Why English wine is more beautiful than stupid

There was a time, not too long ago, when finding a good English wine meant kissing a lot of frogs. But at this year’s WineGB Awards, judging that was another story – there were far more beauties than beasts.

Sparkling wine – which accounts for two-thirds of UK production – was the strongest category, with some entries that were truly world class. Equally interesting, however, was the wide variety of wines on display; we tasted heavy luxury cuvées, luminous blanc de blancs, Burgundy pinots noirs; skin wines, pet-nats, chardonnays, ortegas and pale rosés.

“Because Britain is not historically a wine region, we are not bound by so many regulations,” says awards co-chair Susie Barrie MW. “As a result, there are so many people now trying out fun and interesting stuff.”

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To showcase the depth and variety now found in English wine, Alice Lascelles has put together a box of six exceptional wines for readers to buy, many of which have won this year’s WineGB Awards. Available only in the UK, £199 plus shipping. Visit ft.com/htsi-curates

It was a year in which still wines, in particular, experienced significant qualitative progress. Kent’s premium winery Gusbourne confirmed its reputation as a producer of impressive Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by winning the trophy for Best Still Wine. Another trophy winner, Kit’s Coty Bacchus 2019 from Kent’s chapel downproved that Bacchus – a cheerful grape reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc – can have a more serious side.

Essex has also recently become a hotspot for still wines. The Painter of Light Chardonnay 2020 Gold Medal by London’s Urban Vineyard black book was made with Latchingdon fruit. Crouch Valley Danbury Ridge, while not in competition, has also been praised for its velvety Pinot Noir. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Essex ultimately turns out to be England’s Gold Coast,” says the influential consultant winemaker and outgoing chief winemaker at Hattingley ValleyEmma Rice.

In the sparkling wine categories, smaller and newer names won the top accolades. The Classic Cuvée NV Trophy was won by Brut Réserve n°6 from Harrow and Hopea family estate in the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire – an even more impressive achievement considering that this vineyard will be certified organic by June 2023.

Britain now offers an extraordinary range of wines, from Burgundy reds to skin wines and pet-nats

Britain now has an extraordinary range of wines, from Burgundy reds to skin wines and pét-nats © Sandra Mickiewicz

The Supreme Champion title went to the Sussex Vineyard Artelium, a newcomer who has worked with a list of guest winemakers. The highlight of the show was his statuesque Blanc de Blancs 2015 from Dermot Sugrue – a traditional method fizz with the grandeur of a prestige cuvée and the jaw-dropping freshness of an oyster. “The Blancs de Blancs have been particularly notable this year,” said awards co-chair Oz Clarke. “Especially the ones that were a bit aged, which added a nutty, creamy depth.”

However, not everyone in Britain produces wines like champagne. Sussex Renegade tillingham and that of Kent Westwell Wines, for example, owe more to the minimally interventionist traditions of Central and Eastern Europe – aging in amphoras, fermentation with wild yeasts, making orange wines and pet-nats. Westwell doctor and winemaker Adrian Pike co-founded the Moshi Moshi label – and that independent spirit is reflected in Westwell’s labels that feature hand-drawn artwork that could grace a record cover.

Ninety-eight percent of Britain’s 879 vineyards (and the vast majority of its 195 wineries) are in England, mostly in the south and south-east. Is such a recognizable ‘English’ style emerging?

“Our cool climate means that even when we get good ripeness, we maintain fantastic acidity,” says Emma Rice, “and this is something that many Champagne and Burgundy winemakers are currently struggling with. [because of climate change]. Well controlled, this acidity can give the wine finesse, linearity, elegance and great purity of fruit. It makes it vibrant and appetizing – and makes you want to have another drink.

“English wine is at a really exciting time – the quality has never been higher,” acknowledges Seamus Sharkey, former head sommelier at The Ledbury and head of the English wine list at The George in Fitzrovia, which is one of the best in the country. “We have wines from Dorset to Kent to Leicestershire; a mix of established producers and up-and-comers making wine with brilliant energy and potential.

England vintages are always biting, but at press time 2022 was looking good: “It should be as good as 2018, which was a sensational year,” says Charlie Holland of Gusbourne.

If you haven’t yet made a foray into English wine, start your journey here.

@alicelascelles

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