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Thursday 13 December 2012

English Wine Producers at Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party

In this most patriotic year of the Jubilympics, it was only fitting that the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas party was a tasting of English wines (mostly fizzes) hosted by the English Wine Producers and held at The Royal Society where, 350 years ago to the month, the "secret formula" for traditional fizz was first communicated.

Wine-making in this country dates back to Roman times, but unlike in France, it is not a continuous history and modern English wine-making is really just a few decades old.

I went through my own "English wine" phase around a decade ago, buying quite a few bottles of clean, crisp aromatic whites from various places including our local vineyard at Chilford Hall.

At the bottom end, English wine is not cheap - taxes, duty, high labour costs, low yields and small vineyard sizes mean that England will never compete with Spain or Australia for cheap and cheerful gluggers.

Rather, value is to be found at the top end, with world class sparklers - often vintage - costing no more than entry-level fizzes from more renowned areas.

The traditional grapes for fizz are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - when grown on chalky soils in a marginal climate, they produce a thin, mean and acidic base wine that is transformed by secondary fermentation in bottle into a savoury, oatmealy, structured yet refreshing sparkler.

Just as a certain part of France that makes predominantly sparklers does not rely on its limited quantities of still wine for its reputation, so at this tasting the fizzes stole the show from the still whites, roses and reds.

Bolney Estate
Based on the Sussex South Downs, the estate is best summed up by its awards - lots of Bronze medals and the Naked Wines Zero-to-Hero UK.

Bolney Cuvée Rosé 2009 (PN) light and pleasant fizz, Prosecco-esque.

Bolney Cuvée Noir 2009 (Dornfelder) unusual red fizz with red berry fruit and toasty yeastiness on the nose; light and juicy on the palate with elderberry fruit and spice.

Lychgate Red 2009 (80% Rondo, 20%Dornfelder) purple, with dark fruit aromas, spice and hints of bubblegum and nail polish; juicy on the palate with low tannins, soft texture and toastiness.

Danebury Vineyards
Based in Hampshire, this estate also has several bronze-medal wines.

"Cossack" Brut 2005 (90% Auxerrois Blanc, 10% Ruelander) fermented in stainless steel and lees-aged for five years, this is current vintage. Fresh and light, it has good fruit, a food-friendly rasp of acidity and pleasant Pinot-esque aromas. Good.

Madeleine Angevine 2010 aromatic hedgerow nose, light with good linear acidity. Very pleasant as an aperitif.

Schoenburger 2009 less aromatic with greater weight and depth; more structured on the palate with a herbaceous minerality.

Reserve 2010 something of a misnomer, this is a second pressing of all the above grapes and combines a bit of everything; leesiness, hedgerow and depth. Rather like a dinner of warmed-up leftovers, it tastes better than it sounds.

England's largest single estate vineyard based in the North Downs. With a visitor centre, "Indoor Wine Experience" and surely the inevitable gift shop, the actual making of wine feels like a relatively peripheral activity here.

Cubitt Reserve 2006 (PN) with 8g / l dosage this is balanced and savoury; complex and leesy with good depth, it has a muscular firmness and long finish. Very Good.

Greenfields Cuvée 2006 (50%PN, 35% Ch, 15% PM) ripe stone fruit, precision and purity. Very pleasant.

Bacchus 2010 aromatic and nettley (think Marlborough), good linear acidity with Gruener-esque celery, green capsicum and puy lentils. A bit of minerality develops on the palate.

Based in Kent with sandy loam soils and high average sunshine hours, the winery is run by Plumpton-trained Jon Pollard.

Brut Reserve 2008 (37% PN, 36% Ch, 27% PM) tropical fruit, red fruits and earthiness; good acidic backbone. Yeasty toastiness, flintiness and white stone fruit. Very Good.

Blanc de Blancs 2008 (Ch) toasty, yeasty complexity, fresh with pure fruit of apples and pears. Again, good acidic backbone. Good.

Rosé NV (45% PN, 28% Ch, 27% PM) hints of ripe cassis fruit and good acidity, minerality and muscular firmness.

Guinevere Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2011 pale sandy yellow, sweet vanilla cut through with tropical fruit acidity; pleasant toastiness and good persistence. Very Good.

Pinot Noir 2010 pale in the glass, a very pretty style of Pinot with lots of ripe crunchy red fruit, good acidity, depth and firmness. Persistence on the finish.

Hattingley Valley
Newly-planted, this is a family-run vineyard in East Hampshire.

Special Cuvée (60% Ch, 25% PN, 15% PM) tart and appley with good fruit and persistence on the finish. More "interesting" and "promising" than "compelling".

Hush Heath
Balfour Brut Rosé 2009 (52% PN, 37% Ch, 11% PM) good aromatics, red fruits, purity, good minerality and acidity. Very Good.

Still Kent Cider a mix of Cox, Bramley and Egremont Russet: yeasty, appley nose, ripe simple sweetness on the palate; well-made.

Jenkyn Place
A boutique, family-owned estate in north Hampshire.

Brut 2009 (65% Ch, 25% PN, 10% PM) orchard fruit, flintiness and mineral energy. Precise with good depth and persistence. Very Good.

Rosé 2008 (44% Ch, 42% PN, 14% PM) hints of red fruit, with the same precision, minerality and depth as the Brut. Very Good.

Founded in 1994, the estate has won almost 200 medals and 26 trophies in the last 12 years.

Magnum Millenium Release 2000 (Ch) a limited release of 1,000 Magnums to celebrate the turn of the century. A sandy yellow in the glass, combines freshness, deep complexity, precision, muscular firmness, persistence and yeasty, biscuity aromas. Very Good Indeed.

Marksman Blancs de Blancs 2009 (Ch) exclusive to M&S, this has freshness, precision, good depth and firmness. Good.

Fitzrovia (Rosé) 2009 (50% Ch, 28% PN, 22% PM) salmon pink, there is toasty yeastiness, red fruits, precise acidity and biscuity aromas with depth and persistence.

The first producer of English sparkling wine, Nytimber dates back to 1988 and is on a mission to produce the finest English sparkling wine.

Classic Cuvée 2008 (79% Ch, 13% PN, 8% PM) fresh and aromatic with a complex nose and some fruitiness.

Blanc de Blancs 2003 (Ch) yeasty, leesy complexity, lively fruit and pungency. Very Good.

Rosé (58% Ch, 42% PN) fruity, Pinot-esque nose, pungent, refreshing and elegant.

Demi-Sec (Ch) fruity, yeasty, pleasantly off-dry.

Recommended Wines / Producers

For me, the top producer by a long way was Ridgeview; also very good were Gusbourne, Jenkyn Place and Hush Heath.

Top wine of the night was the Ridgeview Magnum Millenium Release 2000.

Top pink fizz was Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé 2009.

Top non-sparkler was Gusbourne Guinevere Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2011.

Other related articles
English Wines at IWC Taste of Gold


English Wine Producers - website, twitter
Ridgeview - website, twitter
Circle of Wine Writers - website, twitter

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