Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The state of the (English wine) nation

Every year London hosts the English Wine Producers’ tasting, featuring hundreds of English - and Welsh - wine, though no Scottish wine (yet) that I’m aware of. I manage to get along to the tasting most years and there is no denying that the overall quality of the wines on show is getting better and better as the years pass.

Proof, if any were needed, that English sparkling wine is really coming of age, is that the Champenois have a bit of a bee in their bonnet about it. Last year, apparently, they were all abuzz about the threat of Prosecco; this year, it’s English fizz that is exercising them. And I’ve already written about Champagne Taittinger’s investment in vineyard land in a joint venture in Kent (see Surrey Advertiser 22 April edition or read it online here: http://yourliquidassets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/the-irrestistible-rise-of-english-wines.html.

Some styles of wine are always going to be a challenge to produce in the UK: it’s just not possible to reliably make red wines in our cool climate. There are usually some red wines made, somewhere in England, every year. But it’s unusual for the same producer to be able to make a red wine, year in , year out.

New World winemakers often talk about some of their wines coming from cool climates, but it’s all relative. They should stand in an English vineyard on the North Downs in March if they want to know what cool climate really means.

Still white and rosé wines are a much safer bet in our climate, but it is, still, the sparkling wines that are England’s vinous crowning glory.

My thoughts following the English Wine Producers’ tasting this year:

  • Red wines, even in the favourable conditions of 2014, are still a niche style (together red and rosé wines account for just 10% of total production).
  • English still rosés do best when they do not try to copy other countries, but develop their own style, with the emphasis on delicate, red fruit, a tiny bit of sweetness to balance the crisp acidity and lowish alcohol.
  • There remain too many still white wines that are rather lollyish and floral – a legacy of using Germanic hybrid grape varieties designed to withstand the cold weather.
  • Sparkling wines are still the pinnacle of our national wine scene, witnessed by the huge medal haul achieved in international competition this year. Some of the best producers have been at it for a while (such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview), but there are some really exciting newcomers too, including Hattingley Valley and Exton Park.

Here is a smattering of some of my favourite wines from the tasting:

Greyfriars Pinot Gris 2014 - £13.50, available from the vineyard/online
Mike and Hilary Wagstaff took over this vineyard in 2010 and have been focused on growth and quality improvements ever since. This has lovely Pinot Gris juicy stone fruit with a touch of spice. It’s low in alcohol (11.5%) and pleasingly dry. Check out their sparkling Blanc de Blancs too.

Chapel Down English Rose 2015 - £10.49 from Majestic, £10.99 from Waitrose and elsewhere
I think the Rose – not Rosé – in the name is quite intentional. Chapel Down are a long-established name in the English wine scene and manage to make consistently good still wines, as well as sparkling. This Pinot Noir dominant blend makes for a lovely combination of strawberry fruit and a whiff of English hedgerows in Maytime.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 – widely available at around £33
One of the pioneers and still showing its class. I like the way they release their wines with a bit of age – the naturally high acidity in English wine means they benefit from the mellowing effect of more time maturing on the lees and in the cellar before drinking. This is a blend of the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir (just over half the blend), with Chardonnay and a little Pinot Meunier. It’s a classically rich style with baked apple and bready flavours.

Where to find English wines
English wine lovers should get themselves to a branch of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer. Both have been supporters for a while, but are both in the process of radically increasing the number of English wines on their shelves.

English Wine Week
You can get up close and personal with English wines during English Wine Week, which takes place from Saturday 28th May to Sunday 5th June. Details of events, vineyard open days and more can be found here: http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk/news/eww/

The other Cabernet

In most wine lovers’ books, Cabernet is shorthand for Cabernet Sauvignon, one of wine’s global superstar varieties. However, there is another Cabernet, rather less celebrated, that deserves more recognition – and which might just be on its way to coming out from the shadows: Cabernet Franc.

With such similar names, you might imagine that these two Cabs are related, and you would be right. It might surprise you to know, though, that it is Cabernet Franc that is the genetic daddy, and Cabernet Sauvignon the young pretender.

Cabernet Franc is an ancient variety that seems to have originated in the Spanish part of the Basque country and at some point it headed north to Bordeaux, where it retains a stronghold. Once there it got together with Sauvignon Blanc and the result was Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux is all about blends, so Cabernet Franc is usually found in a supporting role there and is rarely the headline act, even if its influence is key. Further north, in the Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc gets to sing solo in famous red wine appellations such as Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur Champigny.

New World winemakers have not, it has to be said, fallen over themselves in their rush to plant Cabernet Franc. But those who have tried, and got it right, are making some delicious, fresh, perfumed and juicy wines that could be stars in the making.

Here are some of my favourite Cabernet Francs, ranging from their French homeland to the foothills of the Andes.

Les Nivières Saumur Cabernet Franc 2014 - £8.99, Waitrose
This is an ever-reliable Waitrose stalwart that demonstrates the variety’s appealingly fresh, sappy red fruit character. This is a perfect summer lunch wine (come on sun!).

Domaine des Roches Neuves “Terres Chaudes” 2013 – around £22 from Les Caves de Pyrène (Guildford) and other independent merchants
This is the other face of Cabernet Franc – here there is elegance, but also ageworthiness and power from a leading organic and biodynamic estate in Saumur-Champigny.

Pulenta Estate Gran Cabernet Franc 2011 - £22.95 from Winedirect.co.uk, £28 from Harvey Nichols
This Argentinian beauty is the New World Cab Franc that really made me sit up and take notice. This is ripe but so refined, with elegant, layered fruit that unfolds on the palate. A stunner, and a great demonstration of what a bright future this variety could have in Argentina. For a more wallet-friendly introduction, search out Bodega Atamisque Serbal Cabernet Franc 2015, £11.99 from New Forest Wines, Fareham Wine Cellar and The Guildford Wine Company.

If you are still in any doubt as to the quality and pedigree of Cabernet Franc, then I suggest you pick up a bottle of legendary St-Emilion producer, Château Cheval Blanc 2000 (47% Cabernet Franc, the rest Merlot) next time you’re browsing the shelves of Hedonism Wine in Mayfair. I tasted it at Cheval Blanc three years ago and it was quite sublime – and a bottle can be yours for a smidge under £1300.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The irrestistible rise of English wines

Something happened a few months ago, back in the dark days of December, something that had been whispered about for years. If you aren’t a keen follower of UK wine trade news you might have missed it, but the fact is that a Champagne house has finally invested in English vineyard land.

Taittinger, one of the most well-respected family-owned Champagne houses, has purchased 69 hectares of land in Kent, which will be planted with the three classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with the aim of eventually producing 300,000 bottles a year of sparkling wine to be marketed under the name Domaine Evremond. Taittinger is the largest investor in the project, which also involves Hatch Mansfield, their UK importer, as well as other investors.

While the launch of a new English vineyard dedicated to producing high quality sparkling wine is not exactly news nowadays, the fact that the money and expertise behind it comes from Champagne itself is highly significant. For English wine production to gain the seal of approval of a major Champagne name marks an important milestone for the industry.

Overseas investment by the Champenois is not new: Champagne houses have expanded their businesses and extended their brands by investing in the New World over the past decades. For example, Roederer Quartet is Champagne Louis Roederer’s Californian venture; Moët & Chandon has established Domaine Chandon in Australia and Chandon in California. Rumours have swirled around the English wine industry of interest from our friends across the Channel, but, until now, that’s all they have been.

As well as appreciating the boost that outside investment provides for our home-grown wines, we should also recognise the financial realities behind this decision to invest in English vineyards – it’s a pre-requisite that the investors have to believe in the potential to make a high quality product which will be worthy of the Champagne Taittinger name. But it is also true that expanding production via investment in this country is considerably easier and cheaper than it is back in Champagne. There, a hectare of land will cost in excess of 1 million Euros, up to 1.8 million Euros for the very best, Grand Cru, sites. Compare that with an average price here of around £25,000 (a little over 31,000 Euros). Though we don’t know how much Taittinger and the other investors paid for their particular patch of Kent apple orchard, and it is reported to amount to a multi million pound investment over ten years, it will still be many times cheaper than the equivalent in Champagne.

In addition, the currently approved land which is authorised to grow grapes for Champagne is in effect fully planted, so there is just not the same opportunity to buy vineyard land there in the first place. And when a Champagne grower wants to sell up, it’s a seller’s market, hence the stratospheric prices.

So Taittinger’s investment in old Blighty is in part a touching act of faith in the long term potential for English wine – but it is also a hard-headed, prudent way for a growing business to expand in a financially viable way.  As for the wine itself, it will be a decade or more before we get to taste the fruits of Domaine Evremond – sparkling wine is a game that requires both deep pockets and patience.