It's a fair bet that when Barack Obama sipped the 1998 Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs served on his recent visit to Britain, compliments will have been duly showered on his host like confetti. It's an open secret that despite the stigma that sill attaches to English wine, England can more than hold its head high in the sparkling wine stakes. With more than 100 awards doled out this year in the UK's consumer wine competitions, English wines, sparkling wines in particular, have harvested a bumper crop. All but one of several gold medals went to English fizz, among them the 2005 Camel Valley White Pinot from Bodmin in Cornwall, Nyetimber's 1992 Blanc de Blancs 1992 from East Sussex and the 2005 Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé from the Weald of Kent.
English wine's annual production of some two million bottles, about the size of your average French wine co-operative, is a drop in the ocean next to France, Spain and Italy's five-billion-plus bottles each. Tiny as it may be, though, English wine is on a roll. Waitrose last year reported an increase in sales of over 18 per cent, saying that there's not enough English wine to meet customer demand. Doing its bit for its country, Waitrose has just planted vines in the sheltered hills of its Leckford Farm Estate in Hampshire, taking advantage of the sort of chalk and clay loam soils that the Champagne region enjoys. You can't hurry sparkling wine, which needs time in the bottle to develop its special yeast-derived flavours, but Waitrose's Leckford Farm fizz should be on the shelves by 2014.
A warmer climate is a factor, but the recent upturn in English wine's fortunes is also due to growing professionalism, better site selection and a change in grape varieties. Early-ripening Germanic grapes such as müller-thurgau, reichensteiner and schönburger are being gradually supplanted by the Champagne varieties, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, planted specifically to make fizz. There is one German grape, however, that seems ideally suited to the English climate. The aromatic bacchus, which accounts for 10 per cent of Britain's estimated 1,250 hectares of vineyards, is England's answer to Loire Valley sauvignon blanc with the floral scents of elderflower and zingy, dry, gooseberry and hedgerow flavours. The smoky 2007 Camel Valley Bacchus Dry, around £12.95, Camel Valley (01208 77959), Wadebridge Wines (01208 812692), Cornwall, Great Western Wine, Bath (01225 322800), was the other English wine gold medal winner.
From former RAF pilot Bob Lindo, this is a first for an English still white wine, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, its time has come. Certainly there's a growing number of good examples around, among them the 2008 English Bacchus, £9.99, Marks & Spencer, aromatic with a sauvignon-like elderflower note and pear-like fruitiness, and the crisp, citrusy 2007 Chapel Down Bacchus, £9.49, Waitrose. Another new trend using bacchus and pinot noir among other grapes, is English rosé. If the quality of Chapel Down's refreshingly elegant summer pudding of a 2008 English Rosé, £9.99, Marks & Spencer, is anything to go by, this could be England's Next Big Thing. Yes, the price of English wine is still an issue when established wines like New Zealand sauvignon blanc cost no more. But try bacchus with locally grown asparagus, sparkling wine with crab, or rosé with a crunchy herb salad, and it should help us swallow some of that prejudice.