English wines' time to shine

Warmer summers now producing vintages that can compete globally

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 November, 2014, 10:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 November, 2014, 10:39am

Back in the early 1970s when Australian wines were regarded by many English wine lovers as too vulgar an idea to contemplate, the comedy team Monty Python produced a sketch in which Eric Idle portrayed an Australian wine expert.

His recommendations included "a 1970 Coq du Rod Laver" and "Old Smokey 1968, which has been compared favourably to a Welsh claret".

Times have changed. Today nobody thinks the idea of good Australian wine inherently comical, and grapes for winemaking are successfully cultivated in South Wales.

The hour of the Welsh claret has not, perhaps, quite yet come round, but sparkling wines from southern England, unthought of 40 years ago, are giving champagnes a run for their money in blind tastings.

Recently, Kent - known as the garden of England - has emerged as a viable region for pinot noir and chardonnay as well as for bubbles.

Wine has been made in England for about 2,000 years, but historically the vines have been cultivated in defiance of a hostile climate. Recent years, however, have been kinder to the grapes, in the south at any rate - possibly because of the effects of climate change.

Generally that phenomenon is bad news for wine regions, but just as it is becoming difficult to make wines that are traditionally low in alcohol in their accustomed style in the warmer parts of continental Europe, it is at last possible in England to make both still and sparkling wines of real quality.

With the 2014 vintage looking likely to turn out exceptionally well, English winemakers report, are we going to start taking English wine seriously?

The wine trade started to do so some time ago. After a fallow period earlier in the 20th century, a revival in English winemaking - which restarted slowly in the 1950s - faltered in the '90s. The cause was a generally indifferent response to generally indifferent wine, much of it made from German grapes less suited to English terroir than had been hoped by optimistic growers. Many producers went out of business.

Around the same time, though, much more successful experiments were being conducted with the three classic grape varieties of the Champagne region - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

"Berry Bros got excited about the quality of English sparkling wine around the end of the 1990s," says David Jones, senior sales manager of Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR).

"The UK is very good at making blanc de blancs, which are all chardonnay. That has led to trying to produce still chardonnay and still pinot noir. The chardonnay usually gets blended with something else, but pinot noir in Kent is developing a bit of a name. Gusborne at the moment is producing the best. Chapel Down is good, too. Ridgeview and Nyetimber are comfortably the largest producers of quality sparkling wines with the largest vineyard holdings."

Possibly because few other English wineries produce enough wine for a serious export business, the last two are the English labels with the highest international profile. Because they have some years of experience and the advantage of fruit from mature vineyards, they are widely regarded as being of the highest quality.

Nyetimber, established in 1986 in West Sussex, and Ridgeview, established in East Sussex in 1994, are not the only such wines available here.

Jones says that in Hong Kong BBR bbr.com/HK is focused primarily on Ridgeview, and offers most of its range, but also has wines from Nyetimber and Kent's Gusborne.

Also widely praised are Kent's Chapel Down from Continental Wines continentalwines.com.hk and Hampshire's Hattingley Valley from Kingsway Wine Merchant kingswaywines.com Emma Rice, Hattingley Valley's winemaker, is the United Kingdom Vineyards Association English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition's winemaker of the year.

Rice studied wine making in East Sussex at Plumpton College, where one of her classmates was Hong Kong-based winemaker and wine marketer Tersina Shieh.

"There is no doubt about the quality of English sparkling wine," Shieh says. "The production is still small at the moment, but new vineyards in southern England are being planted at a fast pace. England used to be a part of continental Europe a long time ago, and the chalk soils in southern England are similar to those in Champagne. England is also making some impressive red wine, notably cool-climate pinot noir, because of climate change."

Anybody making fine wine in England starts out making sparkling wine
David Jones, Berry Bros & Rudd

Chapel Down is probably best known for sparklers, but takes its still production just as seriously.

"I believe that our still wine portfolio is as important as our sparkling wine, and it's a part of our range, which I get a huge sense of satisfaction from making," says its head winemaker, Josh Donaghay-Spire. "Pinot noir and chardonnay are known for their place in our sparkling wine, but the still wines made from these grape varieties are truly exceptional and can rival those from Burgundy and the new world.

"The best pinot noir is found on the edges of where it is happy, where it is pushed to its limits. That's where we are, and that's where it produces wines which are really interesting. We make super-clean unoaked chardonnay, which is very modern in style, but also from the best vineyard site we make a single vineyard barrel fermented textural chardonnay that can stand shoulder to shoulder with top Chablis."

Jones is particularly excited about Gusborne's pinot noir and Kent's emergence as a pinot region, given the scarcity of terroir where grapes can be grown to make wine in an essentially Burgundian style. Even so, he still sees sparkling wines as England's strongest category.

"Anybody making fine wine in England starts out making sparkling wine. The reason is that to make good sparkling wine, you don't need to get the grapes to the level needed for good quality still wine. That's almost why Champagne makes champagne. Cool summers and cool nights create grapes with a high level of acidity and low alcohol that doesn't make good still wine, but it's perfect for making sparkling wine," he says.

A common complaint about English wines is that they are expensive. In many cases, the prices need to be set at an ambitious level to allow the producers to recover costs, but Jones argues that a high-end English sparkling wine can be a bargain. "If you taste Ridgeview blind alongside similarly priced champagnes, it stands up really well. We're selling the Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs here for HK$290, HK$310 for the blanc de noirs, and HK$269 for the rosé. That's the equivalent of a cheap brand of champagne. They are not going to compete with Pol Roger or Louis Roederer, but they stand up well next to the cheaper good brands such as Theophile Roederer or Nicolas Feuillatte," says Jones.

Last week Ridgeview, which is a family company, announced the death of co-founder Mike Roberts MBE, who had also been the chairman of English Wine Producers, a trade body which promotes English wine. His death is widely mourned within an industry he did much to put on the map.

With its sparkling wines and still pinot noirs and chardonnays, England has proved it can compete respectably with established wine producing countries with internationally cultivated grapes.

The search goes on, however, for a more distinctively English wine style that will garner the same critical plaudits today's wines now attract.

Donaghay-Spire makes a case for bacchus, a German crossing of müller-thurgau and another already crossed variety bred from silvaner and riesling.

"We've been producing [bacchus] for well over a decade, and it is now an established English style. Our bacchus is fresh, crisp and aromatic, not unlike sauvignon blanc but with more weight and texture," he says.

This hangover from the German grape period of English winemaking was more successful than the others, but I'm less convinced by English bacchus than chardonnay.

Still, as Donaghay-Spire points out, these are relatively early days for England: "The exciting part of the journey we're on now is discovering the way in which these varieties grow on our different terroirs and learning how to get the very best from them." life@scmp.com