British wines used to be the subject of derision. I once offered a French friend a glass of one of the best English whites to try. She sniffed, sipped and pronounced, “Yes, very nice with a little sponge cake.” Some of her countrymen would not even go that far. During a dinner of European leaders when Britain held the presidency of the EU, Tony Blair offered his guests English and Welsh wines to accompany each of the courses. Jacques Chirac is alleged to have said to the server, “No wine for me, thank you.”
Things have changed, or, rather, they are changing. Many people know of the success of English sparkling wines. In Sussex, the first serious example was Nyetimber, but now there is the keener priced Ridgeview, and from Cornwall the surprising Camel Valley. Each of these vineyards offers sparkling wines with orchard fruit, fresh acidity and good minerality. The latter two may lack a little bit of depth when compared to champagnes, but they are priced accordingly. The vineyards in Sussex are particularly interesting. They have similar soil to that in Champagne and the weather is just one degree colder. As climate change threatens to alter growing conditions, champagne makers have even been looking into the possibility of buying land there.
But what lies beyond sparkling wine for British makers? Aromatic white wines, certainly, and here you will discover a new range of grape varieties such as Bacchus, Madeleine Angevine, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner, Phoenix, Huxelrebe and Siegerrebe. The first of these is the best-known English varietal yielding something between a Riesling and a Sauvignon Blanc. It has achieved recognition in the hands of Kent-based wine makers, Chapel Down. Their 2010 Bacchus is typical: paler than straw, hints of summer fruits on the nose, ripe red apple on the palate, and a lime-edged finish.
The red apple note in Bacchus can make this wine a little one-dimensional, and I have been much more impressed by blends. A fine example is the 2011 Annum from the Three Choirs vineyards in Gloucestershire. Made from Madeleine Angevine, Phoenix, Reichensteiner, Schönberg and Siegerrebe, this is a beautifully harmonious and aromatic wine with a long finish. As pale as water with flecks of green, the nose smells of elderflower and iodine. On the palate, there is a sweet start, pleasing weight and follow-through, resolving with a zesty lemon finish.
The Three Choirs Annum is an excellent food wine. It is here that British wines might find their mark, in matching or complementing the best British produce. Try it with Scottish smoked salmon where it stands its ground against the smokiness and oiliness of the fish and a squeezed lemon. White wines, and especially the aromatic varieties, are a good accompaniment for cheese, and these British wines fare well with a very good piece of Stilton.
And what of reds? Are they a step too far for British winemaking? It’s harder to achieve ripeness the further north you go. Those who have tried tend to stick to cool-climate grape varieties such as the notoriously difficult Pinot Noir, though look out for the local varieties Rondo and Regent. English and Welsh winemakers could emulate German and Austrian red wines with grape varieties like Blauer Zweigelt, Lemberger and Spätburgunder. Another solution is to use someone else’s grapes. Chapel Down recently imported fresh grapes from Argentina, which they vinified to make a “Kent Malbec” called An English Salute, as their tribute to World Malbec day.
So does red wine making in Britain count as extreme winemaking? Perhaps. I have often joked with friends that if temperatures continue to rise I could retire to Scotland to grow olives and vines on the side of Loch Lomond. Fortunately for us all, Château Loch Lomond is still some way off. Unfortunately for British winemakers, so is a locally grown, quality red wine.