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English wines: raising the standard
English wine producers at the ministerial open evening, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, 22 January 2001

Three Choirs Vineyard, Newent, Gloucestershire

Many years ago, when I was going through a folk/roots music phase, there was a joke circulating along the following lines: 'What's the difference between the English folk music scene and a pot of yoghurt?' The answer: 'Yoghurt is a living culture'. I don't know how folk music is these days, but there's no doubt that the English wine scene is very much a living culture. If the wines poured at the recent MAFF reception are anything to go by, English wine is thriving -- it has come a long way in the last few years. These wines, selected and poured by the English Wine Producers organization (www.englishwineproducers.com) are in many cases wines to drink through choice and not just patriotism, and which compete favourably in terms of both quality and value in the crowded UK market place. Leading the pack is Chapel Down, the largest producer of English wines, with a trio of beautifully balanced, full flavoured table wines. I was also extremely impressed by the Champagne method sparkling wines from both Nyetimber and Ridgeview. One naggy criticism. Many English wines still suffer from terrible packaging and promotion, with a cluttered, homespun, 'craft fair', 'olde worlde merrye England' image. Time to get the professional designers in, I feel.

Chapel Down Bacchus 1999
Kent-based Chapel Down are now the largest producer of English wine, sourcing grapes from their own vineyards and also a group of more than 20 growers in the South of England. This striking wine has a lovely, grapey, floral nose that's quite reminiscent of a new world Sauvignon Blanc. Really nice balance on the palate: fruity and full, without the searing acidity that can be an off-putting feature in some English wines. Add to this the price (just under £5) and you have a winning combination. Very good/excellent

Davenport 'Horsmonden' Dry White 1999
Will Davenport is an English winemaker who went to train in Australia, and now owns two vineyards and a winery in Sussex. These are undergoing conversion to organic status, and the winemaking takes a non-interventionist approach, without the use of cultured yeasts. This wine is very pale (almost transparent) in colour, and displays a gently floral nose with some sweet notes. On the palate it shows good balance and firm (but tamed) acidity. Not a wine that leaps out of the glass; quite understated. Very good.

Wooldings Aromatic Dry 1996
A full flavoured wine from a 12 hectare estate in Hampshire, with a little bottle age. It shows a full aromatic, floral nose, which is followed up on the palate by bold herbaceous, fruity flavours and high acidity. Very pleasant and archetypally English (this is not meant as a negative comment), although the herbaceous notes and high acidity may be off-putting to some. Very good.

Chilford Hundred Dry 1996
Müller Thurgau, once one of the workhorses of the UK wine industry, has a dreadful image: it's the main constituent of the sugary-sweet Leibfraumilch that has given the German wine industry such a bad reputation. However, it does quite well in our marginal climate, and this East Anglian winery has made an appealing wine out of a blend of Müller Thurgau and Ortega. It has a fresh, slightly green nose with herbaceous aromatics. Pleasantly fruity palate that shows good balance, with a herby, bright character. If I'm being picky, I'd have preferred a bit more depth to this, but it's nice stuff. Good/very good.

Bookers 'Autumn Leaves' 1999
This Sussex vineyard, first planted in 1972, has nine varieties planted over 7 hectares. This is the first vintage from winemaker Samantha Linter, and she chose a good one to make her debut. The wine is an unusual but appealing blend of Müller Thurgau and Chardonnay, showing an attractive floral nose with some depth and a slight 'boiled sweets' character. On the palate it is fresh and fruity with good concentration and palate weight. Very good+ (£6.95, from the winery)

Chapel Down Downland Oak NV
Some people like the flavour new oak imparts to a wine, and Chapel Down have decided to give the punters what they want with this fascinating wine, which makes a feature of the oaking, rather than the grapes. It has a vanilla oak blast on the nose with some lemony, honeyed fruit taking a background role. Rich and oaky on the palate, this is actually quite delicious, even though it is heavily reliant on oak for its flavour. Remarkable stuff. Very good+

Chilford Hundred Medium Dry 1998
Although this is labelled as 'medium dry' the residual sugar is nicely balanced by the high acidity to the extent that it doesn't really taste sweet at all. It has a bright lemony nose with some floral notes. On the palate it is full but there's not quite enough fruit here to make it really compelling. Good/very good.

Chiddingstone Schönberger 1998
This Kent producer has an impressive 65 acres under vine, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed by this wine. Although the grapey, aromatic nose is very promising, the lean, dry, overly acidic palate makes it hard going and a little unbalanced without food. Good/very good

Chiddingstone Dry Red 1998
Palatable English reds used to be as rare as hen's teeth, but this is actually quite lovely. Made from 16 year old Triomphe vines, this is a striking full red/purple colour, and has a lovely bright nose of dark cherry and blackcurrant fruit, with a slightly nervy, volatile edge. On the palate it is ripe and full flavoured with a slight herbaceousness. It's almost like a full, rustic Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Very good+

Chapel Down Epoch I 1998
Chapel Down have done it again, creating a compelling red wine from four grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Gamay and Rondo. This is deep red with a slightly brownish edge, and has a delightful nose of spice, herbs and smoky fruit. There's a pronounced 'medicinal' edge to the fruit: this sounds unpleasant, but it isn't, and adds to the complexity and appeal. On the palate it shows ripe, spicy berry fruit, coupled with some herbaceous notes and a cheesy, meaty edge. Unusual and appealing. Very good/excellent

Ridgeview Cuvée Merret Belgravia NV
A blend of the three main Champagne varieties, this is a stunning effort from fizz specialists Ridgeview. It has a grapey, yeasty nose which is followed up on the palate with a lovely bready character, fine bubbles and great balance. The overall impression is of a sophisticated, polished product. Very good/excellent

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1993
100% Chardonnay from the UKs most celebrated fizz producer. This is gorgeous, sophisticated, now-mature Champagne-like wine. A full yellow/gold colour, with bold, mature flavours of toast, butterscotch and honey. Nice balance and good acidity. Very good/excellent

Three Choirs Classic Cuvée NV
I'm fond of Three Choirs: it's a lovely place to visit and the restaurant is superb. But in my view this fizz isn't their best wine. It has a slightly odd nose: herbaceous and green leafy. On the palate it is quite green with an odd, bitter vegetal edge. Despite these unusual characteristics, the balance is quite good, so I suspect they've done well with rather unsuitable starting materials. OK

Davenport Brut Sparkling Wine 1997
This has an impressive yeasty, floral nose. On the palate there is high acidity and more of the yeasty character: I'd say this is just a bit too acidic for my palate. Good/very good

Chapel Down Epoch Brut NV
This inexpensive Champagne-style wine shows an open, yeasty nose, but has a slightly odd palate, with a herbaceous twist. Good but strange, and definitely not Champagne-like.

The Producers
Foxhole Lane, Bolney, West Sussex RH17 5NB
Tel: 01444 881575 Fax: 01444 881399
Winemaker: Samantha Linter
E-mail: sam@bookersvineyard.co.uk
Website: www.bookersvineyard.co.uk

Small Hythe, Tenterden Kent TN30 7NQ
Tel: 01580 763033 Fax: 01580 765333
Sales Director: Carl Koenen
Winemaker: Owen Elias
e-mail: sales@chapeldownwines.co.uk
Website: www.chapeldownwines.co.uk

Chiddingstone, Edenbridge, Kent TN8 7BB
Tel: 01892 871400 Fax: 01892 870878
Sales & Marketing: Alastair McLean
e-mail: sales@chiddingstone.demon.co.uk

Chilford Hall, Balsham Road, Linton, Cambridge CB1 6LE
Tel: 01223 895600 Fax: 01223 895605
Proprietor: Simon Alper
Winemaker: Chris Durrant
e-mail: simonalper@chilfordhall.co.uk
Website: www.chilfordhall.co.uk

Limney Farm, Castle Hill, Rotherfield, East Sussex TN6 3RR
Tel: 01892 852380 Fax: 01892 852781
Proprietor/Winemaker: Will Davenport
e-mail: will@davenportvineyards.co.uk
Website: www.davenportvineyards.co.uk

Gay Street, West Chiltington, West Sussex RH20 2HH
Tel: 01798 813989 Fax: 01798 815511
Proprietors: Sandra and Stuart Moss
Website: www.nyetimber-vineyard.com

Fragbarrow Lane, Ditchling Common, East Sussex BN6 8TP
Tel: 01444 241441 Fax: 01444 230757
Proprietor/Winemaker: Mike Roberts
e-mail: ridgeviewestate@cs.com
Website: www.ridgeview.co.uk

Newent, Gloucestershire GL18 1LS
Tel: 01531 890555 Fax: 01531 890877
Sales: Nicholas Ingham (Tel: 01531 670100)
Winemaker: Martin Fowke
e-mail: nick@grape2wine.force9.co.uk
Website: www.threechoirs.com

Wooldings, Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7QT
Tel/Fax: 01256 895200
Proprietor/Winemaker: Charles Cunningham
e-mail: charles@wooldingsvineyard.co.uk
Website: www.wooldingsvineyard.co.uk

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