of that variety’s viscosity and perfumed oomph, but in a very understated, English way. If I was planting a vineyard tomorrow, for still wines, I’d back these two.
At this stage I can only recommend the white wines. Enthusiasts will tell you there are very fine rosés and reds around, but I haven’t seen one that I would serve my guests as enthusiastically as the whites. Rosés can be underwhelming and damp, while reds can be rather thin and metallic. Global warming aside, average temperatures and sunshine hours in England just aren’t enough to ripen red grapes.
While English whites are more than a curiosity, I fear it will be decades before they represent more than a cottage industry. They’re never going to be able to compete on price, for a start. However accomplished the winemaking and however delicious the wine, there is always going to be a Sauvignon Blanc de Touraine several pounds cheaper. It’s like French rock ‘n’ roll: it can be charming, but it’s always going to be the poor cousin because someone, somewhere, is producing something louder and with less effort.
That analogy might be worth exploring further: ‘louder’ being the key word. We tasted the wines below on the hottest day of the year so far, sitting in March sunshine in a garden in Kent. They went perfectly with the benign warmth of the sun, with the feeling of spring growth all around, the delicate nettle flavours, hints of damp earth and greenness seemed quite in harmony. I can’t help feeling that riper, more fruit-forward wines might have overwhelmed.
So there’s a time and a place for English wines. Don’t baulk at the price: over thirteen quid for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or quite as fruity or floral as its Kiwii 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 in a country garden on the South Downs? I bet you spend more than that on orange juice every week.
1. Three Choirs Annum 2011
Incredibly – almost off-puttingly – light in colour, an attractive nose of grapefruit and summer fruits, and a bit of spice. The palate has more summer fruits, elderflower and a good mouthfilling weight and nice fresh acidity that belies the colour.
2. Biddenden Ortega 2011
Best English Wine, Biddenden Vineyards, English Wine Centre, Harvey Nichols, Secret Cellar, Slurp
3. Chapel Down Bacchus 2011
4. Camel Valley Darnibole Bacchus 2011
Berry Bros £15.95
5. Kenton Vineyard Bacchus 2010
Kenton Vineyard £7.95
6. Three Choirs Madelaine Angevine 2010
Lovely floral, nettley character with aromatic spice, great acid balance and good length. Delicious, very light but with massive charm and character. Another one for a summer morning.
Three Choirs Vineyards