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The Evolution of English Wine

It is very important for a man in my position – invariably stood on my own in a field, covered in mud, talking to plants, that sort of thing – to maintain a link with the outside world, lest I become very strange indeed. I mean, I'm very happy to spend all of my time in the field, but I do have children to not embarrass, and maintaining the ability to do basic discourse at parents' evening and that is probably the least I can do.

For the past eight years, this has consisted of a trip into Bristol to help mark the industry's homework at the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA). I have written about how this all works before in a previous blog post titled Tasting the Competition, if you are interested in the mechanics of how these things work. In a nutshell, it's an exercise in restraint as one ploughs through dozens of wines at a thoroughly indecent time of the morning, we collectively pick the best one and attempt to avoid having to be carried out at the end of the event.

I'd like to talk a bit about some of the wines that we have tasted over the years and what has – and what hasn't – changed in the industry during this time. I'll be talking in generalities because you didn't come here for impartial buying advice, on the off chance that you did come here for buying advice, you will find a link to our shop at the top of the page!

What I like best about the IEWA is the variety of wines that are entered. I imagine that this is because the entrants tend to be a fairly eclectic bunch, for the most part they are relatively small producers. I obviously work in the industry, but there are always plenty of entries from people I have never heard of; I really like that. There is always something interesting to try and I really enjoy trying to reverse engineer the wines that I like.

When the competition started, your correspondent was amazed by the number and type of entries. Most of the types of wine available pretty much anywhere were represented, with varying degrees of success. The biggest change over the years has been a huge increase in the quality of the wines that are entered. There are wines with faults at all competitions, but the improvements in the best ones has been really eye opening. You will have noticed from the occasional press attention that English fizz has – rightly – performed well here and there internationally, and there is a definite improvement in English still wines happening at the same time.

The most obvious example of this is Chardonnay. Many years ago, we tried an English still Chardonnay from an exceptional year and really enjoyed it. When we followed up looking for a bottle some time later, we discovered that they had stopped making still Chardonnay as they weren't able to regularly rely on the weather. I didn't see a still Chardonnay at the competition for years – and having tried to make one from young vines in the first half of the 2010s, which weren't particularly warm, I can confirm that the best place for Chardonnay at this time was probably in a bottle of fizz – but there are plenty of still Chardonnays available now the weather has improved.

This is really great news for the industry. English still wines were historically made from oddball German crosses, which are pleasant enough and very fruit forward, but tend to be a little thin. Chardonnay isn't for everyone, but it has broad shoulders. Wines made from it are full and when they are made in the right place and sufficiently ripe, have lovely restrained fruit flavours and refreshing acidity. That they keep popping up and performing well at competition probably tells us as much about climate change as it does about the increasing ability of English wine makers.

Red wines are still a little hit and miss, but they are also improving. There are a new batch of really lovely Pinot Noirs coming through that are beginning to taste as good as the international competition, but they do need heat in the vineyard. As with the Chardonnay, it's likely helped along by our warming climate. The sort of big reds that are incredibly popular in the supermarket aren't really our thing. There are some out there made from the aforementioned oddball hybrids, and they are as red as red wine can get, but they never seem to taste quite right. I'd imagine that it'll need to get a lot warmer in our part of the world before we can make that sort of wine work with traditional varieties (i.e. ones that you have heard of). And then it will be too hot for Pinot Noir, so nobody sensible really wants that to happen.

Orange wine is everywhere! Briefly, for the uninitiated, orange wine is made from white wine grapes in the same way that one makes red wine: crushed and fermented on the skins, which extracts tannin and a little colour from them. The result is wine that is actually orange in colour and full in the mouth. People tend to love it or hate it, but as all the cool people drink it in London and New York, expect to see even more of it.

I absolutely love making orange wines – that don't really have any rules – and I intend to bore you about my new one in a future instalment, but we are talking about wine that other people make today.

What is really gratifying is that people have found a way to make those weird varieties that have customarily gone into indifferent still white wines into really substantial orange wines. Where they could end up making breathless and short white wines, the skin contact can really help to bring out woody flavours, and the tannin from the skins helps to fill that hole in the palate that was missing previously. We get more of these wines every year, and I hope to see the trend continue. Not least because at some point I will be able to stop explaining that orange wines are not in fact made from oranges. And do not taste like oranges or Cointreau. Not even a bit.

English fizz at the competition (and generally) is great. It always was the star of the show, but I'd say that the gap between still and fizz is closing. The most popular sparkling wines are predominantly made from the usual suspects – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, or a combination of them. What has started to do really well is the Blanc de Blancs that are made exclusively from Chardonnay, and we are seeing more of them. I think that this might also be a result of a warmer climate that is making Chardonnay produce juice that is lower in acidity and more interesting generally, which allows it to sort of perform by itself, without a supporting cast.

We also usually have a couple of fizzes from those aforementioned oddball grapes, and when they work, they are absolutely spectacular, a bit like a really interesting version of Prosecco, but it's incredibly difficult to get it right. Fizz is a bit of a tricky customer in the winery as you have to nail the right amount of ageing on the lees in the bottle (read: the amount of yeasty flavour) to match with the right amount of sweetness added to the wine before you put a cork in it. The ageing process also softens the acidity of the wine, so wines that are to be aged for a long time really need that component.

Fruit forward base wines from non-traditional grapes tend to be much lower in acidity, so should not be aged for a long time. The ageing process will also increase the amount of yeast flavour, and that will mask the fruitiness of the wine; it tends not to play with it very well flavour wise either. A winemaker must therefore make his fruit forward sparkling wine with very short lees ageing to retain the fruit and add as little sweetness as possible at the end of the process. It is very, very easy to get this wrong and end up with something that doesn't work properly, so it's always a joy when somebody manages to nail it.

I have some experience with this. We did a tiny trial with some of these unusual grapes many years ago, and the result tasted exactly like the fizzy drink Lilt, and that was before we even put any sugar in it. I feel sure that there is a market for an alcoholic drink that tastes like Lilt, but I'm not entirely sure that any of them are over 18.

Photo credit: Pete Axford

The Evolution of English Wine

Ben Hulland IEWA Chair
Ben Hulland IEWA Chair

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