English Wine Tasting
Since we wrote our Guide to the Vineyards of England and Wales in 2008, English wines have come on a ton. From under 300 commercial vineyards then to over 500 now, some of which have been purchased by overseas buyers, is a reflection on the world wide interest English wines has garnered over the years.
Of course global warming has been a definite plus which has transformed our rather marginal climate which would only support the hardiest of grape varietals, to what is now proving to be conducive to farming mainstream cool climate grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which of course, leads us on to what is now considered to be the major strength of English wine production – sparkling wines.
These three grape varietals of course are the major components of Champagnes, thus allowing us to make direct comparisons with the sparkling wines of England and Wales. But there has also been a remarkable upsurge in quality of still wines, partcularly the whites, although there is not much in the way of economy of scale in the UK wine producing scene, so they might appear to be just a little more expensive than similar quality wines from other countries.
I attended a comprehensive tasting of English wines on Monday and here are my impressions. As usual, I’m not going to give you a set of comprehensive tasting notes – there are plenty of other commentators who will do that, some ad nauseum, but I hope to give you a palette of impressionsm of the wines that I tasted.
There were 62 sparkling wines to taste, thoughtfully divided into categories. These were; Non Champagne varieties and blends, 100% Chardonnays, (blanc de blancs), Traditional Varietal Cuvées (the majority), Blanc de Noirs, Sparkling Rosés, Extra Brut and Demi-sec..
Only four of the 62 were classed as Non Champagne Varietals and blends although three of them did have some Pinot Noir and/or Chardonnay in the blend. It’s indicative of how the English producers can now handle the Champagne varietals. As a result these were far less impressive, even bordering on harshness.
In the Blancs de Blancs, my top two, Wiston Estate 2010 vintage (£40.00) and Brightwell 2009 (21.00) both scoring three stars plus, edged out some of the others and whilst I found them equally as good, it does show what terrific value the Brightwell is. There were good blends from Ridgeview (both the Bloomsbury and the Cavendish 2013, both £26.95), Lyme Bay Classic Cuvée 2013, (£22.95), Wiston Estate Cuvée Brut 2010, (£33.00), Jenkyn Place Brut Cuvée 2010 (£28.50), Henners Reserve 2010 £32.00 and Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 (£32.99). But the star in this section, in fact, the star of the show, was the Hambledon Première Cuvée Brut NV, which had the finesse and elegance to put many a Champagne to shame. On the cusp of five stars, at £42.50 it’s not cheap, but this is a real example of getting what you pay for.
Rosés were headed by the four star Exton Park NV made from 100% Pinot Meunier (£34.95), good finesse coupled with some intensity of fruit. Not far behind were Wiston Estate Rosé 2011 (£36.00), Sixteen Ridges 2013 (£30.00) 100% Pinot Noir and Three Choirs (£29.00) also 100% Pinot Noir.
52 still wines were there to taste, mainly white. There was a fair selection of Bacchus wines, probably considered as England’s best white shot in the past, but I didn’t find anything outstanding here – Bacchus does have a tendency to be a bit flabby, but one with good structure was the Litmus Element 20 2013 from Denbies although it was a 50/50 blend with Chardonnay, but at £20 a bottle it wasn’t cheap.
What did catch the eye, though, were the two White Pinot Noirs on show, the Sixteen Ridges 2014 (£12.50 – 3.5 stars) and the Litmus 2013 from Denbies (£20.00 – 3.5 stars), both vibrant and fresh with good aromacy. Apart from a crisp and fresh Reichensteiner 2014 from Brightwell (£9.99 – 3 stars), noble grape varieties are faring better than the traditional hybrids, with 3.5 stars awarded to the Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc 2013 (£12.50) and 3 stars to Hush Heath’s Skye’s English Chardonnay 2015 (£16.50)
The still reds are probably not yet up to the mark but once again, remarkable progress has been made over the years and I am sure that continued global warming will enhance the quality of the reds in due time. Meanwhile I was impressed by the Bolney Wine Estate Foxhole Pinot Noir 2014 (£16.99) which had good finesse and true varietal flavours.
So what is the conclusion?
There can be no doubt that English sparkling wines now rank amongst the best in the world, climate change has certainly helped but increased winemaking skills and attention to detail will ensure a proper place in the annals of wine production. Still wines produced from noble grapes are also beginning to show real quality. However, if there is a caveat, a breakthrough in the market is a little hampered by the lack of economy of scale. Thus many of the sparkling wines are more expensive than some Champagnes and still wines of similar quality from countries where the costs of wine production are much lower have a definite price advantage. Most of our wine production is made in an artisanal manner; hand-made wines are to be admired but hopefully they can be priced competitively in the market.
Clearly, our 2008 Guide to the Vineyards of England and Wales is out of date and needs substantially updating. Sponsors, anywhere?