English Wine Week 2020 commences on Saturday 20th June, or Summer Solstice, and it’s the perfect week to focus on discovering your local wine producers.
English wines continue to grow their presence on restaurant wine lists, in local wine shops, and on supermarket shelves, steadily establishing themselves as an emerging and important wine region. Sommeliers and wine writers have long agreed that English sparkling wine is a serious category to rival Champagne, not least for the same grape varieties used (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier), the similar chalky soil in the South East of England, but most importantly for the high standard of quality across the board.
With each year the local sparkling wines continue to improve as the vines age, becoming more established, and giving more concentrated fruit. What is more, the wisdom and experience of the vineyard managers and winemakers also deepens.
Although I have been a long-time enthusiast of English wine (at first for the love of consuming local products, but now convinced of the outstanding quality), I have by no means tasted everything out there. WineGB, an industry organization of English and Welsh producers, reports there are 658 commercial vineyards, and 164 commercial wineries in England and Wales–therefore a lot to discover!
"The warming climate is enabling grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the main three classic varieties used in Champagne and in our own sparkling wine production, to ripen properly. We are fortunate in that we benefit from a long, slow growing season which allows us to extract fantastic flavours from our grapes," reports WineGB. However, it's the English still wines that are providing some fantastic surprises lately. Still rosé, white, and even red– are all becoming more delicious, where previously – at least the reds- were deemed undrinkable because they struggled to fully ripen.
What follows is a round-up of my favourites, right now. An exhaustive and complete list of the best English wines this is not. I have much more ground to cover! But as the glorious weather continues this summer and will hopefully last through English Wine Week– which runs 20-28 June–these are the wines I will be drinking as front garden apéro with neighbours, on picnics in Kew Gardens, beach trips and barbecues, or just while enjoying the sunshine and flowers in our garden.
From the top
If I need to give a gift, celebrate, or indulge in something more serious (the kids are in bed, it’s finally date night) my trio includes Gusbourne Sparkling Rosé, Rathfinny Estate’s Blanc de Noir, and Hambledon Première Cuvée.
Gusbourne Sparkling Rosé 2016 (Kent)
Rosé normally invokes feelings of fun and carefree summery days.. but this wine is best saved for a summer’s evening. A glass before dinner when everything starts to wind down. It is gastronomical too; dry, crisp, with a wonderfully linear acidity that laces through the palate and dances with the soft creamy mousse of the fine bubbles. It can pair well with a number of dishes like grilled salmon and vegetables or in our most recent case with a delectable Indian-inspired meal of spiced aubergines and chicken.
Rathfinny Estate Blanc de Noirs 2016 (Sussex) was a recent discovery for me. I visited the vineyard in January 2017 and met with the winemaker, a Champagne native, Jonathan Médard, for a little tour.
Nothing was ready to taste yet as their wines were still laying horizontal, ageing on lees in the cellar. But I could tell from the breath-taking views of the South Downs and the shimmering sun-soaked vines that this was a very special place. Positioned right above Cuckmere Haven and those magnificent Seven Sisters cliffs, it’s obvious why husband and wife Mark and Sarah Driver chose this site for their wine estate. Fast forward to April 2020 and I was invited to participate in a virtual press tasting of Rathfinny’s latest vintage release via Zoom. The wines were all of a clearly superb quality, but the standout was the Blanc de Noirs which had an incredible depth and finesse to it. The Pinot Noir gives the wine a wonderfully broad palate with a seamless and refreshing acidity. It is a wine best savoured slowly, watching it evolve in the glass and unfurl like a heady, ripe, garden rose.
Hambledon Première Cuvée NV (Hampshire) is very dear to me indeed. I’ve tasted and recommended it on a number of occasions. My most memorable encounter with it was sitting in a garden in West Wittering watching my daughter play in the grass, while my husband and I enjoyed it alongside our dinner of local crab on local sourdough, with local butter and local rocket. I was in heaven. The wine? It’s exquisite. Richly layered and flavourful yet extremely fine, refreshing, with a long finish.
These next three wines are different in style but what struck me is how well they pair with a wide range of dishes.
Black Chalk Classic 2015 (Hampshire) is thrilling for its bone-dry palate and razor-sharp acidity that livens you up from the tongue down to your toes! Personally, I love the linear, fresh, yet savoury and complex style. It has the yeasty/bready notes of traditional production (Champagne style) but the cool, long freshness across the palate that gives it an English flair. That fresh acidity is not everyone’s cup of tea, but when you pair it with food it works wonderfully– like the fresh squeeze of lemon on a grilled fish, it sets off a multitude of flavours. I’ve tried this wine with sushi with great success, and consider pairing it with soft and tangy goat cheese a winning combination.
Completely other end of the spectrum is Nyetimber Cuvée Chérie Demi-Sec MV (West Sussex & Hampshire). This is a traditional-method sparkling wine that offers all the complexity from time spent on lees, but because of the higher dosage level (38gr/L) it is sweet, but still balanced by the freshness. It exudes gorgeous aromas of ripe apricot, which follows through on the palate, all exquisitely balanced and not too sweet. Of course, it can be enjoyed on its own, but actually works very well with a range of slightly spicier but still delicate dishes, where the sweetness quells the spice. Equally it works as a dessert wine provided the dessert is light, not too sweet, and ideally fruity (not chocolate), for instance a cherry almond tart or a lemon meringue. I recently enjoyed it with an aged gruyere and the combination of fruity, salty, crystalized texture worked very well. The sweetness plays with the saltiness of the cheese. And the fruity flavours mirror the fruitiness of the cheese.
A smaller producer I had the pleasure of discovering while visiting friends in Canterbury is Chartham Vineyard (Kent). Their Pinot Noir is on the edge of being a very deep rosé or
a very light, pale red. I treat it like something in between and chill it a couple degrees down to 14-15C. It is simply delicious as a lunch time wine (perfect at 12%) and very light body, with silky tannins and lots of juicy tart red cherry fruit. However, it does have a slightly mineral, savoury, earthy tone underneath which reminds me of Oregon Pinot Noir. Again, it’s tasty on its own – especially chilled–but works very well with grilled or roast chicken, salmon that might be prepared in a zesty way (ginger/garlic marinade) or even with a dash of zaatar spices.
Best Rosé Wine for (not just) Summer
Rosé is not just for summer, it is for life (year-round life). I truly believe that it’s such a wonderfully versatile, and food friendly wine style that it’s worth drinking year-round. However, marketing has done a solid job at positioning rosé as summer wine, and I’m not going to fight it. Often, it’s exactly the perfect combination of bursting red fruit freshness that works better than even the most crisp white wine. Its joyous pink shades play a big part in the fun and excitement of summer wines, particularly when there are so many colourful blooms all around us. Two recent still English rosés I’ve enjoyed in these warmer months are Gusbourne Cherry Garden and Albury Vineyard Rosé.
Albury Vineyard Silent Pool Rosé 2019 (Surrey) is organic, light body, just 11%, but full of pure wild berries and cream flavour which is restrained and elegant and not at all overpowering or too fruity. I was very impressed with the balance of finesse and flavours but within a light structure that make it perfect for a sunny picnic lunch.
Gusbourne Cherry Garden Rosé 2019 (Kent) is comparatively bolder, a bit fuller in body, 12.5%, and more expressive. It is 100% Pinot Noir, and yet there’s a curious whisper of gooseberry and tomato leaf that reminded me of a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre. It is very well crafted showing depth beyond the fruit flavours. Once again confirming that rosé can and should be enjoyed year round.
Where are the wineries?
The majority of the plantings are in the South East (76% of vineyards) and over 150 vineyards are open to the public for tours and tastings. I can attest what a family-friendly day activity this can be having stopped by a number of them with my kids in tow and watched them running through the vines with glee.
WineGB has published a useful site for searching local vineyards to visit and purchase wine from at cellar door. And in a post-covid world most of these producers have switched on their e-commerce abilities allowing customers to buy straight from their websites, and visit them for picnics in the vines.
Now that restrictions are easing in the UK, though international travel still not as viable due to the likely quarantine, my plan is to visit local English and Welsh wineries this summer. I will be reporting back in a couple of months on my favourite, family-friendly winery visits.
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