Why English wine got its sparkle back

Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at Jenkyn Place.
Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at Jenkyn Place.
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Christine Austin offers a few sparkling tips as she hails the turnaround in the English wine industry.

With 500 vineyards, nearly 2,000 hectares of vines, five million bottles of wine and fistfuls of gold medals from international competitions, it is time to acknowledge that English wines have at last come of age.

French winemaker Corinne Seely of Exton Park

French winemaker Corinne Seely of Exton Park

For so many years English wines were the butt of jokes, especially over the Channel when even the mention that England actually has vineyards was greeted with a smirk and a condescending smile. Now English wines, in particular our sparkling wines, have beaten Champagne in so many blind tasting competitions that the Champenoise have swallowed their pride and are investing in the UK.

Taittinger has bought 69 hectares in Kent to plant to vineyards where it plans to produce 300,000 bottles of sparkling wine called Domaine Evremond. Pommery has also decided to invest in English wines with an arrangement with Hattingley Valley vineyards in Hampshire.

Planting a vineyard and making wine used to be the province of retired army majors, but now the whole business has moved up a notch. Vineyard sites have been selected for their soil types, in particular the chalky South Downs. South-facing sites and good drainage are essential, as is the choice of planting material. In the last few years the emphasis has switched from varieties such as Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as sparkling wines have moved into centre stage. Now around two thirds of all English wine is sparkling and it has been seen in all the right places, being poured at Buckingham Palace for visiting Presidents while the cruise ship Britannia was launched by the Queen with a nebuchadnezzar of English sparkling wine from Wiston Estate.

Serious investment has poured into English vineyards and wineries and now they have recruited qualified staff to run them. There are professional winemakers at many properties and those who don’t have their own winemaker are happy to share the expertise of a winemaker at another property. Out in the vineyards there is a new blast of professionalism too. Many vineyard managers have cut their teeth on vineyards in Australia or New Zealand.

I recently visited Jenkyn Place, a six-hectare vineyard in Hampshire, owned by Yorkshireman Simon Bladon. He took over the property when there were the remains of a hop plantation on the south-facing green sand hills. Simon replanted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier back in 2004 and has gradually built a reputation for quality sparkling wine. His winemaker, Irishman Dermot Sugrue, not only makes wine at Jenkyn Place but also at a clutch of properties across the South, and he brings with him experience of winemaking in Bordeaux, Champagne and India. This expertise has brought Jenkyn Place wines several international medals.

So what was a Yorkshireman doing with a vineyard in the South instead of in Yorkshire, I asked. “The weather there makes it just too risky at present,” he said. “But if global warming continues then who knows what we may do.”

Jenkyn Place wines are available at Martinez Wines in Ilkley and Bingley and at Waitrose, mail order.

Over at Exton Park on the Hampshire chalklands, French winemaker Corinne Seely has brought her expertise to the estate. She has made wine around the world including top Bordeaux Château Lynch Bages and Domaine de Chevalier as well as in the Douro, Australia and the Languedoc. Now installed at the relatively new 22-hectare estate Exton Park, her Pinot Meunier Rosé won Gold at the International Wine Challenge and her Blanc de Blancs 2011 managed to repeat
the feat at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

“Some people think that it is strange that a French winemaker is working at an English estate but I want to express the terroir of this estate and help English wines find its own expression and identity,” she said.

So with professionalism moving into the whole business of growing grapes and making wine, what will happen to the single proprietor who combines viticulture, winemaking and selling the wine? I asked George Bowden, who established Leventhorpe vineyard on the outskirts of Leeds more than 30 years ago.

“There will always be a place for owner/winemaker properties in England, just as there are in St Emilion and Burgundy. The owner knows his land and can continually bring out the best in his wine.”

Here are my top six English Sparkling wines to try in English Wine Week which starts today.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2013, Sussex, Waitrose, £26.99, down to £19.99 until May 31: From one of the original pioneers of English sparkling wine, this has bright, lively fruit with clear citrus flavours and a long, toasty finish.

Gusborne Brut Reserve 2011, Field &Fawcett, £29.85: Made from a classic blend of 42 per cent Chardonnay, 36 per cent Pinot Noir and 22 per cent Pinot Meunier, this is a rounded, elegant sparkling wine with nutty, toasty notes and stone fruit flavours.

Leander Pink, Digby Estate, Marks & Spencer, £30: Smooth, summertime strawberry-scented rosé.

Jenkyn Place Rosé 2009, Martinez Wines, £32: Pale, muted, ballet-shoes pink, with gentle raspberry fruit, a hint of toast and a long, creamy finish.

Exton Park Pinot Meunier Rosé, direct from the estate (extonparkvineyard.com), £34.95: Pale coral in colour, this has delicate floral notes with peach notes and a long, balanced finish.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2009, Bon Coeur Fine Wines, £39.99: A fabulous, fresh-tasting, lime marmalade on toast style of wine, with clear linear citrus notes and a long, vibrant finish.