In retrospect, we didn’t pick the ideal time of year to hold an English Wine Tasting. The second day of spring seemed perfect back in September when we planned it – new life, new hope springing eternal? Sadly not.
As it turned out, it was a freezing evening complete with a flurry of snow, depicting rather accurately the pernicious nature of the British climate and the precarious living of any brave vineyard owner and winemaker in England and Wales.
We began with three sparkling wines – these are arguably English wine’s forte and account for 50% of what is now produced here. Often using the same grapes as champagne, Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay, as well as blends of what were once some of the more common varieties in England, such as Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Madeleine Angevine, English fizz is generally made the same way as champagne. All our three examples were good but there were some extra-pleasant surprises. The Danebury (made from Auxerrois and Ruländer) was a 2005 and yet showed such youthful colour and freshness that it was hard to credit its age and proved how slowly English wines develop in the bottle. The Gusbourne Rosé surprised the group by its sheer class – not so the presenters, who have been convinced by English sparkling wines, white and rosé, for many years and who are aware of Gusbourne’s swift rise in reputation.
The Chapel Down Bacchus Reserve 2009 is a quintessentially English white – aromatic, fruity, fresh with a citrus burst and long acidity finish and the Three Choirs Coleridge Hill 2011 was perfect picnic drinking it was decided. Rather more complex was the Gusbourne Guinevere 2011, a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, carrying the oak perfectly despite its delicate structure, with a hint of spice and a beautiful lift. Chardonnay is now the most planted variety in England and if other winemakers can produce wines equal to this, then Chablis may have a little competition on its hands.The whites were more mixed in terms of quality and appreciation. Seyval Blanc, Bacchus, Phoenix, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay; dry, off dry, oaked and unoaked we had them all in our range of 5 wines hailing from Sussex to Staffordshire.
The favourite wine of the evening was the Stopham Estate Pinot Gris 2011, very varietal with a lovely freshness and texture, a wine that would compete well against any New Zealand Pinot Gris, for sure. The only sadness here is that no 2012 will be produced due to last year’s awful growing season. Prayers and sacrificial lambs should be offered to Mother Nature to be kinder to English wine producers in 2013.
The three reds proved more of a challenge. To drink English reds, it helps to come at them from a position of open-mindedness, to do away with the wine library of tastes and aromas you may have stored in your brain. Our group struggled to do this and also found that the prices bore no realistic relation to the quality of the wine. The Beenleigh Table Wine Red, made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grapes grown in polytunnels, was the favourite of the three but there was a gasp of disbelief when the price was revealed as £25 a bottle. Such is the nature of English wines – the climate; the land, labour, and equipment costs; duty and VAT all conspire to ensure that English wine cannot be bought for a song.
Ending on a high note, the Chapel Down Nectar 2009, a lightly sweet, low alcohol (9%) delicious late-harvest wine to accompany pineapple and stone fruit desserts or mild cheeses, went down well with everyone and even the price of £12.99 for a 50cl bottle was acceptable. We enjoyed imagining drinking it on a warm summer’s evening as we watched the snow falling outside!