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English Wine Week 2018

The Cricket is on the radio. 'Tuffers' and 'Aggers' effuse their own special brand of entertaining gibberish, the soundtrack to an English summer. Outside, it is threatening to either break into blazing sunshine or pour down with torrential rain. It does not feel that long ago that the Sussex countryside was painted white by snow. Root wafts wildly outside off-stump, the commentators groan. It is overcast, the ball is swinging, it has been so dry that the pitch is cracked. It is not easy to bat in these conditions, it is even harder to make wine.

You have to be a little unhinged, I believe, to try and make wine in this country. Beginning I imagine with an unhealthy albeit very British obsession with the BBC weather app. When you find yourself sending your kids off to school in the morning with a scarf and mittens, winter coat, sun hat and cream you know that you are living in a country where the weather cannot be relied upon to produce a bountiful harvest of quality fruit, year in year out.

I rather derogatorily suggested in a recent blog that anyone could grow a vine and make wine at home with a bit of effort, which is true, they probably can. Whether it would be even drinkable, let alone make the standards of a commercial offering however, is another matter. I was waxing lyrical on the art of distilling however there is one obviously critical thing that a distiller does not generally have to do, grow their base product. This is where wine and especially wine in this country hits another level.

I was talking to the amicable Colette O'Leary at my local producer Bluebell Vineyards recently and there is a kind of shrug, almost Gallic, when asked about the problems faced by English wine producers. They are resigned to loosing a decent portion of the potential harvest each year. Think £30 sounds expensive for the final product? Think again. Weigh up all the potential issues served up by the forces of nature; powdery mildew, downy mildew, botrytis pre-bunch closure, botrytis at harvest, spring frost, summer rains, deer, badger, rabbit... the list goes on. £30 begins to sound like one of the world's finest bargains. Yet, despite all the potential problems there is optimism flooding through this industry that a great future lies ahead.

I was driving from Sussex to Hampshire recently when on the outskirts of Petworth we passed Nutbourne vineyards. Their vines looking fine and green cascading down in regimenting lines to the very edge of the road. I wondered if perhaps one day the A272 one day be our answer to the Route de Grand Crus? O'Leary suggests I should not get ahead of myself. This is not Burgundy. This is not Napa. There are still far more craft brewers in Sussex than wine producers. This is a trade in its infancy, a line which can sometimes sound like an excuse for producing not very nice wine. There are still too many tooth brutalising efforts out there, no doubt being forced upon the market due to the financial pressures of holding back stocks of potential liquid cash-flow. However, the reality is that even the most conscientious of producers do not necessarily yet know the best sites, which grapes grow best on these sites, which clones, which pruning method. The formation of the Cote d'Or is no fluke. It is something which has developed over time. A symbiosis between nature and man. Though there are some big guns out there in the UK market producing annually millions of bottles such a Chapel Down and Nyetimber, they still do not compare to their global counterparts. The press constantly compare English Sparkling Wine to Champagne, a lazy, irrelevant comparison which misunderstands the core of this exciting product and does a disservice to the hard work of our winemakers.

This is our wine, our way. Our botrytis, our downy mildew, powdery mildew, deer, badgers, damp, rabbits, frost, rain, humidity, drought, botrytis again. The fact that producers have to compete with all these foes, day in and day out, just seems to strengthen their resolve. Resolve and an obsession with the weather, it is what we are good at.

It reminds me of watching England play cricket where you know it is all at some point going to go wrong, but you believe in it and commit to it nonetheless. The desperate lows only making the highs even higher. As the last line of my favourite play by the late Harold Pinter, a great cricket and wine man himself, goes.

“I'll drink to that.”

Our top picks:

2008 Bluebell Vineyards Hindleap Late Disgorged Blanc de Blancs (East Sussex, England) £41.95

Marzipan and apricot crumble. Depth of flavour, a real mouthful of wine, but with enough acidity to keep every balanced. Joyce the owner suggests that it is a wine not for glugging but sipping, perhaps with food. I nod in agreement, but the hedonist inside me wants to demolish a whole bottle of it with some pork belly and baked apple. At £41.95 it is a wonderful offering.

2013 Albourne Blancs de Noirs (West Sussex, England), £28.95

New in. The wines from the relatively new Albourne Estate are always worth trying.   Gentle whole bunch pressing of Pinot Noir grapes, coupled with extended on-lees ageing aim to achieve a rich, smooth and complex sparkling wine.

2013 Court Garden Farm Cuvee Rose (West Sussex, England)  £29.95

Though a very pale salmon pink the flavour profile lends itself more to a white wine with a touch of juicy redcurrant. Acidity is offset by a little residual sugar. Clean and refreshing.


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