Tigchandler is back! Wine is in my blood – metaphorically not literally! After a break from writing, a rising star has reignited that passion, the tingling taste buds, the wide-eyed excitement of new experiences. That rising star is English wine. World-beating quality sparkling and delicious whites are putting English wine firmly on the map.
Like the rest of the wine world I have seen the English wine industry evolve and grow, particularly since about 2000 – a trend often touted as a positive effect of climate change! However, the south of England has always been along similar latitudes to northern France which encompasses Champagne and Alsace, so it is more likely that it is fashion and markets that have had the most impact on this trend (not to mention the legal and spatial limitations on French growers and winemakers who have come to England to further their production without those limitations).
It is no surprise then that the eminent wines in England are sparklings made in the traditional method (as in the Champagne region with specific grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, secondary fermentation, minimum periods on lees, and other requirements) and fruity crisp whites made from grapes that are popular in northern Europe, particularly Germany, northern France and Austria.
So let me take you on a little journey through the English countryside…
In summer 2018 I was excited to be driving through Devon and Dorset country lanes to Buckham Fair. A little celebrity worship – this event is organised by Martin Clunes and his wife on their property. A lovely man respected by everyone in the area, the event was for charity and had the most wonderfully friendly and inclusive atmosphere of a traditional English country show.
Horses and dogs featured in displays and competitions all day. For the dogs there was agility around an obstacle course; best in show for pedigree groups including gundogs, terriers and working dogs, and for non-pedigrees; best rescue dogs; the waggiest tail; and best biscuit catcher to name a few! For the horse lovers there was showjumping, showing – serious and fun showing including best Thelwell lookalike! For me the grand finale was the heavy horse display. I have included some photos of the stunning heavy horses in the gallery below to enjoy along with the wine pics.
Among the many stalls, I spotted a pleasant surprise – the Langham Wine Estate stall. Here was a chance to try an award-winning English sparkling wine from Langham Wine Estate, a Dorset winery using only grapes grown in its own vineyards.
Langham Wine Estate Classic Cuvée
As they state on their website ‘We take a low-intervention approach to both grape growing and wine production, constantly striving to minimise our environmental impact and produce honest wines that reflect our terroir.’ I love to hear the words ‘low-intervention approach’ which I believe contributes to superior wines.
The 2014 Classic Cuvée is a blend of the three traditional French Champagne grapes, with
50% chardonnay, 25% pinot noir and 25% pinot meunier. With partial barrel fermentation (like Bollinger and Krug!) and 24 months on lees, and aged a further six months in the bottle before release, hence the current vintage being 2014, this rich golden wine with fine bubbles has a lively bready nose and the flavour is astounding!
I love Champagne but could instantly see how English sparkling is winning awards in blind tastings against sparklings worldwide. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering the very similar climate and chalky soils that contribute to Champagne’s success.
The palate is generous, fresh, fruity with flavours like honeydew melon, and very long. Just beautiful. Matthieu Longuère MS of Le Cordon Bleu London (as cited on Langham’s website) described it exactly, noting its ‘floral, nutty, fruity and elegant nose, and friendly, fresh and quite juicy palate’. I knew it would be good but it surpassed any expectations. I don’t normally do this, but I unreservedly say to any reader – get a bottle of this wine and you will never forget it.
Unsurprisingly this wine has won a number of awards including gold at the WineGB Awards 2018 and gold at the 2018 Sommelier Wine Awards.
Not bad for a winery that has been producing on a commercial scale for less than a decade!
Pop Up English Wine Company
Another joyful discovery at Buckham Fair was the Pop Up English Wine Company hosted by Peter (pictured), presenting a range of English wines from counties extending the width of southern England including Cornwall: Polgoon Vineyard; Devon: Lyme Bay Vineyard; Dorset: Langham Wine Estate; Portesham Vineyard; Hampshire: Coates & Seely; Surrey: Greyfriars Vineyard; Sussex: Stopham Estate; Wiston Estate; Bolney Estate; Essex: New Hall Vineyards; and Kent: Westwell Vineyard.
Amazing sparklings were on display including the 2014 Langham described above plus their rosé. I tried a glass of the Coates & Seely Brut Reserve NV (pictured), made from 65% chardonnay and 35% pinot noir. Made the traditional way (i.e. consistent with the Champagne region), it had the biscuit notes and lively fine mousse with cleansing acidity, the nose youthful and fruity and fresh. A lighter colour and body than the Langham, it is another beautiful example of English sparkling.
Méthode Britannique was written on the bottle – which struck me as a strange way to say that this is specifically made the British way, by writing it in French. If you are confused – I think they really mean Traditional Method – then we all know where we are!
The Wiston Estate 2013 Cuvée Brut was not available to taste but Peter said it too was a leader in English sparkling, winning Best UK Sparkling White, Decanter World Wine Awards 2017. It is made from 47% pinot noir, 33% chardonnay and 20% pinot meunier and is all aged in barrel. The emphasis on fruit quality and unhurried ageing and release promises a stunning wine that is on my ‘to do’ list!
God of the whites
With most of my wine experience having been gleaned from my time living in Australia and New Zealand I am new to grape varieties such as Bacchus, Seyval and Ortega which are among the popular varieties grown in England, besides the Champagne grapes. My expectations were undoubtedly coloured by my English heritage – I want the wine to be good! But the reality exceeded my expectations.
Bacchus of course is named after the God of Wine and as stated in Decanter magazine 22 May 2017:
‘If English wine is to have a ‘poster grape’ of its own, then bacchus is the front-runner.’
From the same article: ‘It is believed to be a combination of a riesling-silvaner cross with Müller-Thurgau, first achieved in Germany in the 1930s.’
Müller-Thurgau is itself the result of the crossing of two grapes: riesling and Madeleine Royale, created in 1882 by Dr Herman Müller (of Thurgau, Switzerland).
Müller-Thurgau will be a familiar name to New Zealand wine lovers as this grape was once the poster grape Down Under, being central to the early establishment of the wine industry in New Zealand as far back as the 1950s, introduced by German wine experts. It has since been mostly removed from New Zealand vineyards, as the country moved strongly towards sauvignon blanc and other varieties.
Bacchus suits the English climate and has been referred to as England’s sauvignon blanc, with grassy notes, succulent flavours of pear, honeysuckle and elderflower, and refreshing acidity.
I tried the Lyme Bay Sandbar bacchus that Peter had on tasting. A perfect tipple for a summer’s day, it was fresh and citrusy with light honeysuckle and balanced acidity.
I also bought a bottle of the New Hall Vineyards Signature 2017 and to my surprise needed a corkscrew to open it – a rarity with New Zealand and Australian whites where stelvin (screwtop) dominates. A very pale wine, it was zingy and fresh with soft fruits, a crisp minerality, floral, fruity and rich, a perfect summer wine. Great structure and balance, it was truly delicious. And only 11% alcohol meant I could have a second one.