This Green and Pleasant Land
I often get asked about English wine. ‘Is it any good?’ and ‘Why is it so expensive?’ are two of the questions I tend to hear a lot. But the answers are both straightforward and complicated – like most of the questions I field at tastings.
I’m a big fan of English wines and there are a lot of winemakers doing exciting things right across the country. So the answer to the first question generally tends to be yes. English wines are getting easier to find and most supermarkets are now stocking at least one wine from these shores; often an English sparkling wine, or a crisp dry white.
And there are some excellent whites and sparkling wines. Producers such as Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Gusbourne consistently produce brilliant wines using the same ‘traditional’ method as producers in Champagne using the same grapes. And that’s because those grapes tend to work better in cooler climates.
You don’t find many English reds, unless you go to specialist retailers or the more expensive wine shops. And there’s a simple reason for this. England’s climate isn’t warm or consistent enough to grow most red grapes. You need to find varieties that can put up with a bit of bad weather or ripen early to avoid too much rain or frost.
Pinot Noir is a notoriously tricky grape to grow. It’s very fussy and requires enough sunlight and warmth to ripen, but not too much. It has a thin skin, which means it is susceptible to fluctuations in temperature and rot and can also burn if exposed to too much sun. But it also ripens late and you have to hang on to harvest it. But the rewards of getting it right are incredible. Wines can age and develop amazing savoury flavours and some of the most expensive wines in the world are Pinot Noirs from Burgundy.
I was sent a bottle of Pinot Noir to review from a successful winery in Shropshire. Hencote has a really good reputation and its red wines have won some prestigious international awards. Their website says they take great care of the vines and grapes, carrying out every winemaking task by hand. It goes on to say that this produces the best quality grapes possible.
Fermented in whole bunches and aged in clay amphora pots the result is remarkable. Really fresh cherry and redcurrant fruit flavours give way to a long, earthy and smoky finish. It’s a beautifully balanced wine with mouth coating tannins. From 2018 I’d love to see how this wine ages further. It’s an excellent wine, which would partner brilliantly with savoury mushroom and duck dishes.
But this leads on to the second question I’m asked regularly. “Why are English wines so expensive?” At £45 a bottle, this is not an everyday wine. It’s a wine for a special occasion. I’d definitely splash out on this, now I’ve tried it, but I can understand why people would be put off.
The care and attention it takes to make a really good red wine in England costs money. The chance of a big harvest on these shores is slim, so producers can’t make vast quantities. And market forces push prices up when demand outstrips supply. But this isn’t a simple fruity Pinot you can pick up for £6 in a supermarket. This is a premium wine, on par with great wines from Burgundy or New Zealand. It won an International Wine Challenge Gold Medal last year and Hencote has form. It’s picked up a number of top prizes for its red wines – which is an amazing achievement for a business which was only set up in 2016. I’m fascinated to see what they produce next.
This blog was supposed to be about everyday wines, so it’s back to the aisles shortly.