England has a growing reputation for its sparkling wines, but what about its other offerings? Drinks writer Peter Ranscombe explores how English still wine is developing.
Few drinkers can argue with the quality of England’s sparkling wine. Having started out as something of an oddity and the butt of many jokes, English fizz has won a trophy cabinet full of awards and earned its place among the world’s best sparklers.
Yet not all of England’s tipples are effervescent and if you look beyond the bubbles then you may be surprised by the rising quality of the country’s still wines. As the climate warms, the same soils that produce world-beating sparkling wines are also turning out credible still tipples too. England is on the northern cusp of the wine-producing belt that encircles the equator and so less-familiar specialist varieties have been the mainstay of the country’s vineyards for many years.
Black grape varieties such as Dornfelder and the hybrid Rondo – along with whites like Ortega and Müller-Thurgau – may not have the same brand-recognition as best-selling international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Shiraz, but they’re better suited to England’s cooler temperatures.
Bacchus is one variety that’s really come into its own. The 2014 Lyme Bay Bacchus (£13.50, Oddbins) from Devon has plenty of lemon and lime citrusy notes on the nose, along with an elderflower aroma that reminds me of Sauvignon Blanc. On the palate, it’s off-dry, with the slight roundness from the residual sugar helping to balance to refreshing acidity.
Elderflower and grassy aromas are even further to the fore with the Lamberhurst Estate Bacchus Reserve (£14, M&S), made by Chapel Down in Kent. It’s drier on the palate, with the lemon and grapefruit flavours giving way to richer lime curd notes.
Another stand-out white is the Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc (£15, M&S) from Sussex, an organic wine that performs an excellent balancing act between its rounder ripe pear and guava flavours and its fresher lemon and grapefruit notes.
Given the success of English fizz, it’s perhaps not surprising that the same varieties used to make sparkling wines are also shining as still wines. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir form the backbone of sparkling wine production and together account for nearly half of all the vines planted in England.
Hush Heath Estate’s 2015 Skye’s English Chardonnay (£16.50, Hushheath.com) from Kent may look pale and water-white, but it packs a stone-fruit punch, with apricot and nectarine aromas on the nose giving way to peach and lemon flavours on the tongue. It’s dry, yet strikes a fine balance between its acidity and its long fruity finish.
On the red side, the 2014 Bolney Estate Pinot Noir (£14.50, Justerini & Brooks) can hold its own against any similarly-priced cool climate pinot. Its crunchy cranberry and fresh raspberry flavours are paired with well-integrated vanilla from its ageing in oak, producing a rounded feeling in the mouth. English still wine remains a minority sport and so its prices reflect its niche production.
A top tip is to look for bottles labelled as “English regional wine” – these wines are the equivalent of the old French “vin de pays” country wines, both falling under the current “protected geographical indication” (PGI) or “indication géographique protégée” (IGP) designation.
English regional wines have different rules to the protected designation of origin (PDO) regulations covering “English quality wines” – the equivalent of France’s appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) or Spain’s denominación de origen (DOC) – and allow the use of easier-to-grow hybrid vines, which is usually reflected in the bottle price.
Waitrose has been a champion of English sparklers and so it’s natural that the chain stocks a wide range of still wines too. Its 2014 The Limes Home Grown English Dry White (£8.99, Waitrose) is a great introduction to Blighty’s bottles without breaking the bank. Made by Denbies in Surrey, it has warmer lemon aromas on the nose, leading into concentrated lemon and lime flavours on the palate.