Friday, 15 May 2009

Are English wines coming of age?

English wines are at an awkward adolescent stage in their growth. They are past the early years when they were viewed as something of a joke, and not a very funny one at that. Today, more and more consistently enjoyable wines are being made across England (and Wales) and conditions seem right for a growth spurt to take them into adulthood with the other big boys of the wine world.

Of course wine-making in this country is not a new thing: the traditional view conjures pictures of Roman Britons lounging in their villas (presumably with the hypocaust turned up high), downing goblets of locally-produced wine. Sadly there is no evidence to support these imaginings: grapes seem to have been grown here in Roman times, but there is nothing to suggest that any wine was made from them.

However, it is true that wine was made, probably in a rather patchy and piecemeal way, over the intervening centuries. Wine was intimately connected with monastic and church ritual, but any lasting progress was hampered by the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries, easier trade routes with wine regions further south and climate change. The renaissance of English wine began shortly after the second world war, when the first commercial vineyard was planted at Hambledon in Hampshire.

So perhaps, given this long history, it’s churlish of me to talk of English wines being still only adolescent. Well you have to recognize that we don’t have the ideal climate for grape-growing and wine-making. If you’ve visited other wine-making regions around the world, you can’t help noticing that they are, well, warmer than here. Our climate is the limiting factor on our wine industry: it dictates which grape varieties can be grown, and only then in the most favoured spots, and only in the warmer years too.

These tricky conditions have led English wimemakers to plant grape varieties specifically bred to survive and ripen in our marginal climate. There’s nothing wrong with these varieties per se, but mostly they were developed in Germany and have correspondingly Germanic-sounding names: Huxelrebe, Schönburger, Würzer, Dornfelder. These are not names to tempt English wine drinkers – if those varieties are any good, why aren’t they grown elsewhere? Never seen a Siegerrebe from Chile or Australia, have we? And any combination of “Germany” and “wine” is commercial poison. There’s also some, perhaps correct, snobbishness about these varieties: they are mostly hybrids (made from crossings of other varieties) and there is a view that hybrids can never produce good quality wine, certainly not great wine.

As time has gone on, many of these older Germanic varieties and hybrids have started to die out in favour of other grapes, as our climate has warmed, as vine-growing and wine-making know-how have improved. They are still there and still used, but their names are not trumpeted on labels; they are mostly blended together in wines with inoffensive-sounding names like Autumn Spice or Surrey Gold.

Varieties that have proved themselves over time and which look likely to grow further in popularity are Bacchus, for white wines and Pinot Noir for reds.

Bacchus, despite being pretty much unknown outside these shores does have some advantages. It doesn’t sound German and even sounds like it might have something to do with wine. Perhaps more importantly (but only perhaps), it makes wines that are attractive to the average wine drinker. Bacchus wines have some things in common with our current favourite white, Sauvignon Blanc: fresh, herbal and nettley-smelling with attractive fruit.

Pinot noir – ah, finally we get to grow a variety that people have already heard of, that is actually grown in other countries. Pinot noir is the grape that makes red Burgundies; it is also one of the trio of grapes that are permitted to make Champagne. That’s quite a pedigree and, by some stroke of good fortune, we English seem to be able to grow it here.

Making red wines in England has been a bit of a struggle, frankly. Red grape varieties are more difficult to ripen here, so growers have had to resort to those unfamiliar-sounding hybrids in the past. Now, however, Pinot Noir has arrived and seems to suit the climate – and perhaps the climate has changed a little too, to meet it halfway. You still see other varieties in bottles of English red wine, but the future looks increasingly pinot-tinted. And, as a bonus, if the weather isn’t good enough to ripen the pinot noir to make red wine, then growers can use it to make sparkling wine instead.

Sparkling wines are perhaps the area where English wines have taken the greatest strides in the last few years. In Ridgeview and Nyetimber, both based in Sussex, England has sparkling wine makers whose ambition is to emulate Champagne itself in style and quality. People may have found the idea laughable not so many years ago – but they’re not laughing now. Indeed the Queen, it is said, serves Nyetimber sparkling wine at Buckingham Palace – though I don’t believe her Majesty is obliged to divulge all expense receipts (yet), so I can’t be categorical.

English Wine Week – 23rd – 31st May
This is the annual celebration of all things English and winey and a great excuse to get out and visit a vineyard or two. Over the course of the week vineyards across England will be opening their doors to welcome visitors and offer a variety of activities, including tours, tastings and sales or hosting special events. Details of all activities are available on

Recommended English Wines
A highly personal selection of my current favourite English wines.

Ridgeview Fitzrovia Brut 2006, £21.95 from Ridgeview themselves or £21.99 from Waitrose
Ridgeview’s take on a rosé Champagne, made authentically from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. All of Ridgeview’s wines are worth a try and their commitment to quality is always impressive – the only trouble being, their wines sell out so quickly that it’s hard to buy them at their peak of maturity.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2001/3, £25.99, from Waitrose
Nyetimber are, by far, the largest sparkling wine producer in the country and further expansion is planned. They don’t suffer from false modesty and consider their wines on a par with Champagne. It’s a fine and elegant sparkling wine in any case.

Camel Valley Brut 2006, £19.99 from Waitrose, £19.95 from the vineyard
Unlike Ridgeview and Nyetimber, at Camel Valley, based in Cornwall, they pursue a more English idiom of sparkling wine, rather than apeing Champagne. This fruity and easy-going wine is made from a blend of Seyval blanc, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner grapes.

Chapel Down Bacchus 2007, £9.49 at Waitrose, £9.99 direct from the vineyard in Tenterden, Kent
If you’ve yet to try Bacchus, this is a good place to start. Chapel Down is the country’s largest wine producer, making wines from grapes from their own substantial vineyards, as well as buying in grapes from growers all over Kent, Sussex, Essex and even the Isle of Wight. Although described as a dry wine, this wine is essentially off-dry, which is I feel the best way to appreciate most English white wines. The small amount of sweetness helps to round out the palate and enhances the fruit.

Bookers Vineyard Dark Harvest 2005, £7.99 from Waitrose, or £8.95 at Bookers Vineyard
What I really wanted to recommend is Samantha Linter’s pinot noir – but, sadly, she hasn’t had ripe enough grapes to make any in the last two summers, and the 2006 vintage is now sold out. One of only a small handful of female wine-makers in England, Samantha seems to have found her niche with her attractive, scented pinot. The Dark Harvest is made from the more reliably performing Dornfelder and Rondo grapes. Its jewel-like purple colour is matched by plenty of juicy berry fruit.

Denbies Hillside Chardonnay, £13.50 from the vineyard
I couldn’t write about English wines without mentioning Denbies, the largest single vineyard in the country (rather than the biggest producer). Denbies make a wide range of wines and, overall, quality is high and consistent. They can’t get the chardonnay grapes ripe enough every year to make a still, 100% chardonnay wine, but this is a great signpost of what English wine is capable of in the right hands and with favourable weather. No funny-sounding grape varieties, no hiding behind residual sweetness, just a well-made chardonnay that doesn’t automatically make you think, “OK for an English wine”.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Oddbins v Majestic

Most wine in the UK is bought in supermarkets, but there is still a place, albeit a shrinking one, for specialist wine merchant chains on our High Streets. Oddbins and Majestic are, I would guess, the most interesting of the chains for people interested in wine.

I’ll come clean straight away – I once worked for Oddbins. Only for 10 months or so, until I found that selling wine and selling tins of beans had too much in common for me. But I will do my best not to get all misty-eyed about how things used to be “back in my day” and attempt to give a fair comparison of these two giants of UK wine retailing.

How do they stack up? Publicly-listed Majestic currently has 147 wine warehouses across the country, compared with 132 Oddbins shops, privately owned by Simon Baile and his business partner. The distinguishing factor for Majestic is that shoppers must buy a minimum of 12 bottles of wine (or beer or spirits); at Oddbins you always have the option of popping in for just a single bottle. I get the feeling that Oddbins eye this case-only policy jealously and would love to have their customers do the same. I can see their point: it’s so much easier to serve 20 customers in a day, each of them spending, say, £80 each to earn £1600 income; rather than having to deal with more like 160 customers, spending an average of £10 each.

Additionally, it must irk Oddbins’ owners that their rival can essentially build in a case discount to all their prices, whereas they must offer a single bottle price, which is necessarily higher. In order to address this imbalance, Oddbins offers discounts of up to 15 and even 20% on particular wines if you buy a mixed case, in order to encourage shoppers to buy more each time they visit. However, interestingly, Majestic are trialling a minimum purchase of six bottles in some of its stores, rather than the traditional twelve – so it may be that the benefits of their case-only policy are wearing thin in these straitened times.

Majestic’s management has had nothing more troublesome to deal with than the transition of power from long-time CEO Tim How, to Steve Lewis last year. From the outside at least, their progress looks assured, including snapping up fine wine specialists Lay & Wheeler in March this year.

Oddbins, by contrast, has been through a particularly torrid time in the last decade or so. In the eighties and nineties Oddbins was owned by Seagram, as part of its spirit and wine brand portfolio. During this time Oddbins grew rapidly to over 200 shops and stood head and shoulders above other High Street merchants – a funky image, eclectic range and pioneers of new wines to the UK and a foregone conclusion as the International Wine Challenge’s Wine Merchant of the Year.

Then in 2002, Oddbins, that champion of the new, the exciting, the sometimes, frankly, odd, was bought by a French company, Castel Frères. It should never have worked and it didn’t. Finally, last year, Castel sold Oddbins to the son of one of its former owners – not without first having cherry-picked the most profitable sites for its own group of underwhelming French wine merchants, Nicolas.

Oddbins’ new owners face challenges on many fronts – breathing life into their wine range, so neglected under Castel; retaining and motivating staff; regaining their place in the hearts of the UK’s wine lovers – and all at a time of unprecedented economic slowdown. I don’t envy them their task.

If Oddbins have been known for their funky, risky side of wine retail, then Majestic are more steady Eddy. They don’t take chances with their wine range – if someone’s going to champion a new wine country or region, you can bet it won’t be Majestic. However, while Oddbins have, to all intents and purposes, been absent from the UK wine scene, Majestic has stolen a march on its long-time rival and turned ex-Oddbins shoppers into loyal Majestic customers.

It’s not an easy time for anyone selling anything quite so frivolous as wine and it would be a shame to see either of these two retail institutions suffer. And, while it’s too early to say if Oddbins can rekindle its old magic, a rejuvenated wine presence on the High Street can only be welcomed.

Top wine picks from Oddbins
Oddbins Own White and Oddbins Own Red 2008 - £4.49 (£3.59 as part of a mixed dozen)
The Castel-era versions of these wines were dreary. Now, though, they are fantastic value for money wines made by the enterprising Domaines Paul Mas in the Languedoc – though it’s a shame they haven’t changed the fright of a label on the bottle. The white is a veritable cocktail of grapes: grenache blanc, vermentino, chenin blanc, colombard, ugni blanc and chasan which deliver a fresh, crisp yet weighty mouthful of apple and citrus fruit. The red, meanwhile, is made up of grenache, cinsault, syrah and carignan and offers lively, dark fruits with a touch of spice. At this price don’t expect greatness - but they are honest and cheerful.

Fox Gordon Princess Fiano 2008 - £9.99 (available mid-May)
This is the kind of off the wall wine we love Oddbins for – a cultish southern Italian grape variety, used to make a wine in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. It has a gorgeous, alluring nose of honey and apricot – in the vein of viognier, but with more freshness – a full-on and interesting mouthful.

Margrain Pinot Noir Home Block 2007 - £14.99 (£11.99 as part of a mixed dozen). Available from end of May.
The case price is great value for such an accomplished Pinot Noir from Martinborough in New Zealand. This spot, at the very southern tip of the North Island, across the water from Marlborough, seems to produce the most intensely-flavoured and “masculine” of New Zealand’s pinots – this is rich, ripe, spicy and smoky, but with typical pinot noir lively acidity and perfume.

Top picks from Majestic
Dr L Riesling 2008 - £6.99
Despite its complete lack of popularity with the wine-drinking public, Majestic valiantly continues to stock a small but well-chosen range of wines from Germany. This riesling is just off-dry, with plenty of zesty, peachy fruit and at just 8.5% alcohol with a screwcap it’s a perfect picnic wine.

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Blanc, Domaine de Mercey 2004 - £9.99 (£7.99 if you buy two)
This is the kind of thing that Majestic do so well – white Burgundy is hardly original, but they have searched out a less fashionable area and found a great example of maturing Burgundian chardonnay at a very reasonable price. There’s a hint of honeyed ripeness to the appley fruit, along with a touch of peach and spice.

De Martino 347 Vineyards Carmenère Reserva 2007 - £7.49 (£5.99 if you buy any two Chilean wines)
If you’re planning a barbecue then look no further – it practically smells like barbecue steak already. The palate is a mass of juicy black cherry fruit.