KEEP CALM AND SPARKLE ON

Once de­rided, English wine is now def­i­nitely a thing – and one that qui­etly con­tin­ues to ex­pand and im­press the ex­perts. AN­DREW DEMBINA talks to some top pro­duc­ers

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SPARKLING AND STILL wines from Eng­land are among the lat­est toasts of the drinks world – yes, wines pro­duced in a coun­try no­to­ri­ous for rain and chill. This is not an ex­tremely late April fool leg-pull, it’s ac­tual – and Eng­land (now with its own recog­nised ap­pel­la­tion) joins other wine re­gions in higher lat­i­tudes of the north­ern hemi­sphere (and lower ones in the globe’s more southerly reaches) in en­joy­ing one of the few ben­e­fits of global warm­ing: an ex­pan­sion in de­cent grapevine mi­cro­cli­mates.

Last year was the fledg­ling English wine in­dus­try’s most pro­lific yet. The na­tion’s 480 vine­yards – pre­dom­i­nantly in the south­ern coun­ties of Sus­sex and Dorset – along with a fur­ther 22 in the prin­ci­pal­ity of Wales, pro­duced a size­able 3.86 mil­lion bot­tles in 2017.

The most talked about are sparkling wines – made the same way and with the same grapes as in France’s Cham­pagne re­gion; in fact, in their early days most pro­duc­ers com­mis­sioned viti­cul­tural sur­veys and op­er­a­tional con­sul­ta­tions from the ex­perts from north­west France. The re­sult­ing sparklers have been win­ning in­ter­na­tional wine awards and a few have fared very well against French and other more es­tab­lished Euro­pean fizz-mak­ers.

Such suc­cess has even at­tracted houses from France to in­vest in English vine­yards that share chalky soils and cli­mate very sim­i­lar to those in the Cham­pagne. This spring, Vranken-Pom­mery be­came the first of the big cham­pagne mar­ques to re­lease an English non-vin­tage sparkling wine: Louis Pom­mery Eng­land Brut.

And all this is not an en­tirely new story; 2000 was the first sig­nif­i­cant year of UK wine pro­duc­tion, at 1.34 mil­lion bot­tles. If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that lat­est stats for France (the world’s third-big­gest wine pro­ducer) is 4.74 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to an April re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Vine and Wine.

But when a do­mes­tic sparkling wine be­came the of­fi­cial pour of Queen El­iz­a­beth II’s 80th birth­day in 2006, and then of the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter’s res­i­dence a few years later, things started to ap­pear more se­ri­ous. These were from Ridgeview es­tate, the first English wines to im­press in­ter­na­tional judges at the an­nual In­ter­na­tional Wine & Spir­its Com­pe­ti­tion, held in Lon­don in 2005, when its vin­tage blend Blooms­bury 2002 re­ceived the Best In­ter­na­tional Sparkling Wine award. Ridgeview has con­tin­ued to im­press in wine com­pe­ti­tions – in par­tic­u­lar, with its all-Chardon­nay Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs, from vines planted in 1995. Fast for­ward to June 2017 and to

Coun­try Life mag­a­zine’s first an­nual UK Wine Awards, judged by five Masters of Wine and other no­table palates. Al­most 300 wines were put for­ward by pro­duc­ers of all sizes, rang­ing from the ever-in­creas­ing se­lec­tion of sparkling wines to still whites, rosés and reds. At the close of the event, TV pre­sen­ter, broad­caster and wine writer Oz Clarke said, “The range of win­ners shows just what ex­tra­or­di­nary di­rec­tions this in­dus­try is go­ing in.”

Coates & Seely be­came the com­pe­ti­tion’s over­all win­ner with its La Per­fide Blanc de Blancs 2009. This pro­ducer’s bub­bly fea­tures on im­pres­sive Lon­don wine lists,

be­ing favoured by that bas­tion of el­e­gant old-school English­ness, The Dorch­ester. The ho­tel’s head of bars, Si­mon Rowe, says of it: “Coates & Seely sparkling wine, pro­duced in the North Hamp­shire Downs on the same rift of chalk that runs through Cham­pagne, is a de­li­cious wine – in­cor­po­rat­ing mod­ern wine tech­niques to cre­ate de­li­cious flavour. The rosé non-vin­tage has won­der­ful scents of rose hips and straw­ber­ries, and pairs well with our af­ter­noon tea – we were de­lighted to also be pour­ing this along­side The Dorch­ester’s af­ter­noon tea at our pop-up at the Chelsea Flower Show this year.” The la­bel is also the ex­clu­sive English pour at the beau­ti­ful Good­wood race­course.

Like their French coun­ter­parts, some of the most com­plex English sparkling wines pair well with food. This ap­plies to Ridgeview’s two lim­ited-re­lease vin­tages made solely from pinot noir fruit – a Blanc de Noirs (rec­om­mended with mack­erel, mush­room or duck dishes) and a Rosé de Noirs (a good com­pan­ion with bread-based salty canapés, sal­mon and straw­ber­ries), both of which won ma­jor ac­co­lades.

A pro­ducer that’s be­come syn­ony­mous with qual­ity English wine is Chapel Down in the county of Kent, whose wines have been avail­able in Hong Kong and Japan for 10 years. Its wine­maker, Josh Don­aghay-Spire, says its sparklers (it pro­duces still wine too) are en­joyed in the same way as French cham­pagne, but the flavour pro­file is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. “We like to get as much ex­pres­sion from our fruit as pos­si­ble,” he ex­plains. “So our wines are gen­er­ally less about yeast char­ac­ter­is­tics and more about a fresher style.”

Re­becca Hans­ford, joint owner of 15-year-old Furleigh Es­tate in Dorset with her wine­maker hus­band Ian Ed­wards, admits that English bub­bly ini­tially took its cues from the French. “In the early days we did copy cham­pagne and they are the masters,” she says. “But now the in­dus­try is grow­ing up we’re de­vel­op­ing a par­tic­u­lar English style: fresh­ness, fruit­driven – and there’s not so much of the very old re­serve wines [in the blend], just be­cause we’re a very young in­dus­try.”

So how is the world treat­ing English sparkling wine gen­er­ally? “Ten years ago, we were taken less se­ri­ously than we are now,” says Don­aghay-Spire. “Any­one who’s knowl­edge­able about the world of wine is well aware of the de­vel­op­ments in Eng­land. Our wines are now reg­u­larly beat­ing cham­pagne in blind tast­ings, we con­tinue to gain mar­ket share and we’re now looked at in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent light.

“It was also very pleas­ing to see Tait­tinger plant a vine­yard in 2017, close to one of our own in Kent – a [French] ‘grande mar­que’ cham­pagne house plant­ing a vine­yard in the UK with the aim of pro­duc­ing a top-qual­ity English sparkling wine. We look for­ward to tast­ing them some­time around 2023.”

And it’s not all about bub­bles. Still wines from Eng­land, in smaller quan­ti­ties, are also be­gin­ning to have their day. Furleigh Es­tate also makes Chardon­nay and Pinot Noir, as well as Bac­chus, a Ger­man grape va­ri­ety found in some of that coun­try’s white blends and that’s some­times com­pared to Sau­vi­gnon Blanc.

“It’s quite dis­tinc­tive when it’s grown in the UK, with

“we con­tinue to gain mar­ket share and we’re now looked at in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent light ”

goose­berry and el­der­flower flavours,” says Hans­ford. Her win­ery also grows Rondo, a full-bod­ied fruity red hy­brid va­ri­ety cre­ated and planted in north­ern Europe from the late 1990s.

As well as Bac­chus and Pinot Noir, Chapel Down also pro­duces a few thou­sand bot­tles an­nu­ally of a prized oak-aged re­serve Chardon­nay at its Kit’s Coty es­tate. It’s one that Don­aghay-Spire is par­tic­u­larly proud of, say­ing it’s “a world-class Chardon­nay that can ri­val the best from Bur­gundy”. De­mand for this sin­gle-vine­yard bot­tling, which av­er­ages 90 points across lead­ing wine pub­li­ca­tions, is high and last year, a £100 blanc de blancs sparkling wine – Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cu­vée 2013 – was re­leased with fruit from the same plot. This took the crown for most pricey English fizz on re­lease, pre­vi­ously set by Nyetim­ber’s Sin­gle Vine­yard Tilling­ton 2010 (a mere £75). Nyetim­ber in West Sus­sex was Eng­land’s first win­ery to em­bark on the sparkling-wine mis­sion, ready­ing its vine­yards more than 25 years ago, and some of its older vines are al­ready pro­duc­ing more com­plex wines.

Among oth­ers, this year sees the re­lease of a sparkling blanc de blancs from Rathfinny Wine Es­tate in Sus­sex, af­ter bot­tling its first wine in May 2015. The fam­ily-run es­tate aims to reach pro­duc­tion of more than 960,000 bot­tles by 2025.

Last year’s bumper UK bot­tle count was up 64 per­cent on 2016, when 2.36 mil­lion bot­tles were re­leased. Just five per­cent of all wine made in Eng­land is es­ti­mated to be ex­ported, and grow­ing cu­rios­ity is out­strip­ping de­mand. Whether bot­tles can be laid down to ma­ture for drink­ing plea­sure and ap­pre­ci­ate in value for col­lec­tors re­mains to be seen, as the in­dus­try is still very young – and the ex­perts won’t com­mit them­selves just yet.

But it seems time to take note of English wine’s cred­i­bil­ity. “It’s OK if some con­sumers treat it as a nov­elty drink – which they do to a de­gree,” con­cedes Don­aghay-Spire. “But once they taste our wines they’ll un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing.”

Josh Don­aghay-Spire, wine­maker at Chapel Down

RIDGEVIEW ES­TATE VINES AND SUR­ROUND­ING FARM­LAND AND VINE­YARDS IN SUS­SEX

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