Blind tasting of English wines suggests British really is best


This month, English wines won a stonkingly huge number of gongs —155 — in the world’s most prestigious wine competition, the Decanter Awards. 

It was a record haul for this country’s producers.

Was I surprised? Not for one moment.

The English wine trade has got it all — structure, flavour, complexity — and an impertinent little nose that right now is doing its level best to upset the European and New World establishment. 

In the next few years, we can expect an exceptionally strong finish, full-bodied and highly satisfying for us all.

Astonishingly, at the awards, two English wines, Roebuck Estate and Simpsons’ still white, were judged to be among the top 50 in the world. 

It’s plainly obvious that now, at last, our time has come.

People have been producing wine in England for centuries: small, quirky producers making small, quirky wines from lush vineyards in the countryside. 

I’ve been to pretty much all of them since I started presenting Food And Drink with Jilly Goolden on TV in the 1990s.

The problem is that for a long time it hasn’t been commercially viable: often it was well-meaning, enthusiastic retired majors in the home counties making wine as a hobby.

But everything went up a gear a couple of years ago. For English wines, the summer of 2018 was the watershed. 

We all remember that amazingly warm summer when the sun almost never stopped shining.

Not only was it good news for deck-chair salesmen — it was brilliant for the English wine trade. Suddenly, sales rocketed.

Five years ago, I’d find people saying: ‘Oh, English wine. That can’t be much good.’

But in the past 12 to 18 months, I’ve noticed people saying: ‘I love English wine — and I actively go looking for it.’

And that is how we have reached the all-important tipping point.

Inevitably, climate change has helped. Warmer summers mean we can ripen fruit for longer. 

The last three vintages have proved Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes can do perfectly well in this country.

There is a perception that English wines are more expensive than their European equivalents. 

About 70 per cent of the wine produced in this country is sparkling — and as an English producer you’re competing against Champagne and well-established cheaper Italian and Spanish wines such as Prosecco and Cava.

The French, Italians and Spanish have immense economies of scale. But our sparkling wines are often as good as Champagne, and in many cases better. 

So yes, this is a highly partisan blast on behalf of English wine. But I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe in it.

So is Oz Clarke right? The Mail put it to the test with a blind tasting of wines from England, Europe or the New World. 

Each English wine was paired with a similar one from abroad.

Our judges were Aggie MacKenzie, TV presenter and enthusiastic wine-drinker; Richard Ehrlich, drinks writer and a former winner of the Glenfiddich Award, and Mark Edmonds, Mail contributor and Oz Clarke’s former editor. 

Each awarded every wine points out of 5 and the final verdicts are an average of their marks.

THE SCORES: Five: Absolute corker. Four: Grape stuff. Three: Medium-bodied. Two: Drinkable plonk. One: Gut-rot

SPARKLING:

Tesco Finest English Sparkling (Hush Heath Vineyard, Tonbridge, Kent) ‘Good classic nose. True flowery flavours but an astringency that lets an otherwise excellent wine down.’ RE

Tesco Finest English Sparkling (Hush Heath Vineyard, Tonbridge, Kent) £19, Tesco

Made from three hand-harvested grape varieties using the traditional ‘Champagne’ method.

‘Good classic nose. True flowery flavours but an astringency that lets an otherwise excellent wine down.’ RE 

Verdict: 3

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (Champagne, France) £20, Tesco

Good value, widely available mass-market Champagne.

‘Biscuity, robust. Well-rounded nose. Would imagine expensive, but worth it.’ ME 

Verdict: 4

Chapel Down Brut NV, (Tenterden, Kent) £29.99, Majestic

Popular English fizz, aimed to compete with Champagne.

‘Flowery, extremely well-balanced palate. Very classy stuff — a genuinely celebratory fizz.’ RE

Verdict: 4

Lanson Black Label (Champagne, France) ‘Lovely on the nose, but a bit of flatness in texture and taste.' AM

Lanson Black Label (Champagne, France) ‘Lovely on the nose, but a bit of flatness in texture and taste.’ AM

Lanson Black Label, £35.99, Waitrose (Champagne, France)

Award-winning mid-price Champagne.

‘Lovely on the nose, but a bit of flatness in texture and taste.’ AM

Verdict: 3

WHITES:

Chapel Down Chardonnay (Tenterden, Kent) £16.99, Majestic

Still wine from Britain’s best-known winery, which makes wine from a range of European grape varieties.

‘Tasty apple nose, good acidity, flowery notes. Grows on you with each sip’ RE

Verdict: 4

Macon-Chardonnay Cave de Lugny (Burgundy, France)£12.99, Majestic

‘Smoky, complex, refined. Excellent all-rounder.’ ME

VERDICT: 3

Tesco Finest English White (Hush Heath Vineyard, Tonbridge, Kent) ‘Cats’ wee. No colour, very clear. Astringent, lacks fruitiness.’ AM

Tesco Finest English White (Hush Heath Vineyard, Tonbridge, Kent) ‘Cats’ wee. No colour, very clear. Astringent, lacks fruitiness.’ AM

Tesco Finest English White (Hush Heath Vineyard, Tonbridge, Kent) £11, Tesco

Made from Pinot Blanc, Bacchus and Chardonnay grapes grown on a family estate.

‘Cats’ wee. No colour, very clear. Astringent, lacks fruitiness.’ AM

Verdict: 1

La Burgondie Chardonnay (Burgundy, France) ‘Yellow and moreish. Creamy and fruity. Delish.’ AM

La Burgondie Chardonnay (Burgundy, France) ‘Yellow and moreish. Creamy and fruity. Delish.’ AM

La Burgondie Chardonnay (Burgundy, France) £10, Tesco

One hundred per cent Chardonnay, produced in a region famous for full and juicy white wines.

‘Yellow and moreish. Creamy and fruity. Delish.’ AM

VERDICT: 3

Three Choirs Stone Brook English Wine (Newent, Glos) (Majestic, £11.99)

Three Choirs is a small, family-run vineyard started in 1973.

‘Beautiful, dry yet fruity. Very easy drinker. Posh! Deserves top marks so it’s a five from me. ME

Verdict: 5

Venturina DOCG Gavi (Piedmont, Italy) Waitrose, £10.79

Easy-drinking light southern Italian white.

‘Riesling-like quality, aromatic. Highly Enjoyable RE

Verdict: 2

Denbies Flint Valley (Dorking, Surrey) £9.99, Waitrose.

Budget wine produced from two grape varieties, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc.

‘Crystal-clear, aromatic. German grapes? Not my style but OK for light drinkers ’ ME

Verdict: 2

Hunawihr Gewurztraminer (Alsace, France) Majestic, £12.99

Produced by a wine co-op in eastern France that specialises in wines in the German style. ‘Too soft and sweet. Could not drink much of this’ AM

Verdict: 1

REDS:

Gusborne Pinot Noir (Ashford,Kent) ‘Obviously Pinot Noir, good acidity, real varietal character, understated. Very, very good. A brilliant wine’ RE

Gusborne Pinot Noir (Ashford,Kent) ‘Obviously Pinot Noir, good acidity, real varietal character, understated. Very, very good. A brilliant wine’ RE

Gusborne Pinot Noir (Ashford,Kent) £32.50, TheatreofWine.com and other outlets.

Cool-climate Pinot Noir, produced in limited quantities on a family estate dating back to the 15th century.

‘Obviously Pinot Noir, good acidity, real varietal character, understated. Very, very good. A brilliant wine’ RE

Verdict: 5

Pinot Noir, Guillaume Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes 2015 (Franche-Comte, France) £21.40, Theatreof Wine.com and other outlets.

Small-scale family producer, in an obscure region of France not known for its wine-growing.

‘Earthy, mellow, smells expensive, and expansive.’ AM

Verdict: 4

ROSE:

Simpsons Pinot Noir (Barham, Kent) ‘Works well. Unassuming and not shouting, but deserves attention. One of the very best I tasted.’ AM

Simpsons Pinot Noir (Barham, Kent) ‘Works well. Unassuming and not shouting, but deserves attention. One of the very best I tasted.’ AM

Simpsons Pinot Noir (Barham, Kent) Waitrose, £11.99

The Simpsons Estate is one of a new wave of British producers; they produce sparkling whites, a red Pinot Noir and this rose.

‘Works well. Unassuming and not shouting, but deserves attention. One of the very best I tasted.’ AM

Verdict: 5

Las Mulas Organic Pinot Noir rose (Central Valley, Chile) ‘Fruity, aromatic. Very drinkable, complex at the end’ ME

Las Mulas Organic Pinot Noir rose (Central Valley, Chile) ‘Fruity, aromatic. Very drinkable, complex at the end’ ME

Las Mulas Organic Pinot Noir rose (Central Valley, Chile) Waitrose, £9.39

Long-standing producer of organic wines, also makes red pinot noirs.

‘Fruity, aromatic. Very drinkable, complex at the end’ ME 

Verdict: 3

THE FINAL SCORE:

Against all the odds, the English sparklers, our plucky whites and one exceptionally succulent red took on the established vintages from abroad — and won. 

Next year, as Oz Clarke points out, we will be blessed with an even better vintage, thanks to an abundant 2020 harvest. 

The European establishment will have to look out: the English are coming!

■ Oz Clarke’s book, English Wine: From Still To Sparkling (Pavilion Books £16.99).

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