MANY years ago, I brought Burgundian wine-growers over here to visit the vineyards of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The highlight of the trip was to visit the Hambledon vineyard of Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones. We were disappointed when Sir Guy offered us a cup of tea as our tasting; it appeared that his limited production of wine had completely sold out.
Matters have come a long way since then. Camel Valley Vineyard, in Cornwall, has recently received a royal warrant as supplier to the Queen — the first time that an English vineyard has been so recognised.
It appears that planting a vineyard is now perceived as being a suitable investment: 84 new vineyards were planted last year, and the area under vines has increased by 135 per cent in the past decade. As I write, there are forecasts of an excellent vintage for 2018, but I am sure that most growers would welcome some rain to swell their grapes. Although unwelcome, the English vignerons are benefiting from global warming.
During our trip, many years ago, all we tasted were still wines; now, two-thirds of all production is in sparkling wines, and this is seen to be where the future lies. One of the reasons for this is that the best sparkling wines, such as those of Champagne, come from regions where there is difficulty in achieving maximum ripeness for the grapes.
Land and production costs are high in this country; so I cannot foresee an English “prosecco” on the market. English sparkling wine will never be cheap, but it does provide an excellent alternative to Champagne, at similar prices. That the quality is there is demonstrated by the fact that both white and rosé wines have come top in sparkling-wine classes in international competitions. While there are now some extensive vineyards in production capable of satisfying national — and, in some instances, international — demand, much of the production is on an artisanal scale, meaning that many wines are available only regionally, such as Ancre Hill, in Monmouthshire, which makes excellent still and sparkling wines.
Wines more widely available include Hambledon Classic Cuvée Rosé Brut (Marks & Spencer, £35), and two wines which have come “top in class”: Camel Valley Pinot Noir Brut Rosé 2014 (Waitrose, £24.99); and South Ridge Cuvée Merret Brut 2014 (Laithwaites, £19.99).
Although sparkling wines may now account for two-thirds of the production, there are also many exciting still wines on the market — and the best selection on the high street is at Waitrose.
Most English vineyards are happy to welcome visitors, and some, such as Denbies, at Dorking, and Three Choirs, at Newent, in Gloucestershire, have excellent restaurants attached to complete the experience. I think my Burgundian friends would be agreeably surprised to see the advances that have been made in the past 40 years.