Wine: Fizzy business

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Indy Lifestyle Online

As she snipped the tape at Bookers Vineyard, Margaret Beckett (until recently Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) raised a glass to the quality of English wines supplied to official Defra functions. "This is by no means surprising," she said. "English wines are now taking more accolades at international competitions then ever before, against competition from some of the best producers in the world." She was right, and now that she has moved on, I suspect English wines will have lost a sympathetic cheerleader.

Of the substantial number of English wines that were entered for the International Wine Challenge this year, there was a good smattering of medals, including five silvers, four for fizz. It's welcome news that England's best category, sparkling wines, is no longer dominated by Nyetimber and RidgeView, the accomplished pair that has long had the tiny English sparkling wine market sewn up.

Nyetimber's founders, Stuart and Sandy Moss, and RidgeView's Mike Roberts, researched their south of England geology well. In addition, they had the foresight to pioneer the champagne grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and to use champagne's traditional bottle-fermentation technique. They weren't daunted by England's cool climate - far from it. They realised that champagne grapes, picked early, are less susceptible to the worst assaults of an English autumn.

Recently expanded under its new owner, Eric Heerema, Nyetimber's 1998 Classic Cuvée, £24.99, buy 2 = £19.99, Majestic, won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Trophy for bottle-fermented sparkling wine and its 1998 Prestige Cuvée Blanc de Blancs, the 1998 English Wine of the Year award. The richly honeyed 1999 Nyetimber Première Cuvée, £21.99, Waitrose, is another winner that gives champagne a run for its money. RidgeView, the other estate flying the flag for England, managed only a bronze for its 2003 Bloomsbury Cuvée Merret, £16.99, Waitrose. Frankly, it's better than that. It's a delightfully refreshing, apple-crunchy sparkling wine.

Among newcomers to the scene, there was one silver medal apiece for the 2001 sparkling Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay from the Bookers Vineyard ( www.bookersvineyard.co.uk), one for Throwley Vineyard's 2001 Reserve Brut Pinot Noir (01795 890276), another for Camel Valley's 2003 Pinot Noir Brut ( www.camelvalley.com) and a fourth for the 2003 Denbies Wine Estate Greenfields Pinot Noir ( www.denbieswine-estate.co.uk). Chapel Down, too, is showing the way with its creditable Century Sparkling in Sainsbury's at £12.99. Chapel Down ( www.englishwines group.com) is one of England's biggest commercial wine producers, and if such a professional operation can get its sparkling wine act together, it can only bode well for the future of English wines.

Gloucestershire's Three Choirs, chosen by Jamie Oliver to provide the grapes for Sainsbury's new range of products, reports its best ever vintage, and believes that the changing UK climate could be great news for the industry.

No wonder the French are now sniffing around the south of England in search of suitable real estate for making bubbly. But don't overlook England's dry whites either, especially our very own sancerre-like Bacchus grape. There are some divine manifestations of this exciting variety emanating from, among others, Chapel Down, Three Choirs, Denbies and Camel Valley.

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