Five world-class English wines to try this summer
English sparkling wine is now considered some of the best in the world — and homegrown still wines are on the up too. We've got the lowdown — plus, the five best bottles to order in.
When I first started writing about wine in the early 1990s, the English wine industry was widely regarded as a bit of a joke. The wines were generally off-dry, based on obscure hybrid grape varieties such as seyval blanc and reichensteiner, and weren’t taken very seriously at all.
However, the realisation that the chalky soil of southern England was very similar to that of the Champagne region, and therefore ideal for producing sparkling wine, was a game-changer. Pioneers such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview in Sussex, and Gusbourne in Kent, planted the classic Champagne grape varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, with huge success.
Today, more than two-thirds of English wine — produced by some 500 wineries — is sparkling, yet there’s a growing number of high-quality still wines, including some superb chardonnays and pinot noirs you’d have trouble distinguishing from top burgundies.
So, how did such a major transformation take place over a relatively short time? Wine has been made in England since Roman times, as Nina Caplan documents in her book, The Wandering Vine, but there are other factors, too. One is that climate change, while a long-term disaster, has in the short term benefitted the English wine industry, with grapes thriving as temperatures have risen. “In the first decade of the century, we had only two vintages — 2003 and 2009 — when the grapes were ripe enough to make still wines,” says Charlie Holland of Gusbourne. “In the past 10 years, there have been six.”
There’s also a better understanding of where grapes should be planted. Kent and Sussex are regarded as ideal for sparkling wine, while drier, warmer Essex offers an even more reliable environment. Grapes are also successfully grown in counties including Devon, Cornwall, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire, but most wine production (61.5%) is in the South East.
“The Crouch Valley [just north of Southend, in Essex] has an average monthly rainfall of around 44-49ml, compared to 72-87ml for some vineyards in Devon and Cornwall,” says winemaker Liam Idzikowski, who’s just released some great wines under the Danbury label, as well as the Adnams Bacchus below.
Winemakers are also more experienced and willing to experiment than they were a decade ago. “We used to rely on consultant winemakers from Champagne,” says Charlie. “Everyone followed the same recipe.” Now there’s a plethora of styles, from pale Provençal-pink rosés to orange wines. The downside is they tend to be expensive. Even allowing for global warming, England still has a marginal climate for grape growing and yields need to be kept low to guarantee ripeness and flavour.
“There was a time when I thought of moving to a warmer country,” Charlie says. “Not now; this is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world to be involved in.”
Five of the best English wines to try
1. Adnams Bacchus 2019, Essex
This is a good example of the delicate, low-alcohol (11.5%), elderflower-y white wine England does so well. Made from the sauvignon blanc-like bacchus grape, it pairs brilliantly with fresh crab or fish and chips. £13.99. adnams.co.uk
2. Langham Corallian Classic Cuvée, Dorset
This sparkling wine is made with mainly chardonnay, plus pinot noir and pinot meunier, but very little added sugar. It’s superbly rich. Enjoy with gougères (cheesy choux buns) or cheese straws. £27.50. leaandsandeman.co.uk
3. Digby Fine English Leander Pink, Oxfordshire
A stylish sparkling rosé with summer berry fruit tones, ‘ideal for raising a toast on a glorious regatta afternoon’, the winemakers suggest. Failing that, it would be perfect with poached salmon or a prawn salad. £30. waitrose.com
4. Gusbourne Pinot Noir Boot Hill Vineyard 2018, Kent
This light but luscious pinot noir is produced from the excellent 2018 vintage, overflowing with ripe raspberry flavours. Pair with roast or seared duck, or a mushroom risotto. £25. bbr.com
5. Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2017/18, Kent
This rich chardonnay has won numerous prizes, including best single-varietal wine and top still wine at last year’s WineGB Awards. It would go well with scallops or Dover sole. £30. harrods.com
Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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