Why not be patriotic this winter and enjoy a glass or two of wine made on our native soils…
Vineyards are now cultivated from North Yorkshire and Snowdonia, in Wales, to Cornwall and Kent. The vine has a long tradition here and was first planted in the Roman era. The Domesday Book records 45 vineyards in England and, despite large imports from France in the Middle Ages, monastic houses continued the tradition until their dissolution by Henry VIII. There was then little vine cultivation until modern times, apart from by a few Victorian gardeners and at Castell Coch near Cardiff.
The birthplace of cricket, Hambledon in Hampshire, can claim to be the pioneer post-war site. Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted 4,500 vines in 1951. Few could then imagine that today there would be 470 vineyards with 135 wineries, making around four million bottles a year.
English and Welsh wine is made from fresh grapes and should not be confused with ‘British’ wine, which comes from concentrate or imported grapes but is fermented here. The UK has a marginal climate for ripening grapes and relies on a prolonged season of sunshine. Last year provided both quality and quantity and 2015 looks encouraging.
Since the 2010 harvest, sparkling wines have overtaken and now account for 66 per cent of production. Nyetimber is regarded by many as the star. It was founded in 1988 by two Americans, Stuart and Sandy Moss. Discovering that the geology mirrored the soils of Champagne, they replicated as closely as possible the world’s most famous fizz by importing the same vines and even a wine press.
Now owned by Eric Heerema, the West Sussex winery sources its grapes in both Hampshire and Sussex. It prides itself on quality, refusing to pick a grape in the poor 2012 harvest. Particularly enjoyable is the crisp Classic Cuvee 2010, with its complex aromas of honey and almond and long length of flavour. It makes for a splendid apéritif.
Several wineries offer tours with restaurants and, in Denbies’ case, even a model train! The estate is the largest in the UK with 262 acres. It is a picture-postcard site nestling along the North Downs hills and lies across from Dorking station. Look for its distinctive white Ranmore Hill, made with barrel-fermented ortega and pinot noir grapes.
London even has a vineyard; Forty Hall organic farm has ten acres at Enfield, complete with stunning city views. It is a community-led social enterprise and welcomes volunteers. Leventhorpe, on the edge of Leeds, was for many years the most northerly commercial site. Geoff Bowden, a chemistry teacher, established it in 1985, securing a succession of award-winning wines. The five acres have featured in the soap opera, Emmerdale.
Gusborne in Appledore, Kent, is a winery quoted on the Alternative Investment Market. Founded in 2004, it has 59 acres of mature vineyards and has planted a further 166 acres in both Kent and West Sussex, mainly with burgundy clones. Most of the output is sparkling, with a deliciously crisp Guinevere Chardonnay (Berry Bros & Rudd, £22.45, one of the few wine merchants to stock a good range of native-made wines and they also offer helpful notes online), which has spent nine months in French oak and accompanies seafood well.
For a party, try Gusborne’s Blanc de Blancs, again all chardonnay, grown on clay and sandy loam slopes. It has an inviting fruity style and makes a great match with poultry and veal. Gusborne stockists also include Corks Out, Lea & Sandeman and Selfridges.
On a chilly day, a pink sparkler can be instantly appealing. Camel Valley’s Pinot Noir Brut, from Bodmin in Cornwall, has a salmon-pink hue with red fruit character and hints of toasted caramel and vanilla (Berry Bros & Rudd, £31.95). By contrast, Glyndwr, from the Vale of Glamorgan, comes from the longest established family-run vineyard in Wales. Made in the traditional champagne way, it is a blend of rondo and seyval blanc grapes, revealing delicate strawberry fruit overlaid by fresh biscuit notes (Waitrose, £19.99).
For novelty, try a still red or rosé. Norfolk-made Winbirri Insignia is a lively blend of dornfelder, rondo and regent. Matured for 12 months in seasoned American oak barrels, it has a rich blackberry and plum fruit character, and accompanies lamb dishes well. Wickham, near Southampton, makes several reds from its 17 acres. Seek its Special Reserve from rondo and pinot noir to accompany pork and rich cheeses.
Still whites account for almost a quarter of production. Unlike so many wines of the new world, these are light alcoholically, often just 11 per cent. For lively gooseberry and honeyed lemon with great balance, enjoy Welcombe Hills Bacchus Sauvignon Blanc, made near Stratford-upon-Avon.
It is made by rising star Kieron Atkinson. To enjoy with smoked salmon, as well as grilled vegetables, dry madeleine angevine is an appealing grape for its white currant aroma. Both Giffords Hall, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Sharpham, near Totnes in Devon, make great examples. Serve lightly chilled and obtain the youngest vintage going to ensure freshness.
For lovers of the popular pinot gris, England boasts a dry selection that is close to Alsace in style. Bolney Estate, in West Sussex, has one with delicate aromas of jasmine and conference pears. The vines lie on south-facing sandstone slopes 13 miles north of Brighton. Enjoy with light oriental fare, like Cambodian amok. Stopham Estate, near Pulborough, has a rival, displaying aromatic peach and pear fruit alongside its floral tones and a palate reminiscent of honeydew melon.
The splendidly named bacchus grape was developed specifically for cool climates. It creates a light floral style of citrus and green apple akin to sauvignon blanc. Brightwell at Wallingford – better known as the town of Causton in the TV series Midsomer Murders – offers one, as does Wraxall, based near the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the latter showing elderflower and freshly mown grass character. A glass takes one straight back to the warm days of summer.
Best of the bunch: English wines you have to try
For Christmas parties
Dedham Vale sparkling English brut, £20, Dedham Vale.
For an autumn day
Camel Valley Pinot Noir Brut, £31.95, Berry Bros
Winbirri Reserve, £13.50, Bakers & Larners.
For smoked salmon
Giffords Hall Madeleine Angevine, £12.99, Waitrose Cellar.
For oriental fare
Stopham Estate Pinot Gris, £14.99, Waitrose Cellar.
For remembering summer days
Wraxall Vineyard Bacchus, £12.99, Waitrose Cellar.
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2009, £34.95, Berry Bros