The potential for English wine - opinion
Some in the trade consider English wines to be underwhelming and overpriced. I disagree; we are making world class wines. Quality is on the rise and customers are eager to support local winemakers. Its why English wines make up 25% of our list at Wickhams.
I am fortunate to be able to visit many of the vineyards dotted throughout the coastal counties of southern England from my West Country base. In this way I have been able to find those producers who share our values: quality, sustainability, and longevity.
So, if you’re looking to increase your range of English wines, where do you start?
The story of English sparkling wine has been well documented. In my experience, consumers are aware that the quality of English sparklers can rival that of Champagne. As brands that are instantly recognisable Nyetimber and Ridgeview are great places to start. Though the obvious downside is that they are found in multiples and supermarkets, making pricing highly competitive.
An alternative strategy could be to seek out medal winners. The recently released IWC results gave Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom a gold for his Cuvée Marraine Pooks 2016. A pioneer of the English wine scene, Hall planted his vineyard in 1974 and his wines are worth a place on any list.
A good quality local vineyard might be an even better option. There’s no shortage in the South and notable vineyards have cropped up in Shropshire, Yorkshire and beyond. I spoke recently to Sarah Truman of Sarah’s Cellar in Battle, which is 15 minutes from Henners vineyard in Sussex. She told me that Henners Brut NV outperforms every other sparkling wine she sells.
Henners is now owned by Boutinot and after chatting with Truman, I went to see their upgraded winery and taste the current range. As expected, the sparkling wine was very good, but the biggest revelation was their barrel fermented Chardonnay.
Winemaker Collette O’Leary has crafted a wine which out-competes many similarly priced Bourgogne Chardonnays, and although her aim is not to imitate French wines, her wines must stand their ground within Boutinot’s international portfolio. It demonstrated the huge improvement in the quality of English still wines - a trend of which even some in the trade may be unaware. I have also tasted an excellent oaked Chardonnay made by Lyme Bay Winery and an unoaked Chardonnay on a par with Chablis made by Artelium.
In the recent past, the best English still wines were made from Bacchus. Like Riesling, one of its parents, its broad range (from bone dry to semi-sweet) makes it difficult to explain to consumers. Making more wines from international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, can only help to raise the profile of English still wines while simultaneously lowering barriers for consumers. There are some valiant efforts with red Pinot Noirs too, which are well worth watching, Lyme Bay and Danbury Ridge being worth a mention.
If you choose to stock more English wines, educating consumers is, as always, the key. Once they’ve experienced the quality on offer, they should be convinced. English Wine Week takes place between June 18-26 and it’s a great excuse to open some bottles and start that conversation. We’ve organised an English Wine Extravaganza on June 18 and in a nod to Stephen Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris, our event finishes with the Judgement of Exeter. We’ve invited experts including Oz Clarke and Susy Atkins to blind taste three French wines (red, white, sparkling) head-to-head with three English wines. I’ll let you know how it goes…