English wine is more popular than ever. More vineyards are being planted on our shores, driven by excellent sales of English sparkling wines and annual production has risen from just over three million bottles per year in 2009 to more than 13 million bottles in 2018.
Here’s what to look for on the label to get the best English wine for summer lockdown drinking and beyond.
Read more on English wines and sparkling wines.
How to choose the best English sparkling wine
- English Quality Sparkling Wine (EQSW) is the official title of the best of our sparkling wines. These must be made by the traditional method, the same method used for champagne.
- Grape varieties for EQSW are the grapes they use in the Champagne region of France: (red) pinot noir and pinot meunier and (white) chardonnay, plus potentially pinot blanc and pinot gris (the same grape as pinot grigio).
- As in champagne, a blanc de blancs is a sparkling wine made only from white grapes (usually more delicate), while a blanc de noirs is made just from black grapes and tends to be richer. If the label says neither, it will be a blend of white and black.
- English vineyards on the North and South Downs have the same chalky subsoil as Champagne. Like Champagne, our climate is cool and ripening is difficult, so the grapes keep the zingy acidity you look for in fine sparkling wine.
- Make sure the wine you buy matches your dinner with our handy wine pairings guide.
Watch out for ‘Sparkling wine from England’ on the label
A small amount of less expensive sparkling wine is made by creating the fizz in large pressurised tanks (as for prosecco), not inside each bottle.
The cheapest fizz is made by injecting carbon dioxide into still wine (like making fizzy soft drinks).
Neither of these can be called English Quality Sparkling Wine, but they can be labelled ‘Sparkling wine from England’!
Bottle-fermented sparkling wines should have been made with better grapes, and have deeper, more complex flavours and finer, longer-lasting bubbles.
English wine and British wine are very different
English wine (and Welsh) is made from fresh grapes grown in English (or Welsh) vineyards.
British wine (or, correctly, ‘British-made wine’) is made from imported grape concentrate, fermented and bottled in the UK. British-made wine is much cheaper than English wine.
Know your white English wines
When vineyards took off in earnest in the 1980s, chilly England looked mainly to cool Germany for vine varieties that would cope with our short growing season. These varieties were often very aromatic.
Of those that remain, bacchus is now the most important, making up 7% of UK vineyards. Some call it the ‘English sauvignon’, as the flavours are similar, zingy, herby, gooseberries and flowers. It’s now made in many different styles, from light and aromatic to richer and oak fermented.
Reichensteiner, huxelrebe, syval blanc and madeleine angevine are other grapes in vineyards planted in the 1980s and 1990s, often blended together to make fragrant whites with lively acidity and low-ish alcohol content, and sometimes a touch of sweetness to counteract the acidity.
Pinot gris and pinot blanc nowadays also make successful dry, less fragrant whites.
See which white wines our experts recommended in our most recent taste test.
Know your red English wines
The black grapes needed to make rosé and red wine are even harder to ripen here, and not much still red wine is made.
The classiest grape for red wines is pinot noir and it’s very much in demand for bubbly, for which the grapes don’t need to ripen as fully. But in a really good year (like 2018), English wine producers did ripen their pinot noirs enough to make some lovely reds.
You might never have heard of the rondo, regent and dornfelder varieties that are often blended together to give England’s light reds. They were chosen because they can usually ripen, even in the UK.
Our panel of wine experts have rated the best red wines.
Do vintages matter in English wine?
Yes. In our cool northerly climate, some grapes ripen fully only in exceptional years. That’s not a problem for sparkling wines, though, as they need good acidity. Hence why well over two thirds of English (and Welsh) wine is sparkling.
The summer of 2018 was wonderful and you’ll find some lovely English reds on the market from that year.
Why are English wines more expensive?
Growing grapes in England and Wales is a risky business. Even the southern counties are right at the northern margins of possible grape growing.
Climate change seems to bring warming temperatures, but ever more rain. In some years, production is disappointing. And just because a wine is made in the UK doesn’t mean it escapes duty.
Where to buy English wines
Although almost all supermarkets have at least one English wine on their shelves, the best selection is available from the online-only Waitrose Cellar, which stocks more than 100 English wines.
Which wine merchants?
Merchants specialising in English wine, include British Wine Cellar, Elizabeth Rose, English Wine Collection, Grape Britannia and Hawkins Bros.
Buy from the vineyard
It may not be possible for now, but by far the most entertaining way to buy wine is to visit a vineyard. More than 200 vineyards welcome visitors and will sell bottles.
Winecellardoor.co.uk is a guide to vineyards that receive visitors. Even if you can’t visit for now, you can still plan a sunny day tasting local wine for when the lockdown restrictions ease.
Just make sure you bring along a designated driver so you can have all the fun.