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13 August 2020

How to buy the best English wine

10 key tips to follow when you’re buying English sparkling wine, red wine or white wine
Two people laughing and holding glasses of white wine
RM
Rebecca Marcus

English wine, and particularly English sparkling wine, is thriving. 

Despite challenges (economics and the weather) and higher prices, more vineyards are being planted here. The UK now has about 8,600 acres of vines, four times as many as 20 years ago. Annual production has risen from just over three million bottles a year in 2009 to over 13 million bottles in 2018.

Charles Metcalfe has been judging (and drinking) English and Welsh wines for decades. He shares some tips on how to enjoy the best.

English sparkling wine

Well over two thirds of English (and Welsh) wine is sparkling. It’s for the sparkling wine that we are renowned at home and abroad. Rightly so. English vineyards on the North and South Downs have the same chalky subsoil as the Champagne region. Like Champagne, our climate is cool, and ripening is difficult, so the grapes keep the zingy acidity you look for in fine sparkling wine. 

Need to know

  • ‘English Quality Sparkling Wine’ (EQSW) is the official title of the best of our sparkling wines. Almost all of our fizz falls into this category. These must be made by the ‘traditional’ method, the same method used for champagne. The bubbles come from a second fermentation of a still wine inside each individual stoppered bottle. An EQSW must have spent at least nine months in this refermentation process, gathering extra flavour from the yeasts. It’s a labour and time-intensive method, one reason for the high price.
  • Grape varieties for EQSW are the grapes they use in the Champagne region of France: (red) pinot noir and pinot meunier (black grapes) and chardonnay (white grapes), plus potentially pinot blanc and pinot gris (the latter is the same grape as pinot grigio). Because most of the wine made in the UK is EQSW, pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay top the vine plantings. 
  • Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs As in champagne, a Blanc de Blancs is a sparkling wines 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 both.

English sparking wine vs champagne – do they taste different?

Different champagnes taste different, and so do different EQSWs. 

Champagne has more mature vineyards and centuries of winemaking expertise, and its very top wines are world-beatingly fine and delicious. 

At non-vintage level, the English/champagne ‘competition’ is closer. English Quality Sparkling Wines and champagne have a lot in common. They use the same grape varieties, and some English vineyards share the same chalky sub-soils. Both have a cool climate, and although we are cooler and wetter, champagne vines have bigger yields to ripen, so it’s hard to generalise about which side of the Channel achieves better ripeness. 

I would not be at all sure of picking out an English wine hidden in a line-up of non-vintage champagnes, with the labels concealed.

Watch out for

A small amount of less expensive sparkling wine is also 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’. Confusingly, however, they can be labelled ‘Sparkling wine from England’! Can you taste the difference? Bottle-fermented sparkling wines should have been made with better grapes, and have deeper, more complex flavours and finer, longer-lasting bubbles.

White English wine

When vineyards took off in earnest in the 1980s, chilly England looked mainly to cool Germany for vine varieties for white wines that would cope with our short growing season. These varieties were often very aromatic. 

Need to know

Of those grape varieties that remain, Bacchus is now the most important for white English wine, making up 7% of UK vineyards. Some call it the ‘English sauvignon’, as the flavours are similar, zingy, herby, gooseberries and flowers. It is now made in many different styles, from light and aromatic to richer and oak-fermented. 

Reichensteiner, huxelrebe,  seyval blanc and madeleine angevine are other grapes in vineyards planted in the 80s and 90s, often blended together to make fragrant whites with lively acidity and lowish alcohol and sometimes a touch of sweetness to counteract the acidity. 

Watch out for

Pinot gris and pinot blanc make successful dry, less fragrant white English wines. 

Red English wine

The black grapes needed to make rosé and red English 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 that is very much in demand for bubbly, for which the grapes don’t need to ripen as fully. 

Need to know

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. 

Watch out for

English reds are expensive for what they are. Because it’s rare here to be able to ripen pinot noir sufficiently to make good red wine, English pinot noirs are expensive. Typically, in my experience, they are rather more expensive than many pinot noirs available from elsewhere, including good pinot noirs from Burgundy. Even English reds made from the lesser grapes rondo and regent retail at between £15 and £20 per bottle.

English wine or British wine… there’s a crucial difference

It’s a very important first question. 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. It didn’t grow in our vineyards.

Do vintages matter? 

Yes. In our cool northerly climate, some grapes ripen fully only in exceptional years. That’s not a problem for sparkling wines, which need good acidity. The summer of 2018 was wonderful, and you’ll find some lovely 2018 English reds on the market. Potential crisis factors are spring frosts and then rain (during July flowering, summer and autumn ripening and harvest time). Especially around harvest time as wet grapes attract fungus and may rot.

How much will you pay? 

You won’t find many bottles of English still wine under £9, or sparkling wine under £16. EQSW will normally sell for £24 or more. 

Why is it more expensive?

English wine might seem more expensive than foreign counterparts, but 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.

Most vineyards in the UK are small enterprises, and life is not easy. And just because a wine is made in the UK does not mean it escapes duty. UK tax on wine (duty plus VAT) is very high. There’s even higher duty on sparkling wine than on still.

Where to buy English wines

Which supermarkets?

Although almost all supermarkets have at least one English wine on their shelves, the best selection is from the online-only Waitrose Cellar, which has more than 100 English wines.

Which wine merchants?

Merchants specialising in English wine include Grape Britannia, Elizabeth Rose, English Wine Collection, Hawkins Bros, and British Wine Cellar. www.winegb.co.uk and www.greatbritishwine.com are useful websites for further information. 

Buy from the vineyard

Pre-coronavirus lockdown, by far the most entertaining way to buy wine was to visit a vineyard. More than 200 vineyards welcome visitors and will sell bottles. 

Three-quarters of the UK’s vineyards are in South East England, mainly in Kent and Sussex, with some in Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. 

The South West, including Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, accounts for much of the rest, with a scattering in in East Anglia (including Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire), plus a little bit elsewhere and in Wales. 

www.winecellardoor.co.uk is a brilliant 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 eases. Just make sure you bring along a designated driver so you can have all the fun!

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