In 2003, not long after I joined Decanter magazine, I attended an evening to celebrate English wine, at Biddenden Vineyards, in Kent. It was a sad, parochial affair in dingy surroundings, with a depressingly hobbyist feel. I quickly determined that domestic wine was not something I would need to focus on too closely as editor of the magazine.
I returned to Kent last year, to visit England’s biggest producer, Chapel Down. Tasting through its fine, extensive range, eating a fantastic lunch in its vibrant, modern restaurant, and observing the scores of visitors to the lively shop, it was impossible to believe this was the same industry.
The transformation of English wine over such a short period of time is nothing short of staggering. There were a few raised eyebrows at the turn of the year when Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary, claimed that England was ‘taking its place among the world’s leading wine producers’. She may, as politicians are wont to do, have been overstating her case, but it is not patriotic hyperbole to say that we are witnessing the emergence – for the first time since Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc burst onto the public consciousness 30 years ago – of a new winemaking region, globally renowned for a specific style and innate identity. And while England’s producers have quite some way to go to match their New Zealand counterparts’ ubiquity, the potential – and quality – is undoubtedly there.
In just a decade and a half, the English wine industry has, by focusing largely on sparkling wine made from the same grapes as used in Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – carved a niche for a recognisably bright, light fizz. And the truly thrilling thing is that we are only at the start. Even five years ago, English vineyards yielded just 1.1m bottles in a year. Annual production is forecast to hit 10m by 2020. Yet despite doubling in the last eight years, vineyard plantings are still only a sixteenth the size of Champagne – and with the cost of land 1/50th that of its more famous Gallic counterpart, the opportunities for big players to make significant investment are huge. Champagne Taittinger recently planted its first vines in Kent; another million will follow across the country this year, while sales of English fizz hit £100m in 2016, up 33% from the previous year.
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have paid £5 for an English wine. Chapel Down has just launched a cuvée at £100. Such ambition sums up the confidence emanating from producers. As we approach English Wine Week, with vineyards across the country opening their doors for events and tastings and a host of offers being rolled out in retail and restaurants, here are three more typically priced bottles to seek out.
Wiston Estate Cuvée 2013
Some estates strive for generations to produce a wine as rounded yet poised as this. Wiston has achieved it in just 10 years, thanks to a generous red-fruited palate that’s run through with a zingy linear core. Raspberry lemonade on steroids. £32.95; wistonestate.com, Corney and Barrow, Booths, Hennings Wine Merchants.
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013
At a recent tasting of 120 English wines, Blanc de Blancs – sparkling wines made only from Chardonnay grapes – was, to my mind, the most impressive style. The consistent Ridgeview and Nyetimber showed off stellar examples, arguably just trumped by this light, bright, zingy number from the critically lauded Gusbourne, which only released its first wines in 2010. £39.99-£42.99; gusbourne.com, Berry Bros, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Lea and Sandeman.
Greyfriars Sparkling Rosé Reserve 2014
The most astonishing thing about this wine, beyond its dancing-on-air fruit, it that it is grown and made just 25 miles from London. The site yields a fine, citrus-tinged Blanc de Blancs (£24.95; Lea & Sandeman) but it’s the strawberries-and-cream rosé that really stands out. £25.99; greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk Lea & Sandeman, Waitrose.