In parallel with our ‘Best of British’ collection, we’re running a series zooming-in on English wines.
English sparkling wines in particular, are receiving great acclaim on the international stage and are starting to rival even the best Champagnes and Proseccos. Given it’s the season of celebrations, what better time than now to embark on a sensory adventure and start sampling our home-grown grapes?
To kick us off, we’ve been picking the brains of the trade body, English Wine Producers. There are many preconceptions around wine and a fair amount of snobbery, so we thought it time we busted the myths and got some answers to those questions no-one ever really wants to ask. Over to the experts, Julia and Charlotte:
With such a wealth of wines to choose from, do you have any tips to get us started?
If you don’t know much about wines, don’t be afraid to admit it, or to ask for help. Visit a wine retailer, or merchant and speak to the staff. They aren’t as intimidating as you think! People who work in wine merchants love wine, love talking to people about wine and love helping people to learn more about wine. They’re almost always incredibly friendly and helpful, and won’t look down on you if you don’t know the difference between pinot noir and pinot grigio! Tell them what you do and don’t like, and be honest – don’t say you like something because you’ve heard other people say it and think it sounds impressive – you’ll just end up with something impressive-sounding but that you don’t like the taste of!
Don’t be afraid to try something new – it’s very rare that you get a wine that you’ll really dislike, but by trying new styles, regions and grapes, you’re more likely to find something that you do like, that you might never have found, and it will help you pin down the characteristics you do like in a wine, which will in turn help you in future choices.
‘I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like – how do I learn more about wine?’
That’s actually a great starting place, as you’re aware of some of the things you enjoy, so you can try new wines with similar characteristics, and you don’t have any preconceptions about which wine you ‘should’ be buying. Wine tasting is personal, there’s no one wine that everyone will like and there’s no right or wrong palate. If you’ve tried, and liked, a grape variety from one place, see whether you still like it when it’s been produced somewhere else. This will help you to pinpoint which characteristics you enjoy, and start you on the road to learning about different regions. Finally, relish the process of exploring a new wine – wine is a wonderful thing that’s meant to be enjoyed, so don’t let wine snobbery or fear of the unknown get in the way of that!
Does cork versus screw-top alter the taste?
It doesn’t alter the initial taste of the wine, but can have an impact on how the wine ages. Cork allows a little oxygen into the wine, which allows the wines to age, develop and grow more complex, and enhances certain aspects of the flavour, while the primary fruit flavours become less prominent and more subtle. Screwcaps are more commonly used for wines which are intended to be drunk young, as they don’t allow oxygen in, which means the wines keep their bold fruitiness for longer.
Is old wine really better than new?
This really depends on a) personal preference, and b) the style of the wine/winemaker’s intention. If you like a fresh and fruity wine, go for a younger wine, and if you prefer subtler, more complex flavours, then an aged wine might be more suitable. However, in order to age well, the wine needs to be of a decent quality, and have a good structure and some complex flavours to begin with. Ageing will develop the background flavours and reduce the primary fruits, alcohol, acidity and tannins (in reds), so, without a good starting point, the wine can feel flat and one dimensional if aged. Similarly, if a wine is meant to be laid down for years, drinking it too young will mean the components won’t have had time to mellow, balance and develop, so it won’t be as the winemaker intended it to be drunk.
How much can we really gauge the contents by the price?
This can be difficult, especially with constant offers on wines, which can be misleading. The price of a bottle of wine is made up of lots of different costs, not just that of the actual wine. Tax is a big one, because every bottle of wine in the UK is subject to duty, which amounts to £2.05 per 750ml bottle on still wines, and £2.63 for Sparkling wine, regardless of the price of the wine, as well as VAT (20%) on top of that. Thus, if a bottle costs £3 you pay £2.05 duty, 60p VAT and just 35p (for everything else (transport, bottle and labelling costs, the retailers mark-up, and finally the actual wine). Each person in the chain takes a cut and makes a profit, so the actual amount that goes into the winemaking and grape growing is a very low percentage of the cost. Since the duty is fixed, regardless of the price, increasing how much you spend on a bottle, even by a pound or two, vastly increases the percentage spent on the actual wine, and you will therefore get a much better wine, for not much extra money.
Apart from tax, you’ll probably pay more for big names and well known regions (partly because these come with the reassurance of a certain standard and consistency of quality) so it might be worth being adventurous and trying a lesser-known variety or region, as you can get a bargain because there’s less demand for these.
Generally though within a category of wine, the more you pay, the better the quality of wine you’ll get.
What is the real purpose behind using a carafe or a decanter?
These are used to aerate the wine, by a) giving a bigger surface area and b) pouring the wine into them aerates the wine in itself. Getting more air in contact with a wine means the aromas are released, and so you get much more of the characteristics of the wine coming out. Aroma is a large part of taste, so you’re more able to perceive the different flavours in the wine. It’s a similar principle to swirling the wine around your glass, or when people inhale and slurp when tasting the wine – the more air exposure, the more flavour.
Should we always leave a bottle open for a few minutes before we drink it?
People often do this to try to achieve the aeration mentioned above, but, in reality, the amount of wine exposed to oxygen by opening a bottle (i.e. the surface area in the neck of the bottle) is tiny relative to the volume of wine, so it will probably be very difficult to taste any difference. Best to use a decanter, pour through an aerator (or from a height if you’re confident you’re not going to spill it!) or at least pour into a glass (to its widest point) and let it ‘breath’ that way.
Should red always be served warm and white always be served chilled?
No. Technically red shouldn’t really be served ‘warm’ at all (save, perhaps, in mulled wine!). Jancis Robinson has a good ‘rule of thumb guide’ for service temperatures, which is as follows:
1. The cooler the wine the less it will smell.
2. The warmer the wine the more prominent the aroma.
3. Low temperatures emphasise acidity, bitterness and tannin.
4. High temperatures minimize them.
Thus, more naturally aromatic wines (New Zealand Sauvignon, German Rieslings or a French Gamay (red) for example) can be served more chilled, as they have more aroma to begin with, and the structure of the wine will be accentuated. Heavier wines (both red and white) hold on to their flavour molecules more, so a warmer temperature will help release these, and, in the case of full-bodied reds, this will also reduce the feel of the tannins, making them seem smoother.
The lighter and more aromatic the wine, the more you can chill it. The heavier and less aromatic, the more it will benefit from a warmer temperature, to bring out the flavours and smooth out the tannins. Even room temperature (which, in a modern house, might be say 20 *C) is often too warm, as the aroma compounds begin to be lost at above 20*C. So if a wine says ‘room temperature’ think of a room in an English cottage in spring rather than in a beach hut in the tropics, and you’ll be safer. And the best way to warm it up is by holding the bowl of your glass in your hands, not in a microwave! Similarly, you’re fridge is usually too cold, so take the wine out a little while before, or again, warm the bowl in your hands. Don’t be afraid to slightly chill a red, or serve a white at room temperature, if the style suits it.
In case you’re really serious about your wine:
Aromatic whites and Rosés: 8-10*C, as the aromas are stronger so can afford to be chilled a little more
Lighter reds (pinot noirs, chianti etc): 12-14*C, again, they’re more aromatic
Full-bodied and oaky whites: 14-16*C – so the bitter qualities of the oak are lessened, as are the acids, so they feel richer.
Medium-bodied reds: 14-16*C – a little warmer, to bring out flavour and slightly lessen tannins
Full-bodied reds: 16-18*C – really bring out the flavour and make the tannins less bitter and smoother.
What about sparkling wines?
Sparkling wines should be chilled more, as this helps slow the release of the carbon dioxide (hence, if you open a bottle of warm fizz, the cork will most likely fly out of the bottle and you’ll get wet shoes!). A temperature of between 6 and 9*C will help retain a consistent mousse (bubbles) and accentuate the acidity, making them more refreshing and mouth-watering!
Is the shape of the glass important?
Surprisingly so, and for very complex technical reasons that I don’t fully understand myself! A bigger bowl will bring out the aromas and flavours more (and makes swirling and aerating easier and more effective) while a narrower opening concentrates those aromas, and allows them to escape less quickly. In terms of sparkling glasses, flutes are great for keeping the bubbles going but heighten the wine’s acidity – although please don’t ask me why! They also don’t allow the flavours and aromas to open up, so you don’t smell or taste all the elements of the wine. [Riedel do a great range of glasses for different wine styles, which are a good guide and perfect if you want a gift for someone who likes a particular variety. I also love these John Lewis dartington wine glasses.)
Is it really “red on white and you’re out for the night”?
You should usually try lighter, less full-flavoured wines first, so that your palate isn’t overwhelmed by the bigger, bolder ones, which might make you numb to the subtleties of, say, a crisp, unoaked chardonnay. That can sometimes mean trying a rosé or lighter red before a heavier, oaky white, but if you’re unsure white, rosé, red in that order will usually be a safe option. The colour can be a good indicator too, as paler wines often have less ripe or pronounced fruit flavours, so start with the lightest and gradually get darker and you should be fine more times than not.
Aside from the obvious, does the percentage give us any other clue as to the quality of the wine?
Not really. I’ve heard people say that the higher the alcohol the better the wine, but it’s really not the case. It is more likely to give a clue as to the style of the wine though. Alcohol levels, as well as acidity, and fruit flavours, are dictated largely by climate of the wine region. Generally, the warmer the climate, the higher the sugar levels in the grapes (so the more tropical the fruit flavours, and the lower the acidity), so there’s more sugar to be converted into more alcohol during fermentation. So, in England, with our cool climate, our wines naturally have lower alcohol levels, a great freshness from the acidity, and very clean, fresh fruit flavours. The same is true of many of the great winemaking regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Germany) since they’re generally cooler. High alcohol isn’t a bad thing either – as long as you’ve got lots of flavour and structure so they’re not overwhelmed by alcohol burn. What’s important is that there’s a balance between all the elements of a wine.
Do you have any basic tips on pairing wine with food?
The old rules ‘White with fish and red with meat’ and ‘Pair food and wine from the same country’ will usually give you a ‘safe’ combination, but don’t be afraid to stray outside these norms to find an interesting pairing.
Acidity’s a big one, as if your food’s much more acidic than your wine, the wine will taste relatively dull and ‘flabby’ as sommeliers would say. Also, if you’ve got a richer, more oily or creamy course, a wine with higher acidity levels will cut through the fat, refresh your palate and lift the dish. English wines are generally great for food pairings, because they have good levels of acidity, so they can be paired with anything from oily fish, to creamy chicken, to fresh salads, and still hold their own.
Spicy foods are notoriously difficult to pair with wines, as the heat can dull the fruit flavours and make the wine seem too dry or astringent. To combat this, try a less dry, more aromatic style so there’s plenty of fruit flavour and a little sweetness to begin with, to balance the effects of the chilli. Look out for ‘off-dry’ or ‘medium’ blended whites, and try English varietals like Ortega, Bacchus and Madeleine Angevine.
Top tip: One of England’s most successful pairings has been Asparagus (again, traditionally difficult to match with wine) and Bacchus. English Bacchus has a great grassy character which complements that of the Asparagus, plus the freshness is perfect for cutting through any oily accompaniments. Try Kent’s famous asparagus with a Kentish Bacchus for a ready-made perfect local pairing!
How do we know how long we can store wines for?
As before, the closure gives you a clue: corks are better for ageing, screwtops for retaining freshness, so a screwtopped wine is probably intended to be drunk in the first year or so, and the early you drink it, the fresher it will taste (good excuse for opening that fancy bottle you’ve been saving!).
Cheaper and more easy-drinking wines are made to be ready to drink now, and are unlikely to improve with age, as they’ll just lose their fruit character and you’ll be left with a wine with no character.
Generally for wines that are intended to be laid down mid-term (for a few years) the label will give you an indication (‘will improve over the next 2-5 years’ for example). Again, asking a wine merchant is helpful, as they’ll probably have tasted the wine recently, and know how it’s drinking/what ageing potential it has. And if you really want to lay a wine down for a long time (as an investment or a special milestone, say) it’s worth doing your research, checking the vintage guides, and asking the professionals – you don’t want to open it in 20 years and find out it’s past its best.
Are there any white wines that grow better with age?
Richer, more complex (usually oaked) whites will often benefit from a few years ageing, or sometimes even longer. Premium sparkling whites, like Champagne, English sparkling, and even the better Cavas will usually get better with a few years of ageing, as the richer flavours from the yeast will develop and add complexity, giving more baked-bread, biscuit and buttery flavours. So if you can bear to wait a little while, you’ll definitely be rewarded!
How should we store wine to protect the quality?
Make sure you aren’t storing your wines in a place where the temperature fluctuates a lot (kitchens are probably the worst for wine storage) as this can cause unwanted changes in the wine and uneven ageing. Don’t store in direct sunlight, as the UV light can penetrate some bottles and adversely affect the wine (and again there’s the temperature issue). Generally store wines at a constant temperature of around 15*C. For longer ageing, wines should be stored on their sides, as this keeps the cork wet, keeping the wine in contact with a little oxygen, and decreasing the chance of the cork drying out a becoming faulty. For screwcaps and wines you’re intending to drink fairly quickly, this is largely unnecessary.
Why has England become renowned for sparkling wines?
English and Welsh wines have been gaining some great recognition in international competitions, with each year bringing more medals, and with this, we’re becoming recognised as a contender on the world stage, particularly for our sparkling wines. As our wines become more popular and more readily available, more people try them and like them, and so the reputation keeps on growing.
We’ve also got a lot of home-grown talent in the English wine industry, helped by an excellent centre of wine education in Plumpton College (in Sussex). Plumpton are the only place in Europe that offers Viticultural and Oenology (vineyard management and winemaking) undergraduate degrees taught in English. They do a great job and we’ve now got a wealth of well-trained winemakers – winemakers who often then hone their skills abroad, in Australia, New Zealand, Bordeaux and Champagne, before bringing that experience home, and making great English wines.
As mentioned before, we’ve also got a great climate (helped a little by global warming) for making light, clean, crisp and fresh styles of wine, both still and sparkling. A lot of our top sparkling producers have vineyards situated on the South Downs, in Sussex and Hampshire, which gives them perfect soils for top sparkling. The south down are part of the Paris basin chalk seam, which is also found in the top sites in Champagne, so there’s a good basis for great sparkling wines.
All English and Welsh sparkling wine is made in the traditional method (using secondary fermentation in the bottle), just like Champagne, which is recognised as the method which produces the best quality sparkling wines.
What makes English Sparkling wines distinct?
There are differences too though: the slightly cooler climate allows us to retain more of that ever-important acidity in our wines, and makes them fresher and lighter. We also have a longer growing season (by around 6 weeks) so the fruit flavours develop more slowly and this lends complexity to the wines. You often also get a little more of an ‘English Hedgerow’, herbaceous and floral character here – think elderflower and grassiness – which gives a different dimension, and a sense of place to our wines.
Our winemakers tend to be a little more adventurous too – we’re a young wine region, with lots of new producers and audacious young winemakers, who’re still establishing their own style, so there’s much more scope to try new things, innovate with new methods, challenge the norms, and, ultimately, create different, fresh and original wines, which is really exciting for anyone who likes trying new wine styles and broadening their horizons.
Why is sparkling red coming back into fashion?
I think sparkling in general is growing in popularity, as we’ve seen a big increase in Prosecco sales, as well as Cava, and of course, our own English sparkling wines. I think people like the idea of having a glass or two of bubbles of an evening, and are no longer just drinking sparkling wine as a special treat or as part of a celebration. As it becomes more common for people to drink sparkling wines in general, as people start to branch out from traditional Champagne, and as different regions become recognised as producing quality sparkling wines, consumers also become more willing to try different styles that they might not have considered before. This makes it a really exciting time for sparkling wine producers, as well as for anyone who loves a glass of fizz!
What should we look for when buying English wine?
English and Welsh wines are quality products, made from relatively small vineyards and wineries, so they going to be priced accordingly. If you come across one that’s much cheaper, there’s likely to be a reason and it’s probably not going to be a very good product. One thing to watch out for is that it says on the bottle ‘English Wine’ or ‘Welsh Wine’ and not ‘British Wine’. ‘English’ and ‘Welsh’ wine must be made from grapes grown in that place, and the wine must be made there, and come up to certain standards to bear that label. British wine can be made from imported grapes of concentrated grape juice, and is a vastly inferior product, with none of the quality regulations – hence it is very cheap, and has nowhere near the quality.
Apart from that, the world is your oyster really! Try visiting a local vineyard, to get an idea of how the wine’s made and how much care goes into it – lots of UK Vineyards are now open for tours and tastings, so you can meet the people and try the wines to see what you like. There are lots of tour companies now running trips to UK vineyards too, so you can explore the area, visit a couple of vineyards and have a lunch at a local restaurant and really make a day of it.
Why should we buy English wines?
Our recent competition success has proved that we’re now being recognised as a serious wine-producing region, with our own distinct style and top quality wines. As well as the, now world-famous sparklings, we produce some great well-known still varieties, like chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as more traditional varieties, like pinot gris and pinot blanc, and some that people will likely never have heard of, let alone tried (Muller-Thurgau or Rondo anyone?). So you get the chance to try a variety that you might already know and love, but with an English twist, as well as being able to try something completely different, exciting and new!
We’re still a relatively young wine region, so as we continue to invest in our vineyards and wineries, as our producers become more experienced and as our vines grow older, the wines of England and Wales will continue to get better and better. They’re also great wines for matching with food, which is perfect for a country with such a rich and varied food heritage.
Add all this to the fact that you’re supporting a local producer, and one whose vineyard you can go and visit, and learn more about the people and place behind the wine, and you get a wine with a unique story to tell, and a sense of place – whether it’s from the vineyards Abergavenny, Sussex, or even Leeds – which adds to the experience of drinking and sharing wine.
Finally, English wines are now more available than ever before – with many supermarkets now stocking English wines, in some cases with an own-label. Waitrose are the leaders in this field, stocking English wines in every store, wines from local vineyards in local branches as well as over 90 different English and Welsh wines online. Marks & Spencer, Majestic, Laithwaites and Wine Society to name but a few have English wine in store.
You are also in auspicious company – the Queen and the Prime Minister now frequently have an English wine on their menu when entertaining. The recent visit of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to the UK last week, saw an English sparkling wine from Ridgeview in Sussex being served at the Banquet at Buckingham Palace, and a still white wine from Camel Valley in Cornwall was served at Downing Street.
Now that we know we’ve got a quality product, right on our doorsteps, there’s no excuse not to give it a try?