Britain is in the middle of a wine boom, with an increasing number of UK operators embracing a high quality local product. Fiona Sims looks at why you should include it on your list
This is the first time a Champagne house (and a Grande Marque at that) has planted a vineyard in the UK. It is comprised of 20 hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, at Domaine Evremond near the Kent village of Chilham. And there are plans to double those plantings over the next few years.
In case you hadn't noticed, Britain is in the middle of a wine boom. Figures released in April by English Wine Producers, the marketing arm of the UK wine industry, revealed that wine producers in the UK will plant a record one million vines this year, which will mean two million more bottles of wine on our shelves. So if you aren't already selling English wine, you should start listing it now.
"Consumers are coming round to the idea of English wine, to understand the product a little more, and they are beginning to recognise the brands," says Simon Jerrome, purchasing director - wine at Matthew Clark.
"The fact that Taittinger is taking on a joint venture with Hatch Mansfield and is investing in vines has to be a good thing. It's a real vote of confidence in the soil, the climate and, of course, the market."
For on-trade specialist Jascots, English wine is on a roll. England has overtaken Spain to become the third most-listed sparkling wine producer after Champagne and Italy, reports Adam Porter, head of buying and marketing.
Reflecting this, Jascots has expanded its portfolio to include both sparkling and still wines from six UK producers.
"English wine has reached a critical point. Its high quality has been widely recognised by critics worldwide and consumers are catching on. Combine this with the recent trend toward local food and craft drinks, and it's not hard to see why demand is on the rise," says Porter.
English wine has come a long way fast. The UK's first commercial vineyard was planted in Hampshire in 1952, yet high-profile awards and trophies won by English sparkling wines in international competitions have fuelled some serious investment in land that is already producing English fizz in Champagne's image.
"People are more prepared to experiment, and if we can encourage more operators to offer English sparkling wine by the glass, it has to be a good thing," Jerrome adds. "Five years ago at Matthew Clark we introduced an English sparkling wine to our range and now we have four producers - and we can sustain those sales. That, for me, shows that English wine is really working in the on trade."
At Wiston Estate in Sussex, winemaker Dermot Sugrue is making a product that he wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago. "I have enormous respect for Champagne, but we are several hundred years behind, yet what we have achieved is incredible," he says. Camel Valley, based in Cornwall, is another such producer that has helped to put English wine on the map. When it pipped Bollinger and Roederer to the post in 2010 and won the trophy for Best International Traditional Method Sparkling Wine, the world - and the French - sat up and took notice.
Camel Valley's vineyard is run by father and son team Bob and Sam Lindo, and is located in a steep valley near Bodmin Moor - and it's the first in the UK to receive a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the EU. So what's the secret to its success? "The vineyards certainly get plenty of sun, which is a key factor," says Sam, who has also won the International Wine Challenge Winemaker of the
Year an impressive three times. "We have a simple approach to winemaking - we don't use barrels or do malos [malolactic fermentation] to reflect the natural characteristics of the grapes," says the 40-yearold maths graduate, who gave up a life in the City to make wine alongside his 65-year-old father, Bob, an ex-RAF pilot, who started the business in 1989.
Still the best
And while sparkling wine still leads the way in the UK - there are some 200 different brands of UK bubbly out there, led by names such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Chapel Down - England's still wines are also causing a stir. At the end of May, Norfolk's Winbirri Vineyards scooped one of Decanter World Wine Awards' most coveted medals - Platinum Best in Show for best value white wine made from a single grape variety for its 2015 Bacchus. And earlier in the month the Sommelier Wine Awards announced that 17 English wines scooped prizes in its 2017 Awards, among them three gold medals and four silvers for still wines.
Judge Stefan Kobald from the Jason Atherton Group commented on the English wine line-up: "I was very impressed. Fresh, easy drinking palate-pleasers that match beautifully with food. It's fun to show visitors what the UK can do outside sparkling wines."
The Sommelier Wine Awards also gave its first gold for an English red - 2015 Hush Heath Estate Pinot Noir (available from Liberty Wines). Richard and Leslie Balfour-Lynn created the label in 2001 after they acquired 400 acres of farmland that surrounds their family home, Hush Heath Manor, near Tonbridge in Kent.
Hush Heath's winemaker is Victoria Ash, who studied winemaking at Plumpton College in Sussex. When she qualified, she thought she would be heading for warmer climes, but she got as far as Kent and the Hush Heath Estate. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else now. We have a great climate for making wines with finesse and elegance," she says.
And at Sixteen Ridges, red wine is a focus - in fact, production director Simon Day can't keep up with the demand for his Pinot Noir, which is planted in a sheltered bowl overlooking the Severn River in the Worcestershire hills.
"We planted another four acres last year so we can address this demand," reveals Day, who is a consultant viticulturist to over 40 vineyards. He makes wine under contract for 20 UK vineyards and reports that they are moving into a new winery to expand.
Ridgeview in Sussex has increased its production and sales by a whopping 500% since it was founded in 1995 by Mike and Chris Roberts. But then winning the World's Best Sparkling Wine trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010 will do that to a brand. It was the first time - and, to date, the only time that this trophy has been awarded to a wine made outside Champagne and, unsurprisingly, demand has since been growing across the world. Exports represent 20% of all sales, from North America to Asia, and yes, even Europe.
The Brexit effect
So how will Brexit affect things? "We hope that the government is capable of negotiating the best possible free trade agreements in the next two years," offers Mardi Roberts, Ridgeview's sales and marketing manager.
Devon-based Lyme Bay Winery, whose plantings have more than doubled since 2014, and with further plantings planned for next year, believes Brexit will make English wine more attractive to the domestic market.
"We expect the price-quality ratio of a bottle of English wine to become more appealing than imported wines, and since Europeans are never going to become large importers of English wines, we hope to see increased trade with the likes of the US and Asia," says head winemaker Liam Idzikowski.
Lyme Bay has won gold for its still white wine, Bacchus Block 2015, at the inaugural Independent English Wine Awards, another gold for its Classic Cuvée at this year's Sommelier Wine Awards, and silvers from both Decanter and the International Wine Challenge for its Blanc de Noir.
English Wine Producers is also optimistic about Brexit. Marketing director Julia Trustram Eve says: "Brexit will undoubtedly present opportunities. As an industry, we have already set out our stall with DEFRA and ministers and we will continue to articulate our industry Brexit strategy to government, so that we can continue to increase the industry's commercial sustainability following Brexit, making sure it has space to grow and that we take advantage of those opportunities.
"The UK wine industry is one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in the UK - we therefore have a good position from which to speak. Other areas include tourism, which of course brings further opportunities post- Brexit: growing the hospitality industry anda focus on inbound tourism."
Trustram Eve is equally optimistic about exports: "We have predicted that by 2020 our exports will account for 25% of our production, from a starting point of 5%. We are experiencing a steady growth in export sales, and more producers are engaging with overseas markets. Last year we saw the number of markets grow to 27, up from 19 in 2015," she says. Indeed, English sparkling wine has taken New York by storm, according to a recent report in Decanter, with restaurant listings there increasing by the week.
Last year, another of the 16 Grande Marques, Champagne Pommery, announced that it was also investing in the English wine industry and snapped up land in Hampshire. Nearby Hattingley Valley will assist with the planting, which will take place next year, and Pommery will release an English sparkling wine produced under contract by Hattingley Valley.
"To have not only one but two Champagne houses invest in the UK wine industry is a real endorsement that what we have here is a prosperous industry with an exciting future," says Trustram Eve.
What to buy
OK, so English wine isn't exactly cheap. The average price per bottle is £25 for sparkling (retail) and around £13 for still. But there are some available at a lower rice, giving a much broader choice for a wider range of customers.
So what vintage should you choose? Even though the UK is probably the most vintage-sensitive of all countries, we've had a pretty good run, with elegant 2014s, excellent 2015s and a 2016 that turned out pretty decent in the end. The jury is still out on 2017 as frost decimated many vines in April. However, the industry is crossing its fingers that the vines that were not affected will shine come the harvest.
An increasing number of hotels and restaurants around the country have already embraced English wines, among them the Hotel du Vin group, Chewton Glen in Hampshire and Ockenden Manor in Sussex - even the Ritz hotel in London is getting in on the act, listing nine English wines for the first time. So why not give them a go?
Want to try before you buy? There are over 150 English and Welsh vineyards open to the public. For more information, visit www.englishwineproducers.co.uk
Supplier spotlight: Harrow & Hope
Henry Laithwaite and his wife Kaye founded Harrow & Hope in 2010, planting 35,000 vines on an area Henry calls the "Thames Terrace" near Marlow in Buckinghamshire.
ry is the son of Tony Laithwaite, founder of retail wine supplier Laithwaites. He has worked in vineyards around the world, but returned home to start a family and establish his own winery.
Buckinghamshire wouldn't have been the obvious choice for most budding winemakers, but as he was familiar with the area, Henry was convinced he could produce a product that would shine. "Chalk and flint are a big factor and there's a much more glacial influence here than further south, which I'm hoping will provide extra character," he explains. "I'm searching for a different region to Kent and Sussex."
Harrow and Hope offers a Brut Reserve, Brut Rosé and a Blanc de Blanc. It has only been supplying its wine since last year, but the non-vintage is already being served at Tom Kerridge's Coach pub in Marlow and the National Theatre in London.
Though it's labelled as non-vintage, the Brut Reserve is wholly based on the 2013 harvest and is a fresh, Pinot-dominated sparkling wine with a good balance between finesse and depth. The wine has earned silver medals at the Sommelier Wine Awards and the International Wine & Spirits Competition, and is designed to be an accessible expression of the terroir.
"We have professors from Durham University looking at the soil structure of what they're calling the Thames Terrace," Henry says. "That's the start for us of a potential PDO [Protected Designation of Origin]. But we've a while to go before that."
Five great English wines
Chapel Down Kit's Coty Chardonnay 2014
A wild-ferment Chardonnay matured in old French oak for nine months, with aromas of melon and peach and subtle toasted notes. £18.63, Chapel Down Sales (01580 763033)
Sixteen Ridges Pinot Noir Early 2015
A light-bodied red with cherry, raspberry and earthy vanilla notes to the aroma and palate, with a subtle, soft oak finish. £11.25, Jascots (020 8965 2000)
Winbirri Vineyards Bacchus 2015
An elegant nose of grapefruit, passionfruit and floral characters. Tropical fruits backed with a clean, crisp finish on the palate. £9.65, Lea & Sandeman (020 7244 0522)
Lyme Bay Bacchus Block 2015
Aromatic and dry with a nose of grapefruit and tropical notes. £14.95, Jascots (020 8965 2000)
Ridgeview Bloomsbury NV
Citrus fruit aromas with hints of melon and honey. £25.01, Matthew Clark (0844 822 3901)
All prices are per bottle and excluding VAT