Du vin, du pain, du fromage: it's all so... jolly British, actually

No, it's not the Loire, but a vineyard in Kent. Drinkers can raise their glasses to the surging popularity of English wines, with sales up 30 per cent and orders pouring in from France. Julia Stuart tests the best
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The Independent Online

They are cheeky little wines whose light, aromatic flavours have unexpectedly muscled their way into the international market. But these impertinent bouquets are not from the Loire Valley or California, but the more unexpected quarters of Kent and Sussex. English wines, once a laughing stock, are emerging as a serious force in the world market, new figures reveal.

They are cheeky little wines whose light, aromatic flavours have unexpectedly muscled their way into the international market. But these impertinent bouquets are not from the Loire Valley or California, but the more unexpected quarters of Kent and Sussex. English wines, once a laughing stock, are emerging as a serious force in the world market, new figures reveal.

Sales have rocketed by 30 per cent in the past year and producers are struggling to keep up with demand. As a result of rising temperatures caused by global warming, which has prompted warnings that some wine regions in France may become barren, English wine is even being enjoyed across the Channel by our Gallic cousins.

Viticulturalists yesterday said that the longer hours of sunshine means English wine is becoming more drinkable because the grapes are ripening better on the vine.

Nyetimber in West Sussex, which produces two award-winning sparkling wines, is typical, having seen a six-fold rise in sales from 10,000 to 60,000 bottles over the past three years. "We are now selling everything that we produce and we have to be careful about selling out," said Andy Hill, a songwriter and producer who owns the vineyard.

As well as winning a gold medal at last year's International Wine and Spirit Competition, his wine is sold in some of London's leading restaurants - Gordon Ramsay, Oxo Tower and Jamie Oliver's Fifteen.

Denbies in Dorking, Surrey, the largest vineyard in the UK with 265 acres, has seen sales increase by 15 per cent. Last year's vintage won four International Wine Challenge awards. It supplies Sainsbury's and Waitrose and has just sent an order to Nato.

"I think beforehand it was something that Nato didn't want to take a gamble on," admits Philip White, the vineyard's sales manager. "But they very easily accept now that they are not taking any risks by putting English wines on the table."

There are more than 300 vineyards in England, around 70 of which will open to the public this week as part of English Wine Week. This will see a major drive to capitalise on the new popularity of English wine. Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers, which is organising the event, said: "Vineyards reported an excellent rise in sales in 2004 over the previous year, some upwards of 25 per cent."

English vineyard owners would be forgiven for cracking open the Champagne to celebrate. Instead they are more likely to crack open a bottle of Cornwall. A sparkling wine from Camel Valley Vineyard in Bodmin won a silver medal in the International Wine and Spirit Competition and will be offered to guests at government events as part of its G8 presidency.

"We call our sparkling Cornwall in the same way that Champagne is called Champagne," said Sam Lindo, whose parents own the vineyard. "They are not allowed to call theirs Cornwall either. We sell out every year and we'll sell out quicker this year. More people are drinking English wine because the quality has improved a lot. The top vineyards aren't doing it as a hobby as people used to. They're doing it to make a living, so the standard's gone up."

The vineyards of Kent and Sussex are also producing sparkling wine. They are only about a couple of degrees north of Champagne and the soil is very similar.

Climate change has also played its part. The longer the grape stays on a vine ripening the less flavour it eventually has. But to ripen it needs sunshine. In the past 10 years Britain has seen six of the hottest years on record.

Glasses of English are clinking throughout the world. Le Chai 33, a restaurant and wine cellar in Paris, is stocking up on bottles of Curious Grape Bacchus, produced by Chapel Down Wines in Kent.

Sales at Three Choirs Vineyards in Gloucestershire have risen by 30 per cent since last year. The second largest vineyard in the country, it produces about 250,000 bottles a year and supplies Asda and Tesco. "A lot of the myths that we can't make good wine in this country have been blown apart," said managing director Thomas Shaw. "We are able to produce slightly lighter, fruity, aromatic style wines on a par with the Loire and parts of Alsace."

Not all, however, are so enthusiastic. Adam Lechmere, the editor-at-large of wine magazine Decanter, said that while some English sparkling wines were "excellent", the stills tasted "like rain". "I know that's very cruel," he said. "England just doesn't have the climate to ripen white and red grapes. You don't need a fully ripe grape for a sparkling wine. Red grapes are a non-starter."

Additional reporting by Aidan O'Neill


Meanwhile, in Paris...

Le Chai 33, a trendy wine bar and restaurant in the Bercy Village area of eastern Paris, has stocked Chapel Down Bacchus, produced by the Chapel Down vineyard in Kent, for the past three years. It sells about 1,000 bottles a year. Antonio Cruz, the bar manager, said they "wanted to offer something a little bit different". "We chose the wine for its fresh mineral qualities," he said. "Although it's not one of our best sellers."

English white

Chapel Down, £7.50

Charles Metcalfe: Very fruity, almost fruit juicy. Thin and sharp. Not for me. I'd say it's English.

Ronan Sayburn: Lemon sherbert flavours. Not very pleasant. To make sorbet with only. Is it an Italian moscato?

Lowri Turner: Very sweet floral smell. Horribly Black Tower. Syrupy. Italian?


Italian white

Soave Ca' de Napa, £6.99

CM: Some oak, a touch grassy, quite full-bodied. Good acidity. Italian.

RS: Nose not too aromatic, quite closed. Vanilla hints, short in length, very subtle flavours. Definitely French.

LT: Nice nutty smell, then surprisingly acidic taste. Like flower-flavoured Castrol. Hungarian.


English red

Denbies Redlands, £8.99

CM: Ripe, quite oaky, firm tannins. Slightly vinegary. English.

RS: A little sweet, vanilla on nose. Black fruits, cherry and plum. Soft tannins, pleasant balance. Hungary.

LT: Smooth and slightly tart after-taste. Smells like holidays in Spain - sangria and donkeys. Italy.


Australian red

Sticks Pinot Noir, £7.99

CM: Broad, slightly rustic, palate very acidic, slightly hot alcohol. Not great. Hungary.

RS: Nose open and ripe, strawberry jam and bacon fat hints, soft tannins. Australian Pinot.

LT: Softer smell and almost peachy taste. Like this one better. Bit like fizzy Ribena. Australia.


English sparkling

Nyetimber, £18.50

CM: Fragrant, honeyed, aromatic. Acid a bit high but there is a careful balance of sweetness.

RS: Full bodied, heavy, yeasty style, masculine and toasty. Very good.

LT: Grassy smell - English garden in summer. Needs to be drunk with a straw while sitting on a white bar stool.


French brut

Louis Jaunay Brut, £15.99

CM: Definitely Champagne varieties but could be English. Nice balance. Lovely chocolately maturity, with fresh citrusy character.

RS: Nose ripe and floral. Full and nutty. Full palate, good balance.

LT: Very strong smell, almost smoky. Old money, not Eurotrash.


Our tasters were: Charles Metcalfe, associate editor of 'Wine International', Ronan Sayburn, executive sommelier for the Gordon Ramsay Group, and Lowri Turner, TV presenter.