English Wine: Beyond The Fizz
Any remaining scepticism about the high quality of English sparkling wine should have been quashed in April 2016 when a blind tasting by French experts in Paris, organised by the UK Wine and Spirit Trade Association, resulted in a line-up of our national fizz beating a team of champagnes.
Top of the podium for Chardonnay went to the 2009 Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs from Sussex, beating a highly regarded Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru. A sparkling rosé from Gusbourne Estate, above Romney Marsh in Kent, also vanquished its French rival. With Taittinger investing in 170 acres of chalky Kent soil and evidence of a climatic shift north, by 2050, the Downs could be the new Champagne.
Of course, sparkling-wine grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - can also make still wine and, with other varietals thriving and British expertise increasing, there are fine home-grown whites and reds following in the fizzy footsteps to international recognition. Chapel Down, in Kent, has a Chardonnay called Kit's Coty that rivals many Burgundies in complexity. Of the South East's reds, the Pinot Noir from Bolney Estate in Sussex is an aromatic international award winner that pairs well with cheese and lighter meats. And, made from red grapes, the white Pinot by Litmus, in Surrey, is fascinating: it takes the full body and hints of cherry from the red grapes, but has caramel-baked apples and the oakiness of a white.
Even the capital has its own winery. London Cru is produced in West Brompton, steps away from the former Earls Court Arena. The grapes are not, thankfully, grown in nearby Brompton Cemetery but imported from Europe for each production run. For its first English-grown wine, London Cru selected Bacchus grapes (a German Silvaner/Riesling/Müller-Thurgau cross) from Kent and the result is a light, crisp alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc.
Production is not limited to southeast England. The West Country is well represented by Camel Valley in Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. Its 2013 Bacchus dry – on sale at Turnbull & Asser's St James's Street neighbour Berry Bros & Rudd – is heady with elderflower on the nose and has a citrus and green-apple tang. Also from Cornwall, Trevibban Mill's Black Ewe is an International Wine Challenge silver-medal-winning, Soil Association-certified organic Pinot Noir that is rich with berries and spice (notably black cherry and clove) and would go well with a Sunday roast.
Further north, in Worcestershire, Sixteen Ridges produces wine of every hue from the Pinot Noir grape – its rosé version is bursting with summer fruit, but crisp and dry. And the quality is spreading north. Tom Hill, by Staffordshire's Halfpenny Green, is a honeyed citrus aperitif wine made from the Huxelrebe grape. Outside of England, Wales holds its own too, led by Ancre Hill in the Wye Valley. The sheltered, well-draining terroir of Monmouthshire suits Pinot Noir, but Triomphe is Ancre Hill's outstanding grape – producing a fruity, quaffable Beaujolais-style summer red.
In a further step towards a complex oenological ecosystem, there is even a British spirit called Dappa that's made using grape marc, or post-fermentation skins. The artisan Devon Distillery (Devon + grappa = Dappa) makes the International Wine & Spirit Competition silver-medallist spirit in an Italian grappa still, using marc (also known as pomace) from the nearby Sharpham vineyard, Bolney Estate and elsewhere. With offerings like these, those Charbonnel et Walker Marc de Champagne truffles could soon be under threat, too.
Image: Chapel Down vineyards in Tenterden, Kent
Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo