English Wine Week starts tomorrow, Saturday 24 May. English wine producers are organising various events to promote their wines, with far more vineyards than usual open to the public. (The photo shows harvest at Lamberhurst in Kent.) Entertainment ranges from the more predictable vineyard walks and tastings to the less typical belly dancing at Sharpham vineyard in Devon and Rick Stein's fish and chips at Camel Valley in Cornwall. For full details, and vineyard locations, see the English Wine Week site. English wines have also shown well in UK wine competitions this year, as Jancis relays here.
To encourage you to take part, if only by opening a bottle or two, here are a few of the wines I rated most highly at the English Wine Producers tasting in London last month. The sparkling wines were, as one might expect from their lengthening track record, some of the most successful offerings, but there were some pretty good still whites as well. I think that the biggest stumbling block for English producers is their understandable dependence on grape varieties specially bred to ripen in the UK climate, such as Seyval Blanc, Phoenix, Reichensteiner, which can produce good but not, in my opinion and experience, great wines – though Bacchus can be aromatic and zesty and pretty successful. Even for the sparkling wines, the brightest future (and present) seems to be for those made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Red varieties such as Rondo, Regent and Triomphe d'Alsace are even less likely to achieve greatness than the whites, though there are some valiant and improving plantings of Pinot Noir. One red that stood out for its sweet bright fruit and good value was Welcombe Hills Pinot Noir Précoce 2006 (the official name for Frühburgunder in the UK), which sells for £6.95. This producer, near Stratford on Avon, also has a Pinot Noir but I felt it was marred by ageing in American oak. (French barrels are apparently on their way for the next vintage.)
There were some attractive and refreshing rosés, both still and sparkling, but I particularly liked Wickham's Celebration Rosé 2007 (near Southampton), made from 100% Dornfelder, a red variety widely planted in Germany, and good value – in the context of English wine - at £6.99.
Quite a number of English wines are made off dry, the slight sweetness a good foil to sometimes very high acidity, but my favourite dry (or dry-tasting whites) were: Camel Valley's Bacchus 2006 (Cornwall, £10.95), which was fresh and aromatic on the Sauvignon Blanc scale of flavours and showed some minerality but also notable purity; Chapel Down's Lamberhurst Estate Bacchus Reserve 2006 (Kent, £12), crisp and a little smoky and more powerful than the Camel Valley version; and Wickham's Special Release Fumé 2007, a lightly oaked, creamy-textured subtle blend of Bacchus and Reichensteiner.
Sweet wines were few and far between but Eglantine's North Star 2004 (Loughborough, £18 for 37.5cl), a very sweet, late-picked, 100% Madeleine Angevine, was a nice way to round off the tasting. I'd have liked a little more balancing acidity but it's quite an achievement to bottle something this far north that tastes like liquid tarte tatin.