If there's one thing we love in this country, it's pouring a drink and settling down for a good moan about how rubbish everything is. Thus it is entirely apt that, when I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about English wine, he first asked if he could help with the tasting, then smirked and said, "Being completely honest, though, isn't it just a bit crap?"
No, actually, it isn't - or at least not any longer. Now, thanks to a young generation of winemakers, many of whom have trained abroad, a "new era of professionalism has arrived", as Bob Nielsen of the Brightwell Vineyard in Oxfordshire puts it. Major producers such as Chapel Down are investing in facilities that wouldn't look out of place in some of the more prosperous vineyards across the Channel.
The results are obvious. Andrew Weeber, a South African wine lover who planted his first vines at Gusbourne in Kent in 2004, recalls: "When I first heard about English wine, I thought it was a bit of a joke. Then I tasted the sparkling stuff and suddenly I thought it was less funny."
The south-eastern corner of England sits on the same chalk plateau as Champagne, less than a hundred miles away, so it is not surprising that the same grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier - do well. Although Bacchus, often touted as England's answer to Sauvignon Blanc, is still going strong, increasingly growers are turning to varieties that you've heard of. Denbies, near Dorking, has even just planted an experimental three hectares of real Sauvignon. In a good year we are capable of producing, as well as delicate strawberry-scented rosés, the occasional decent red - Gusborne and Bolney Estate Pinot Noirs are the names to look out for when the new vintages are released later this month. Frazer Thompson, MD of Chapel Down, even talks of the potential to produce lean, racy Chardonnays in the Chablis mould.
Such comparisons are thrilling for long-standing fans of English wine, but to focus on them is to ignore that it has a very distinctive style of its own. "Hedgerow, cut grass and elderflower," says Victoria Ash of Kent's award-winning sparkling rosé producer Hush Heath; the "smell of an English summer".
Even the most fanatical English wine fan, however, would be hard-pushed to describe it as a bargain - still wines start at roughly £8, fizzes three times that. But Julia Trustram Eve of the English Wine Producers association believes it's largely a question of consumer perception: "You'd expect to pay £12-plus for a good Burgundy because you know that the wine will be of a high quality, produced from a single estate and so on." Why, she asks, should it be any different for English wine?
Thompson is more forthright. People who believe English wine is overpriced should be ashamed of themselves, he says. "Nothing has the same capacity to surprise and delight
a table, absolutely nothing. And if you want to spend £4.99 on something Chilean, then you're dull, dull, dull - and you're no dining companion of mine." l
Three to try -
- Hush Heath Estate Balfour Brut Rosé 2005, £33.24 from selected Waitrose stores and waitrosewine.com;
- South Ridge Cuvée Merret 2007, £15.99 from laithwaites.co.uk;
- Chapel Down Flint Dry 2009, £8.45 from Berry Bros & Rudd