Earlier this year, in a field close to Alfriston in East Sussex, a small but significant event occurred in the history of English wine-making: the first vines were planted in what could become the country's largest vineyard – it is projected to produce a million bottles of sparkling wine annually by decade's end.
Once, former financier Mark Driver's investment in the 400-acre Rathfinney estate, complete with state-of-the-art winery and hired French wine-maker, might have been considered a rich man's indulgence. But his venture is less speculative gamble and more faith in a business with a long-term future – English sparking wines have been garlanded with awards, celebrated by top chefs and served at Buckingham Palace and state functions. Now taken seriously by leading merchants, the supermarkets, from Aldi to Waitrose, also crucially feel required to put English wines on their shelves.
Their quality was acknowledged last month when several leading producers were recognised once again in the biggest annual wine competitions – the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge. Among them were relatively new estates such as Gusbourne and Hush Heath, both in Kent and both established to create a distinctively upmarket product, using the traditional champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – grown on south-facing chalky slopes and made by the traditional "méthode champenois". Rathfinney seeks to emulate this path, albeit on a larger scale, challenging the big boys of Champagne at their own game. The prize is a share in the world's second-biggest market for champagne. Not forgetting the international sales...
This is a very recent phenomenon. The model was pioneered in the early 1990s by first Nyetimber and then Ridgeview, both in Sussex, which sought to prove that British wine-making success lay not in amateurish off-dry whites using German grape varietals but, given similarities in soil and topography, on emulating their French counterparts, a mere 100 miles or so away. Their first wines, released in 1997 and 2000 respectively, won critical acclaim; awards duly followed.
Sparkling wine now accounts for about half the two-and-a-half million bottles produced in Britain's 400-plus vineyards annually – a 25 per cent rise in 10 years. The increase in quality is immeasurable, with a knock-on effect on still whites, as established wine-makers refine techniques and use grapes better suited to English soil – such as Bacchus and Seyval. Notable wines are being made outside the south-east – in Cornwall, the Severn Valley and even Wales; still rosés are gaining awards; there are even passable reds and late-harvest dessert wines; and new ones are emerging all the time. Which makes Simon Field, buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, believe English wine has come of age: "The quality stands up to the rest of the world and, in the case of some sparkling wines, exceeds their rivals."
Caveats exist: quality remains variable; pricing, particularly of still whites, must be more competitive; and despite improvements in marketing, such as this week's English Wine Week, timed to coincide with the Jubilee weekend and some publicity on The Apprentice, there is still some resistance to the idea of English wine.
That resistance can simply melt away once someone tries the better examples, such as the dozen featured overleaf. Inevitably, some good wines failed to make the cut here, so honourable mentions go to excellent sparklers from Bluebell and Danebury vineyards (bluebellvineyard.co.uk; danebury.com), an ambitious Pinot Noir from Gusbourne ( gusbourne.com) and Bolney's Lychgate Red ( bookersvineyard.co.uk).
So, what do they taste like? If good wine is an expression of its terroir, then some English wines do that, encapsulating our countryside in a glass. Start with scents of hay, blossom, wild flowers and cut grass and flavours of elderflower, apples and pears for the whites and strawberries, raspberries, honey and fresh bread for reds and you are just some of the way there. What better time than now to discover the rest for yourself?
Camel Valley 'Cornwall' Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2010
Proof that great sparkling wine can be made outside the chalky slopes of south-east England, Camel Valley Pinot Rosé has scooped international awards galore while this latest vintage was voted best British sparkler in a tasting of 90 wines. Gorgeous scents of strawberries and raspberries, lovely freshness on the palate and a rich finish. Try with summer puddings. £26.95, camelvalley.com; £32.50, greatwesternwine.co.uk
Ranmore Hill 2009
Made on the North Downs near Dorking in an area where the Romans once planted vines. Adding Pinot Gris to Ortega and Bacchus grapes delivers structure and smoky, aromatic undertones, given further complexity with barrel aging. For an English white, it is unexpectedly rich and full-flavoured, not unlike a French Viognier. Terrific with roast chicken or lightly spiced Asian fish dishes. £12.99, denbies.co.uk
Bolney Estate Cuvée Rosé 2008/9
From Bolney in West Sussex and voted the best bottle in a recent blind tasting of 40 English wines by retailer Naked Wines – including a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial sneaked in at the last minute – this is a zesty, zingy sparkler, jam-packed with red-berry fruit flavours. Perfect for summer puddings or, if you are feeling really daring, tomato-based tapas. £24.95, davy.co.uk
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2007
Based at Appledore in Kent on an estate dating back to 1410, Gusbourne released its first vintage to critical acclaim in 2010, and it is now sold out. This is even better: made entirely from Chardonnay grapes and delivering orchard-fruit aromas, creamy, toasty flavours and a satisfying finish. The Brut Reserve and Sparkling Rosé are also very good; all are sold at Tate Britain. £28.99, gusbourne.com
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2007
The vineyard which first showed how to produce a sophisticated English sparkler. Currently discounted by the first supermarket to really get behind English wine, the Classic Cuvée has masses of fresh citrus fruit and toasted-brioche flavours and is elegant and enlivening, making it the perfect summer celebration bottle. £29.99 (six or more in store or 12 online until 6 June), Waitrose; other stockists: nyetimber.com
Camel Valley Darnibole 2010
A single-vineyard wine from Bacchus grapes given the Cornish field name. Camel Valley's garlanded wine-maker Sam Lindo, son of the estate's founder, has created a crisp, dry wine, with lemon, nettle and gooseberry flavours, very similar to a Loire white. Served at Nathan Outlaw's Michelin-starred restaurant in Rock, Cornwall, and absolutely perfect with any shellfish or crustacea. £15.95, bbr.com; £13.95, greatwesternwine.co.uk; £14.95, camelvalley.com
Three Choirs Late Harvest 2009/10
In a sheltered spot near Newent, Gloucestershire, Three Choirs is one of the oldest vineyards whose still wines are sold by Waitrose, the Wine Society and Asda; Aldi is currently discounting its Classic Cuvée at £10.99. A product of warmer autumns, this luscious but not overly sweet dessert wine is made from Siegerrebe and Schönburger grapes and full of honey and apricot flavours. £9.25, three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk
Jenkyn Place Brut 2008
Hampshire-based Jenkyn Place has been growing grapes since 2004 on 12 acres of a former hop farm and its wine is actually made by Ridgeview in Sussex, one of the pioneers of the sparkling movement. The Brut is Chardonnay-based, with some variety delivered by Pinot Noir and Meunier: floral, fresh and indefinably English. £24.95, bbr.com
Hush Heath Balfour Brut 2008
Hotelier Rupert Balfour–Lynn created a vineyard on an ancient estate in Kent solely to produce a top-of-the-market pink sparkler. His new winery opened last year and the grapes are hand-picked in a planting system designed to maximise the soil and micro-climate. The result is a worthy challenger to Cristal, Laurent Perrier et al. £35.99 (six or more in store or 12 online until 6 June), Waitrose; £35, hushheath.com (min purchase six bottles)
Astley Veritas 2010
Astley, in Worcestershire – once the most northerly English vineyard – is a tiny estate, but it has produced a deliciously different one-off: the unregarded Kerner grape, a German clone, has been lovingly used to create a fragrant, just-the-right-side-of-dry, white that would make a perfect partner for almost any kind of seafood caught off our coasts. £14.50, stockists: 01299 822 907
Ridgeview Victoria Rosé 2009
With a range named after parts of London, Ridgeview, another sparkling-only estate, has smart branding behind its multi-award-winning wines. This is the latest to celebrate the Jubilee: tangy, red-berry flavoured Pinot Rosé, perfect with smoked salmon. Its wines for M&S are also worth checking out. £26.95, bbr.com; other stockists: ridgeview.co.uk
Chapel Down Three Graces 2008
An early pioneer, based in Tenterden in Kent, Chapel Down has an impressive range of still and sparkling wines, including its excellent Brut Reserve for M&S. This is its newest wine, a Pinot Noir-dominated combination of the classic Champagne varieties, bottle-aged to produce something quite rich and complex with a long finish. £22.50 (each for case of six), chapeldown.com