Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Wine for Beginners: Common English Grape Varieties

Three Choirs Vineyard. Photo: Andrew Callow (CCL)

 As we begin the preparations for a week of celebrating the ever growing English Wine industry I thought I'd give us an introduction into common grapes of English wine and what we can expect from these.

One of the common themes of English grape growing is non-English sounding grape varieties. Whilst wine making is not historically uncommon in the UK, our maritime climate is not particularly conducive to growing a wide range of international grape varieties and as such, does not really offer the best conditions for still wine making. Lack of overall sunlight hours means most grape varieties struggle to reach full ripeness, show lack of flavour concentration and produce unapproachable, overly acidic wines.
Photo: eatingeast (CCL)

But this, coupled with the chalky soils of Sussex, Kent, and other counties in the South of England (similar to that of Champagne) provide an environment which is (unsurprisingly) almost ideal for producing top notch sparkling wine. The base wine used in the production of sparkling wine, before second fermentation, is generally untouchably acidic, and so the planting and growing of the classic Champagne grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) made sense in order to produce sparkling wine that can compete with the best.

But this is pretty well known thanks to that episode of The Apprentice and your local, regional food festivals, and much more interesting is the development of the still wine industry in the UK.

So, it's cold here and it rains a lot. Sure, last weekend was lovely and we can look forward to at least two more sunburnt-pub-garden-BBQ-centric weekends this summer, (pessimist, Me? No...) but we know it's not the ideal summer holiday destination, so winemakers of the UK had to compensate. And to do this, we had to look at successful wine producing areas, with similar climatic conditions.

Three Choirs vineyard
 (Photo: Andrew Callow)
Step in Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Madeleine Angevine, generally grown in Germany and Austria; Seyval-Blanc which loves the cold and can hold it's own here and in chillier North America such as upstate New York and Virginia; Bacchus which is a variety given birth by crossing Sylvaner and Reisling and the aforementioned Müller-Thurgau; and Ortega which is the Hob-Knob of the grape world. It's tough exterior hinting little at it's softer centre can battle the brittle winters of Switzerland, Sweden and Canada where the water in your eyes can freeze.

Further to this, there's a huge list of grape varieties that contribute to blends to a greater or lesser extent and as I pointed out, the classic Champagne varieties abound mostly for sparkling wine, with little producing varietal wine except a little Pinot Noir, but Pinot Blanc is known to produce varietal wines to support.

So, what do you get if you buy wine from your own doorstep?

Seyval-Blanc - This is high cropping, early budding grape variety and at high crop levels with little care and poor conditions produces a wine of severe acidity. With care, attention and cool head, where it appears varietally it produces a wine of fresh, crisp acidity with citrusy minerality. Generally though, it is blended with Müller-Thurgau and Reisling and other grape varieties where it can contribute freshness and structure to the final wine.

Bacchus - This is an aromatic grape variety and is probably one of the most common grapes to appear in varietally labelled English wine. At full ripeness, it has very high sugar content and produces wines with rich, stone fruit character and an excellent floral freshness. It also has an ability to age and is a grape that is all but suited to the cool British climate.

Ortega - Another grape well suited to the cooler climes of Northern Europe and resolutely frost-resitant. It produces a wine of soft character with strong Peach flavours abundant. Another grape which can provide wines for cellaring and often contributes to 'late-harvest' dessert style wines.

Madeleine Angevine - This is another grape chosen for it's characteristics that help it flourish in a cooler climate. It's another good cropper and prefers a cooler climate and n this occasion, this is a grape that produces wines with noticeably low acidity. It is rarely seen on it's own for this reason and contributes to blends with higher acidity grapes.

Vines at an Ickleworth  Vineyard
Photo: Dave Catchpole (CCL)
Pinot Noir - The noblest of the noble grapes with the capacity to produce some of the subtlest and most interesting wines the world over. Here in Britain it is widely planted but in the main is preferred in the production of sparkling wine but it has been known to appear varietally. Where it does appear it produces wines of understated character with light colour and aroma with red fruit and specifically raspberry flavours and the better cropped will allow for some oak ageing.

This is a just a little of the English wine industry and things are improving all the time. Millions have been spent in the vineyards to improve knowledge and wine making techniques and due, perhaps rather unfortunately to global warming, the overall climate in Britain is improving. We're getting warmer all the time.

The picture is looking rosy for English wine and if the sparkling wine industry in particular keeps going from strength to strength we could be in for an interesting future. We may soon have a climate suitable for the production of international grape varieties with the "indigenous" grapes gaining an improved reputation for producing interesting and consistent, good quality still wine.

1 comment:

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