Neil Sowerby chalks up 12 of the best UK sparklers, whites and reds
WITH ripe record yields, 2018 was indisputably the UK’s ‘vintage of the century’, yet how many of us are contemplating treating ourselves to a fine English Pinot Noir (or lesser known) Bacchus for Christmas Dinner?
There is vinified life beyond Sauvignon and Malbec, but we are wine-buying creatures of habit.
A record three million vines were planted this year – almost double the number in 2018
Certainly the paucity of native bottles on the supermarket shelves doesn’t help. So much wine is brought on price point and label. Yet it would be definitely worth splashing out on the evidence of a comparative tasting we held – mainly of those precocious 2018s but with bottle aged surprises too.
Not that the spotlight is fully on just yet. The newly published eighth edition of the indispensable World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, £50) devotes just the one page out of 400 to English and (Welsh) wine. The authors, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, accept, though, that ours is a grape culture rapidly on the up:
“Climate change has played straight into the hands of those growing vines in the British Isles. England’s wine-growers, and their increasing numbers of hard-nosed investors, now have such confidence that in 2019 nearly 2,900 hectares of vineyard were scattered widely over the southern half of the country.” They conclude: “The wines being made in England and Wales today, especially those that sparkle, have their own uniquely crisp, bright-fruited, lively style.”
There’s such a choice, too, with more than 500 vineyards and 164 wineries operating commercially as far north as the Yorkshire Wolds. And it’s only going to get better. A record three million vines were planted this year – almost double the number in 2018.
Even the French Champagne houses are cashing in on the game-changing reputation of our home-grown sparklers. In 2020 Taittinger will gather its first harvest from nearly 30 hectares it acquired in Kent – with a view to the first release of its wines in 2024.
Meanwhile, the best of our own bubbly will make a perfect aperitif and, if you can’t wean yourself off the Sauvignon Blanc with the smoked salmon, give Bacchus a go. Red wines are more problematic, accounting for only five per cent of production, and most Pinot Noirs, even from advantageous 2018, are on the delicate side. Problem solved – our new wave Chardonnays can surely handle a turkey or goose, then it’s on to minerally Pinot Gris to tackle the Stilton.
Here are 11 English wines (and one Welsh rosé) that would grace the festive spread for Brexiteers and Remainers alike…
Sugrue ‘The Trouble With Dreams’ Brut 2014 (West Sussex)
Nyetimber may be the market leader in the UK’s brave new world of sparkling wine but there are other serious contenders. Dreams’ creator is the legendary Dermot Sugrue, once of Nyetimber. He sources the grapes (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir) from two vineyards whose terroir is well-drained South Downs chalk. A elegant as classic Champagne, apply, citrusy aromas leading to a palate of delicate stone fruit with keen acidity. It garnered Gold status at the 2019 International Wine Challenge.
£39 Exel Wine
Booth & Co English Sparkling Brut (East Sussex)
Made by Ridgeview Estate for Booths, this is an excellent, more affordable example of English sparkling: – fresh and zesty with ripe white fruit aromas and a hint of brioche from lees ageing. Chardonnay gives it finesse, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier a certain richness. A perfect aperitif to kick off the big day as you ponder if the Queen is going to mention a certain Prince in her Christmas Speech.
£29 Booths Supermarkets, across North West England
Renegade Bacchus 2017 (London)
This is a real wow. Urban winery and bar Renegade was launched in March 2016 by Warwick Smith and Kiwi winemaker Josh Hammond. Everything from the pressing of the grapes to the fermentation and bottling is done in the Bethnal Green archway venue, with ageing carried out in the crypts of Christ Church Spitalfields. The Bacchus grapes were grown in Herefordshire. 60 per cent are foot-trodden and the juice fermented in stainless steel, while the rest was fermented on the skins in a Georgian clay qvevri before blending. Result a grassy, heavily perfumed white that challenges Sauvignon Blanc but with a honeyed, wild flower, lemony presence that is unique. Harvey Nichols stock a selection of their other wines.
£20 Wine Society
New Hall Vineyards Bacchus Reserve 2018 (Essex)
Bacchus, a German hybrid grape suited to more temperate climate, is now more than a reliable workhorse white on the UK scene. For a flinty, minerally example with lime and nettle on the nose the only way is Essex at New Hall, where they pick early to refrain its freshness – particularly in 2018, where over-ripeness was a real danger
From £11.75. Cork of the North (Sale and Heaton Moor) D Byrne, Whalley Wine Shop, Clitheroe.
Westwell Ortega Classic Ferment 2018 (Kent)
A contender for my new favourite English winery, Westwell is situated idyllically just beneath the Pilgrims Way on the North Downs. Their scintillating vanilla-oaky 2018 Chardonnay (also Reserve, £18) just got squeezed out of my Top 10 but only because their Ortega Classic Ferment tasted even better. Intensely, aromatic, peachy and dry, it shows the potential of early-ripening Ortega. Westwell practice low intervention and produce a more powerful version fermented and aged in a terracotta amphora.
£15. Reserve, West Didsbury
Stopham Pinot Gris 2017 (West Sussex)
Quite different, an exotic, succulent off-dry – plus a contrasting acidity – take on a grape that prospers in Alsace and New Zealand (good to see sale of poor relation Pinot Grigio on the slide) but now seems to have found a home in the South Downs. Most white wines from Stopham, though, are worth seeking out. Also recommended: Sharpham Pinot Gris Wild Ferment 2018, all citrus and stone fruit, from Hanging Ditch.
£17.99 Waitrose Cellar
Henners Native Grace Chardonnay 2018 (East Sussex)
This is pouring well at top restaurants Moor Hall and restaurant MCR. Hand-picked, cool fermented in stainless steel with malolactic to give it a soft butteriness, it also offers apple and mineral. Simple but attractive Chardonnay.
From £15.50. Hanging Ditch, Cork of the North (Sale and Heaton Moor).
Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay 2014 (Kent)
Moving up a gear. Fermented in barrique, then nine months in French oak, so you can scent the wood, but it has a rare balance with a stash of citrus and a certain savoury, buttery oatiness on the palate. Finishing impressively, it gives much white Burgundy a run for its money particularly thanks to this amount of bottle age. The latest released Gusbourne Sparkling Brut Reserve (£35, Reserve) is also 2014 and equally stunning.
£32 Salut Wines, Cooper Street, M2 2FW
Balfour’s Hush Heath Estate Springfield Chardonnay 2018 (Kent)
The first Chardonnay this fine all-round estate has released since 2015, it’s such a charmer marrying the ripeness of 2018 with some discreet oak. Intense but with a grapefruit and green apple purity in the mouth. There’s a similar ripeness to the Balfour 1503 Foxwood Cuvee, a bargain sparkler (£17.50) at the Co-op. Hush Heath’s 2018 Pinots are pretty special, too. The lightly oaked Luke’s Pinot Noir (£25) has scents of vanilla and vibrant raspberry and cherry flavours.
£25 Grape Britannia
Sharpham Pinot Noir 2018 (Devon)
Set high above a bend in the River Dart near Totnes, Sharpham’s vineyard has few picturesque rivals and their latest velvety Pinot lives up to the view, ripe and juicy, like a mouthful of wild strawberries.
From £18. Hanging Ditch, Cork of the North (Sale and Heaton Moor)
Simpsons Wine Estate Harvey Nichols Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir 2018 (Kent)
A game changer for English reds, silky, smoky, spicy with masses of fruit. The Simpson family honed their winemaking skills in their Languedoc vineyards and officially opened in the Elham Valley only three years ago, also producing impressive Chardonnays (Roman Road and Gravel Castle, all available at Harvey Nicks).
£29.50. Harvey Nichols
Montgomery Rosé (Wales)
Rosé is more summer garden than winter wonderland but I couldn’t resist including a Welsh wine. This pale blend of Pinot Noir and Solaris is from a family-run vineyard in the heart of Montgomeryshire. Think a nose of rose petals and in the mouth fresh strawberry and pink grapefruit. It’s not just loyalty to his Welsh roots that makes Tom Jones stock it at the 2019 Decanter Awards Local Wine Shop of the Year.
£17.99. The Whalley Wine Shop nr Clitheroe.
For an in-depth survey of the UK wine scene read the latest edition of The Wines of Great Britain by Steven Skelton (Infinite Ideas, £30, published March 2019).