Chapel Down was the first English producer to win a gold medal for sparkling wine at the International Wine Challenge. Its a rapidly growing business, already producing about 50 per cent of all commercial English wine, but with expansion plans that could increase production five-fold by 2010. Chapel Down’s vision is to see vineyards across the Kent countryside, which would not only make for an attractive landscape but also help to stop farmers going out of business as their land use changes to growing vines. German grapes have been the backbone of its wine - varieties such as Reichensteiner, Bacchus, Muller-Thurgau and Schonburger - but the company is shifting towards the Champagne varieties, like Pinot Noir, as demand for its fizz increases. Currently, about 35 per cent of its wines are sparkling but the company says that is likely to rise signficantly in the future.
Pinot Noir, Rondo, Regent, Schonburger
The English weather may be the butt of international jokes, but the island climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream, means that England can grow vines successfully at a latitude of 52 degrees 40’ North, which is more northerly than either Germany or France plant their vineyards. In fact, wine has been made in the UK for well over 1,000 years. But it can be difficult to ripen grapes this far from the equator, which is why vineyards are concentrated in the warmest southern counties of Kent and Sussex and only relatively early-ripening varieties are suitable. The majority of wine is white, with Muller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Bacchus and Seyval Blanc being the most popular varieties, while red grapes include Pinot Noir, Dornfelder and Rondo. Bottle-fermented sparkling wines, however, seem to be England’s strongest asset and are competing well in quality terms with Champagne.
England was introduced to vines and wine by the Romans. By the time of the Domesday book ( 11th Century) there were 38 vineyards sited. During the Middle Ages, though, cheaper imports were available, and English wine took a downturn. The remaining vineyards disappeared at the end of the 14th Century when a relatively warm climate period ended and a mini ice age set in. Fast-forward to 1951, when the first modern commercial planting was at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire. Today there are over 400 vineyards in England. The majority are situated in the southern counties, particularly Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Hundreds are tiny boutique wineries with insufficient production to afford the latest winemaking equipment, and making at best drinkable, often expensive wine.
This is gradually changing, with a quiet revolution underway on the English wine scene. Significant investment by well-funded individuals and consortia mean that there are now several producers carving out a niche. These include Nyetimber (sited in the Domesday book), Denbies, RidgeView and Three Choirs. All are producing commercially viable quantities of wine and have been established long enough to be able to produce some good wines at reasonable prices. Nyetimber gets rave reviews and picks up international awards for its sparkling wines. Chapel Down and Curious Grape are two English wine brands owned by English Wine PLC. The company owns some vineyards but sources the majority of its grapes from over 20 growers in the South of England.
Many in the industry believe that the future of English wine is in sparkling wine. The soils (chalk and limestone) are similar to Champagne and consumer acceptance of Non Vintage sparkling wines helps English winemakers maintain a consistent standard in poor years. The grapes grown so far have been mainly German, cool climate varieties, with typical white varieties being Muller Thurgau (13 per cent of plantings) Reichensteiner (12 per cent), Bacchus (10 per cent). The main non-German variety is the white French grape Seyval Blanc (7 per cent), Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are also planted. Red grape varieties are far less common as the climate doesn't hotten up sufficiently for most varieties to thrive and ripen well. The main red grape is Schonburger (8 per cent), but there is also some Pinot Noir.
Perfect for a barbecue or picnic, most rosé wine is very gluggable, tasting of strawberries, raspberries and melons, and often has a slight zing. The red grapes are lightly pressed and the juice is left in contact with the skin for a short time to give the wine a pale pink blush. Try as an aperitif or a spritzer.
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