Now Is the Time to Start Drinking English Wine

English wine does not have a glorious recent history, but in the last ten years, the market has improved exponentially. Here, why now is the time to get into English wine—and a few bottles to get you started.

“They make wine in England?” This is the reaction I get when I’m in wine-producing countries and I mention my love of English wine. The locals look baffled: Why don’t you just buy our delicious vinho verde or sherry or Saint-Chinian? The next question they ask is, “Is the wine any good?” English wine does not have a glorious recent history (though apparently some great wines were made in the 13th century), but in the last ten years, the wines have improved exponentially.

That’s starting from a very low point, admittedly. English wines used to be a joke. I remember my first taste of an English wine at a wedding in a country house in Suffolk where the winemakers grew their own grapes. It was initially quite sweet, then chalky, followed by masses and masses of acidity. This wasn’t a German mouth-watering acidity; this was acidity so hard it reminded me of the stone floors of the boarding school I attended. It was an acidity that spoke of draughty corridors, bad food and lack of parental affection. And there was no fruit at all.

The problem with England is not just that it’s cold—it is—but that it’s also gray and wet. There’s not enough sunshine to ripen grapes properly and the damp makes them prey to rot. Most English wines were made from ignoble varieties, sometimes hybrids, grown in the wrong place and not properly ripened. It was thought that there was no money to be made, so winemaking was in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs; the results reflected this. Winemakers overcompensated for lack of ripeness by adding sweetness in the form of sugar or unfermented grape juice, which produced pale imitations of bad German wines.

Thankfully, the standard has improved hugely in the last 20 years. There’s a new professionalism to the business. Growers are beginning to match the right grape varieties to the right land, a process that takes time and commitment. Previously, the amateur nature of the business meant that grapes were planted in a rather haphazard manner. But there’s now a world-renowned wine school at Plumpton (even the name suggests good healthy grapes) near Brighton. And Roseworthy-trained winemaker Will Davenport has won plaudits for his organic estate in Sussex, no mean feat in such a damp climate. Owing to our unreliable summers, we need early ripening grapes—and winemakers are finally figuring out which work best. These are usually German crosses created at Geisenheim but now rarely used in their home country with its hotter, longer summers. Grapes such as Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner, Phoenix and Bacchus are the backbone of the English wine business. There are also French varieties, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and the three Champagne varieties. Last year, England produced over 6.3 million bottles of wine.

Now Is the Time to Start Drinking English Wine

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