Friday, 7 June 2013

The Rise and Rise of English Wine

The rise and rise of English wine. It could be a poem couldn't it? I'd like to think by John Betjeman, although in his day if you had suggested he may like to drink English sparkling wine or Merret (more of which later) instead of Champagne I'm sure he would have laughed heartily, despite being the most patriotic of Englishman.

I should make clear here we are talking about English Wine rather than British Wine as has been vitriolically pointed out to me twice in the last week. I'm not sure that anyone is actually aware of British Wine or what it is. British Wine is a very inferior product made from grape juice imported into the UK where as English Wine is produced from fresh grapes grown in England, or Wales or apparently Scotland in the very near future. Just wanted to make that clear as was made clear to me at both events I have attended in the last week.

English Wine is definitely on the rise and whilst I don't think the French are quaking in their boots just yet there is plenty of interest in our viticulture. Grape growing and wine making first started commercially in Britain in the 1960s but it is only in the last 15 years or so that it has become widely regarded and today many high end restaurants are actively stocking and pushing English wines, and with good reason. Our Sparkling Wines in particular are seen as more than a match for Champagne and this is proven in the number of awards they have won.

You may not be aware but English Wine Week took place in the last week of May and lots of events took place around the country to celebrate.

One event I attended was "English Wine in an English Rose Garden" which took place in London  on Saturday 1st June and was hosted by Kelly of, an award winning provider of weekly food and drink experiences. I must give credit to my wife's cousin Carly and her partner James at this point. It was they who organised the day out for us and what a day it was.
Kelly Bayliffe of Tastour
I cannot really say too much about the venue. But I was very impressed that Kelly had managed to set up two tables with all the nibbles, wine, glasses, etc with no help at all having been dropped off in a taxi in the middle of London with masses of people about.

The tasting was all about English Wine and we sampled 3 sparklers, 3 rosé and a sparkling red. Unfortunately Kelly did not give out tasting notes or a list of wines that we tried, which I thought was a bit disappointing, and it was difficult to make notes standing up, especially as I had forgotten to take a pen with me. 

But no matter, we started with a Nyetimber Classic Cuvee which as luck would have it I had tried only the week before at another tasting. I bet in a blind tasting you could not tell it apart from Champagne. It has classic Champagne characteristics with a real biscuity, yeasty flavour and a long lemony finish. We moved on to Camel Valley 'Cornwall' Brut which was a Gold Medal winner and tasted it. Delicious. Matthew Jukes of the Daily Mail rates Camel Valley as "the number one winery in the country" and no wonder. Later on we also tried Camel Valley Sparkling Red which was certainly one of the best sparkling reds I've tried. 

The final sparkling wine was actually my favourite of the day. Ridgeview Bloomsbury is a Chardonnay dominated classic blend with a touch of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir to add finesse and structure just like a classic Champagne. And to me it tasted as the best Champagne should with lovely overtones of melon and honey. We moved onto some rosé wines shortly after tasting the Ridgeview but I could have drank the fizz all afternoon. Wow. 

Selection of the Wines tasted at the English Wine - English Rose Garden Event
I mentioned Merret at the start of the blog and it has been, controversially, suggested that it was Britain Christopher Merret rather than Dom Perignon who invented sparkling wine in the mid 17th Century. I have to give credit for this information to Kelly as it was a new factoid for me. The thought is that whilst the French have Champagne, Spanish, Cava and the Italians Prosecco the English have Merret. Not sure it will catch on but Ridgeview have started putting the Merret name on the neck of their bottles.

Our day with Tastour was completed with a tasting of three rosé wines that were all good but it felt a bit after the Lord Mayor's Show after the Merret. See I told you it would catch on. I should conclude by saying it was a great event, Kelly clearly knows her stuff and a big thank you to Carly and James for buying the tickets for us to attend.

One issue I know someone has with Kelly is Tina Abbiss of Halfpenny Green Vineyards which is only about 3 miles from my front door. Whilst in London Kelly suggested that 50 degrees was the northern limit for successful grape growth and Three Choirs Vineyard in Gloucestershire was the most northerly commercially successful operation. Well actually, no.

Tina, from Halfpenny Green
 with budding vines for 2013
Halfpenny Green Vineyards, which is 52 degrees north is celebrating 30 years of wine making this year and is still owned by Martin Vickers, a lifelong farmer, who started with a half acre experiment back in 1983. In fact the operation is a proper family operation with son Clive as winemaker, daughter-in-law Lisa managing the very successful tea rooms and wife Tina running the sales and marketing of the business. And it was Tina I went to see to talk about their wines. The operation has now expanded to over 30 acres of vines with more planned and currently a new extended winery and visitor centre is being built on site. I toured the current winery with Tina. They actually now produce wines for 30 operators as well as their own hugely successful wines. Overall they bottle 90,000 bottles a year from the winery.

Help me Rondo, Help, help me Rondo.
Award winning Rondo wine from 2011
Halfpenny Green produce a whole range of wines from dessert wine to sparkling to a full bodied red. Full bodied red I here you cry? In 2011 growing conditions were perfect to produce a full red wine from the Rondo grape which came in at a whopping 15% but on my tasting was quite delicious. Full and ripe with juicy tannins and velvety, long finish quite unlike many other wines from these shores. Good enough in fact to bad a Silver award at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2013. Unfortunately the weather in 2012 put paid to a repeat performance but they are hopeful for 2013. I should say I tried many of the white wines they offer and all were very pleasant and I hope to try the dessert wine and sparkling wines some time soon.

I should conclude by saying that we have to remember how hard it is to produce quality wines in England. It is estimated that in any decade two years will be great, four years acceptable, and the other four years useless due to our unpredictable weather patterns.

So hats off to all English wine producers, especially Martin, Clive, Tina and the rest of the 40 employees at Halfpenny Green, for giving us a little something to shout about when it comes to wine.

Cheers. Enjoy your wine.

Next time: My visit to Porto in Portugal

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