Very soon we will hopefully hear the sound of leather on willow on our quaint village green, the clinking of glasses, thumping of racquets and grunting of the great and the good, whilst watching another tennis match at Wimbledon. Will it be sunny or raining again? Please understand dear readers that I am trying very hard to conjure up an idyllic scene here, but when it comes to such Englishness am I looking through rose-tinted glasses? In addition, this year we will experience the cheering crowds at the 2012 London Olympics and pomp of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – all good reasons to discover some top-notch English wines this season.
In fact, English wines have enjoyed a bumper year with many headlines in the press and more trophies, gongs, gold medals, awards and accolades have been won by the nation‘s talented winemakers. English wines are now coming of age, it seems. The most recent census indicates that there are now 404 vineyards and 109 wineries. Moreover, 2010 saw production leap to just over 4 million bottles. These pioneers and leaders in their field of expertise, for instance: Sam Lindo at Camel Valley in Cornwall, Mike Roberts at Ridgeview Vineyards in Ditchling, Sussex, and many others within the English countryside including Nyetimber, Hush Heath Estate, Chapel Down, amongst other unsung heroes of the English wine world are pushing the boundaries and are producing excellent, world-class wines.
In the last six years, England has won trophies for the World’s Top Sparkling Wine no less than nine times – no other country has achieved this. We may or may not do well at this year’s games, but that is certainly something to be proud of!
However, at present English wines are still facing many challenges to sell their vinous wares within the marketplace. Sadly this year, Kathryn O’Mara was forced to close her wine bar, “Artisan and Vine” in Battersea. Champagnes and other wine prices are being slashed in high-street supermarket chains because they prefer to use them as loss leaders. Competition is rife and the sparkling wine category is the most difficult. The big squeeze for profit is on and normally the niche market products suffer as a result. Up steps Julia Stafford, self-styled “English Wine Champion” and owner of Wine Pantry. She’s a smart woman with a corporate business background, yet her aim is to passionately promote, positively communicate and sell top-quality English wines. Currently available at Wine Pantry she has all the award-winning ‘big names’ such as the Ridgeview range, 2009 Hush Heath Estate “Balfour” Sparkling Rose (£39 per bottle), various wines from iconic estates such as Chapel Down and Nyetimber, the mouth-wateringly delicious and bone-dry Gusbourne sparkling wine from Appledore in Kent and my personal favourites, the award-winning and consistent wines from Camel Valley. I particularly enjoy the Bacchus (dry and fragrant white grape similar to a Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc). The “Darnibole” is the best example around and is utterly sublime. Moreover, I sincerely believe that this wine style will be our champion, in a similar way that New Zealand has achieved success with their Marlborough savvies. Bob Lindo (owner/winemaker of Camel Valley and Sam’s father) has also applied for PDO status for this single vineyard site. Dominique Hopgood (manager at Wine Pantry) likes to call this wine style: “Bacchus is the poster grape of English Wine”. I entirely agree with her and reckon that the taste and flavours found in the wines are quintessentially English. I also like their food-friendliness and capacity for pairing with our top-quality locavore produce. At Wine Pantry, they also champion and sell exclusively smaller artisan producers such as Gifford’s Hall, Jenkyn Place, Sharpham Vineyard and Meon Hill, as not only do the passionate team wish to encourage their customers to taste these interesting English wines, but also understand from where they are coming and make some discoveries. They even stock wines produced at the vineyard owned and run by Plumpton College in Sussex.
I was mooching around Borough Market the other day and seeing as I had a little bit of time to kill before my Roving Sommelier Pop Up Wine tasting at Laithwaites/Vinopolis on Stoney Street, I thought I would take a quick pit stop and sample a few of their wares. Julia was there and she was very enthusiastic to show me a couple of her latest offerings.
Even though English sparkling wines are gaining in profile and doing extremely well and whites are showing good potential, (a whole vineyard of Riesling vines were planted recently at Rathfinny Estate in south-east England), the topic of red wines is proving to be much more challenging. Dominique likes to refer to English reds as: “The Rubix Cube that is slowly cracking”. My personal view is that the fickle and delicate Pinot Noir grape should go into our top-quality fizz, not still red wines. A little bit blended with some fruity Rondo and Dornfelder can also produce nice and elegant rose still wines. For instance try the Bolney Estate sparkling red, which for me is the perfect summer barbeque wine.
With this next statement, I am going to be rather bold and stick my neck out – with global warming in this country and allegedly in 25-30 years time the temperatures on the South Coast will be similar to that of the Rhone Valley in France, I reckon SYRAH will be the grape variety to plant now and the wine style to go for in the future. I sincerely believe that the English winemakers should devote their Pinot Noir grapes to be put into their top-quality, premium sparkling wines. Moreover, the delicate, fickle Pinot tends to perform better in cooler climates and does not particularly express itself as well as other grapes within warmer locations. You heard it here first!
Julia will also be celebrating their first anniversary of the Wine Pantry in June. So let us raise a glass and toast her much-deserved success. Speaking of anniversaries, she also offers a wedding list wine service with English wine recommendations. For further details, please click on their website . In addition, there’s a wealth of useful information at English Wine Producers and Drink Britain.
Should you not be able to get to Borough Market, then the following English wines are also available in good reputable wine merchants and high street stores. For instance, Ridgeview produces an ‘own label’ brand for Laithwaites and M & S too.
Please note: an edited version of this article will be featured in the next issue of the Borough Market magazine. Rest assured dear readers, I’m working on more English wine reviews, tasting notes and exciting roving sommelier videos, which will follow very soon. Watch this space!
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The epicurean odyssey continues…