Season starts under the colours of English wine

May 12, 2004

Fast backward to five years ago and imagine turning up to a dinner party with a bottle of English white. Other guests would feel the sudden need to explore the hidden recesses of their shoes, while the hostess would stammer a strangled ‘why, thank you,’ while secretly placing you and your descendants to the 15th generation in her black list of undesirable people. English wines were little known, prejudice was rampant and home wineries, which are mostly small family enterprises, struggled to tip the public perception in their favour.

But shortage of money is often the best trigger for good ideas and, one day, the bright minds at English Wine Producers, the association which links wineries across England, thought of holding an annual event to promote the fruit of their labour. English Wine Week was born.

‘[The week] was partly a way to raise the profile of English wine at the time when it was starting to make a few waves. We do not have a big budget to promote ourselves so we thought: if you allocate time and encourage people to do something, it may work,’ says Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers.

The association chose to focus their effort at the end of May because ‘it is a good time of the year. Vineyards look really attractive and English wines lend themselves to English summer,’ explains Trustram Eve. Wineries across the country started holding tastings, tours and culinary evening against the backdrop of a verdant England in bloom and, hey presto! The season had a new landmark.

‘I think English Wine Week has become an element of the season, definitely,’ says Trustram Eve, with just a hint of smugness in her voice.

Spiced with enthusiasm and hard work, past English Wine Weeks have made huge inroads in dispelling the misconceptions that used to coat the palate of home drinkers, and this year’s event, which takes place from 28 May to 5 June, promises to tip the scale for good. ‘If people happen to be at a merchant who is doing tastings, they are exposed to English wine. English Wine Week makes English wines much more accessible,’ says Trustram Eve.

Tastings are the most obvious way to go about persuading people. Most of last year’s vintage is now ready to uncork and it makes for very good drinking. Although the wine from 2003, when Britain had a long, warm summer, remains the best to date, last year was a lot more typical of the English terroir.

‘It has superb acidity and balance of fruit,’ says Trustram Eve. ‘Last year was very very good, because 2003 was an amazing vintage so the vines were in very good shape. In 2004, we had a great vintage both in terms of quality and quantity. It was one of the biggest on record,’ says Trustram Eve.

Newcomers to the English vinous universe can learn much about indigenous wines at the tastings held at the English Wine Centre, in Alfriston, East Sussex, where they will have the chance to sample bottles from different producers in the atmospheric backdrop of a 17th century barn. ‘We sell wines from about thirty producers and the tasting is from a selection,’ says a spokeswoman. A Sussex lunch of local cheeses, sausages and salad will follow, served with – what else? – a glass of English wine.

Marrying wine with local produce is a strong theme at this year’s Wine Week, as producers are keen to show that how well English wine works with English summer food. ‘English wine goes very well with seafood and some of the rosés go well with grilled meat,’ says Trustram Eve. ‘The whites go beautifully with asparagus and the nice vegetables from this season. Some wines go well with cheese. We had done some experiments and found that fruity medium-dry wines go superbly with Stilton. And in winter, there are sparkling wines for Christmas and some of the red are lovely with game and lamb.’

One of the few producers of English red, Camel Valley (01208 77959), in Nanstallon, Cornwall, is hosting a barbecue evening, the Fizzin’ Chilli Barbecue, on the evening of Thursday 2 June. Owner Bob Lindo will take people around the vineyard and the winery before holding a wine tasting, which will showcase four of the estate’s wines. ‘Normally, our wine tastings are a bit spur of the moment,’ says Sam Lindo of Camel Valley. ‘This time, we’ll probably have our sparkling Cornwall, and Bacchus, Atlantic and Seyval.’

Alas, their reds are not ready yet, which is a shame because they promise to be ‘really fantastic,’ according to Lindo, but then you can’t hurry a wine. However, adventurous palates will have a chance to try a chilli tasting to be washed down with a glass of Cornwall Fizz.

The pairing of chilli and wine isn’t as extravagant as it first sounds. While water does little to quench the burning taste of capsaicin, wine, like beer, works wonder. And Camel Valley’s Cornwall is as good a fizz as it gets. A gold medal winner in wine competitions, it is served at top restaurants throughout the county.

One of Cornwall’s top restaurateurs, chef Nick Barclay of Barclay House in Looes, will even make an appearance on the evening. He will don the apron and man the barbecue for a (mainly) fish fest – with optional chilli sauce – to go with a glass of aromatic Camel Valley Bacchus.

More wine and food pairings are quite literally on the menu at Windmill Vineyard, in Hellidon, Northamptonshire, (01327 262023) where a book on Cooking with Wines will be launched. Tastings on food and wine will be based on the book’s recipes and will include an aperitif, a beef and a chicken dish, both with wine, two puddings and a cheese with an accompanying liqueur.

Another book will also hit the shelves during English Wine Week, when the Wine Guild will release its booklet on English vineyards, complete with reviews and listings. ‘It will be available from us [English Wine Producers] and at vineyards shops,’ says Trustram Eve. ‘It is a good guide for people who are interested in wine tours.’

Wine tours are high on the vineyards promotional agenda and the booklet will undoubtedly help point people in the right direction. Another pointer will come from the South East wine trail, which will also be launched during English Wine Week.

The trail links South Eastern vineyards in a journey that will unveil the breadth of English vinous production: from Sussex bubblies to Kentish dry wines with curious Germanic names. ‘There is scope to go on a tasting tour,’ suggests Trustram Eve.

Go during English Wine Week and many of the wineries will be open for tastings and vineyard visits. At Denbies (01306 876616), in Dorking, Surrey, for example, winemaker Marcus Sharp will answer questions on English wine and how it is made, while Tenterden Vineyards in Tenterden, Kent, (01580 763033) will tempt gourmet with daily wine and food tastings, one of which will showcase more than 30 local cheeses, and a special food and wine evening with Master of Wine Richard Bampfield, which will take place on Saturday 4 June.

But other regions have plenty to offer too. Nine vineyards in the Midlands and North and seven in the South West will have tastings and tours and more are unveiling their programme as the week gets closer (check for details). ‘We hope that with more tastings and more availability, people will see there is quality in English wine,’ says Trustram Eve.

By the end of this year’s English Wine Week, they probably will. And from then on, whoever brings a bottle of English white to a dinner party is likely to be hailed as a discerning palate who deserves a special place in the hostess’ A-list.

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