by Martin Sayers
It is impressive to see the lovingly tended vines, to marvel at the process that turns the sour little grapes into wine, and then of course to enjoy the finished product! The English wine scene is booming, vineyards are springing up all over the country and are busy producing some rather excellent wines.
Anyone looking to experience the English wine trade at first hand should be spoilt for choice
Anyone looking to experience the English wine trade at first hand should be spoilt for choice - the sector is still very much a cottage industry and the small producers dotted around the country are extremely welcoming to visitors.
English wine production is of course nothing new, the industry has roots going back to Roman times and by the Middle Ages there were a number of vineyards dotted around southern England, mainly attached to monasteries. However, wine making declined over the years and it is only relatively recently that serious production has started again in this country. The first growers’ associations were formed in the 1960s and the English countryside is now home to more than 400 vineyards. The amount of land used for wine growing is expected to rise by almost half by the end of the decade, pumping millions of pounds into the economy, and the quality of wine being produced is extraordinary - as a result, wine from this country is becoming more and more popular.
Although you are still unlikely to see English wine on the shelves in anywhere other than specialist wine merchants, the better quality producers are increasingly coming to the fore and being recognised as serious contenders in the international wine business. This is especially true in the sparkling wine sector, where the leading producers are competing with the champagne houses head on and winning in international competitions. A wine from the RidgeView Wine Estate in Sussex – the Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 - recently beat competition from five Champagnes, including the Taittinger Prélude NV, Charles Heidsieck Millésime 2000 and Thienot’s Brut Rosé NV, to win an international award at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards.
Still white wines are also improving, and the variety of grapes makes for some fascinating wines, which also age well. Red wine is less of an English speciality as it is much more dependent upon ripe grapes, which in turn depend on large amounts of sunshine – something that is not always easy to come by in this country. However, grape varieties like the German Dornfelder, which ripen early and make good quality red wines, are well suited to the English climate. People tend not to associate English wine with reds and therefore discount it compared to the main international varieties, but it is well worth a try.
There is a bizarre difference between ‘English’ wine and ‘British’ wine
However, anyone looking to try home-grown wine for the first time must be careful, as there is a bizarre difference between ‘English’ wine and ‘British’ wine. English wine means just that, wine produced in English vineyards with grapes grown in England, whilst British wine tends to refer to wine produced on an industrial scale in British bottling plants, using cheap concentrate imported from the continent. Although much cheaper than its home-grown counterpart it offers much less in terms of quality.
The prospects for English wine are certainly good. Although future quality and production levels are both very much in the hands of the weather, the general trend over the last couple of decades has been towards a warming climate - there are now vineyards nearly as far north as Leeds - and if this trend continues then it seems certain there will be a further march northwards of the producing area and increased planting of grape varieties and production of wines, both red and white. It also seems likely that ongoing investment in what is very much a growth sector will see further improvements in vineyard management and this will also make for a greater variety of English wine on the shelves.
English wine could be on the verge of something very big indeed, so keep your eyes peeled for an ‘English’ section appearing on the wine shelves of your local supermarket or off licence and don’t be afraid to give it a try – chances are you will be very pleasantly surprised!
Camel Valley, Cornwall
This is Cornwall's biggest and most celebrated vineyard. The site comprises 82 acres of south-facing slopes located just off the Camel Trail, which follows the river valley from Bodmin Moor to Padstow, and stunning views abound. The wine is pretty good too, with the Camel Valley 2008 Pinot Noir Rose Brut scooping the gold award at the 2010 International Wine Challenge.
Three Choirs, Gloucestershire
This lovely little vineyeard nestled in the Forest Dean is very much geared towards visitors. Guided tours of the winery are available and there is a shop, restaurant and even nature trails through a site that prides itself on being environmentally friendly.
Chilford Hall, Cambridgeshire
The flatlands of Cambridgeshire may seem an unusual place for a vineyard but as the county stretches out east towards the Suffolk border the countryside begins to roll and this is where you find the award-winning Chilford Hall vineyard. The winey is famous for its tours, which are very popular and include food at the on-site bistro and wine tasting.