English wine comes of age

KETTNER’S in Soho is one of the best-known wine bars in London, with a champagne list of over 100. So it was intriguing to hear that, for one week only, it was having an English Wine Festival. It was a small affair, with four wines on the list, but I was curious. If even Kettner’s is willing to serve English wines then it must be coming of age.

Actually, we should not be surprised. At this year’s International Wine Challenge wards, English wines carried off 24 medals. Camel Valley Bacchus, which comes from Bodmin in Cornwall, won a gold medal in the sparkling wine category, following its first gold in 2005. Wine magazine Decanter also awarded its white pinot a gold in its awards. English wine is not the joke it once was. The industry is small – we make 2.2m bottles a year, compared to 7bn in France – but the best winemakers deserve respect.

So, what is English wine like? I headed along to Kettner’s to find out. I know that we are supposed to be good at sparkling wines, and so I had high hopes when I was poured a glass of Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2001. A champagne-style sparkler, it is made with chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. It’s a floral wine tasting of blackcurrants and apricots, not as tightly controlled as a champagne (it was, we thought, a little tarty) and we liked it a lot. For a first refreshing glass on an evening, it is fun. The only problem? It costs £62 a bottle.

Second up was the Three Choirs Premium Selection 2007, made with seyval blanc, reichsteiner and muller thurgau grapes. Again, we liked this, with its mango and pineapple flavours. I thought that it smelled of buttercups. It was good, if a little short in the mouth. We then moved on to the Flint Valley NV, again made with seyval blanc, reichsteiner. After a good waft of vanilla on the nose, we were a little disappointed, as it was very limey. Last up was Dart Valley, about which the less said the better. “Tin baths” and “something Balkan about it” were among the comments.

One of the notable things about the wines was that they used Germanic grapes. Generously, Kettner’s allowed us to sample some of their Germanic wines, an Alsace Riesling 2007 by Albert Mann, a Heidler Gruner Veltliner, and a Schieferterrassen Riesling. I am afraid to say that we preferred them all, and they compared favourably on price.

But we had also learned, with the Nyetimber and the Three Choirs, that there is good English wine out there. Clearly, though, you have to know your stuff. So what should you look for?

The first lesson is to go for the right grapes. Although a lot of wine-makers use Germanic grapes on the grounds that the climate is similar, that might be a mistake. Jason Bedford, a wine specialist who co-owns City restaurant The Mercer and serves a number of English wines, says that although we are close to regions like the Alsace in terms of sunshine, many of the best vineyards there are sheltered by mountains and it is one of the driest regions in France. The wet weather here means that these grapes do not always flourish as they do in the Germanic regions.

The best wine-growing regions in England are in Kent and Sussex, whose chalky soil is almost identical to Champagne – indeed, some champagne-makers are buying up land in the area. It follows that the grapes that make great wine there – chardonnay pinot noir and pinot meunier – would work here too.

But that’s part of the problem. Few people in this country have the experience to grow those sorts of grapes. “Pinot noir is notoriously one of the hardest grapes to grow,” Bedford says, adding that the Chapel Down vineyard in Kent has just planted some vines and should have a straight sparkling pinot noir in three years. So, look for wines made with the champagne grapes, or with the bacchus grape, which also flourishes here.

The second thing is to choose the right wine-makers. As mentioned, one of the troubles with English wine-making is a lack of skill. “Although we have been making wine for centuries in the UK it is really only in the last 20 years that we have taken this seriously,” says Rupert Elwood, director of London Bridge wine emporium Vinopolis, which runs tours of the Denbies vineyard in the North Downs. He points out that it was only 15 years ago that the first wine and viticulture course started at Plumpton College in Sussex. To be on the safe side, you should go for one of the big-name wine-makers, such as Denbies, Three Choirs, Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Camel Valley or Ridgeview.

That said, Dave Harvey, author of the recently-published Grape Britain: A Tour of Britain’s vineyards, says that, if you look around, there are small producers that are worth trying, who often make so little that they are only available “on the gate”. He recommends wines from Astley Vineyards in Worcestershire, Breaky Bottom in Sussex and Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire. More simply, you can just go to Waitrose. The supermarket has a 50 per cent share of the total annual English wine sales, and it has a local-buying policy which means that you can often find wine from small producers not available elsewhere.

The third lesson might be to wait. Harvey says that there is no reason that English wine can’t be good. As the industry becomes more established, it will improve and in a few years, there is no reason that we can’t be producing some great wines. True, our summers can be wet, but long autumns are actually better for ripening the grapes.

In fact, the coolness can be a boon. Many of the great wines are grown in the marginal growing areas: tough conditions and poor soil are better for wine. “You want it to be hard for the grapes to grow, so the roots have to dig down deeper and get at the minerals that give the wine its flavour,” Harvey says. A lot of the farmland in England is simply too fertile to make good wine. But once we plant some more decent wines in bad soil on nice, hot, south-facing slopes, then Champagne should watch out.

Three Choirs Premium Selection 2007 is a good, easy drinking wine made with seyval blanc, reichsteiner and muller thurgau that is a little like sauvignon blanc, but with with more tropical fruit flavours and a really good, floral nose.

It’s one of the few really good non-sparkling English wines out there at the moment.

£4.49 from Waitrose

Up there with a rose champagne, says Jason Bedford. It’s made with the three classic champagne grapes in the pretty Hush Heath vineyards in deepest Kent, owned by hotelier Richard Balfour-Lynn. The winner of many awards, it’s considered to be the best pink fizz to come out of these shores.

£34.99 a bottle from www.hushheath.com

“A perfect expression of the elderflowery flavour of the best English wine,” says Dave Harvey. This classy sparkler is served in every single one of Cornwall’s Michelin-starred vineyards and is considered by some to be the best of all British wines.

£19.95 a bottle from the maker, £179.88 for a case of 12 from Waitrose

Another classy pink fizz made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this is grown just a mile and a half from the highest point of the Sussex Downs. It’s a dryish wine with the chardonnay giving it a nice, brioche and biscuit nose, and is an attractive colour. Perfect for a picnic.

The 2006 is £21.95 from the maker, or £16.49 from Waitrose

For connoisseurs, Nyetimber is becomeing a cult wine, says Jason Bedford. Quite right too. With a very complex nose and a smooth, honey flavour, it is, as Waitrose says, “possibly England’s best wine”. It is also one of the most widely available, stocked in Berry Bros, Harvey Nicks and others.

£233 for a case of 12 from Waitrose


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