English Wine

To coincide with June’s English Wine Week, Adam Lechmere puts our local still wines under the microscope – and is impressed with what he discovers

‘Ah, English wine, it tastes of rain,’ was a frequently-heard jibe up to a few years ago. Not any more; it’s commonplace for English sparkling wines to win serious international prizes, such as when the Ridgeview Grosvenor won the top gong at the Decanter World Wine Awards two years ago, seeing off the likes of Taittinger and Thiénot.

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, still wines – tasting, indeed, of rain.

But, at the last big English wine tasting, the hall was buzzing like a row of Kentish beehives. As I went round I became convinced that English still wines are now more than a curiosity.

At this stage I can only recommend the whites. Enthusiasts tell you there are fi ne rosés and reds around, but I haven’t seen one that I would serve as enthusiastically as the white wines. Global warming aside, average sunshine hours and temperatures in England just aren’t enough to ripen red grapes.

But, the finest English whites are delicious, refreshing, floral, with scents redolent of hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder, dog rose. Most wines have less than 12 per cent alcohol yet still boast 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 gewürztraminer and has some of that variety’s viscosity and perfumed oomph, but in a very understated, English way.

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. However accomplished the winemaking and however delicious the wine, there is always going to be a Sauvignon 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 with less effort.

That analogy might be worth exploring further: ‘louder’ being the key word. We tasted the wines below sitting in March sunshine in a garden in Kent. They went perfectly with the benign warmth of the sun, and with the feeling of spring growth all around, the delicate nettle fl avours, 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: okay, over £13 for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or 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 in a country garden on the South Downs? I bet you spend more than that on orange juice every week.

Three Choirs Annum 2011, £8.54

Incredibly light in colour, an attractive nose of grapefruit and summer fruits, and a bit of spice. The palate has more summer fruits, elderfl ower and a good mouthfilling weight and fresh acidity that belies the colour.

Available at:Waitrose

Three Choirs Annum 2011, £8.54

Biddenden Ortega 2010, £9.95

From the vineyards of Kent, surrounded by pear and apple orchards, this has a sweet dense gooseberry nose and good weight, with perfumed crunchy apple flavours. A florality, and unction.

Available at:http://Slurp.co.uk

Biddenden Ortega 2010, £9.95

Chapel Down Bacchus 2010, £9.99

Very pale colour, but a healthy nose with a hint of pear drops. The acidity is lovely on this wine, fresh and sweet, with notes of melon and pineapple and some nettle. Light and refreshing – a wine for late morning in summer.

Available at:Majestic

Chapel Down Bacchus 2010, £9.99

Camel Valley Darnibole Bacchus 2010, £15.95

One of the best bacchus wines around, from a multi-award winning English vineyard. Flavours of gooseberry, crisp apple, and some elderflower, set off by clean, nervy acidity.

Available at:Berry Bros

Camel Valley Darnibole Bacchus 2010, £15.95

Denbies Bacchus 2009, £9.70

A revelation. A wine full of the scent of English hedgerows, succulent, reminiscent of cow parsley and bluebell and the sweet earthiness of summer fields. Long finish with very sweet but grippy acids. Excellent wine.

Available at:Denbies

Denbies Bacchus 2009, £9.70

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