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The Resurgence of English Wine

English wine, once overshadowed by its continental counterparts, has risen in prominence in recent years, captivating the hearts and taste buds of wine enthusiasts worldwide.

I thought I'd take a look into the allure of English wine, delving into what makes it so exceptional and unique. From its vibrant history to the distinct characteristics of its terroir, we will uncover the delightful nuances that make English wine a true gem in the world of viticulture.

Roman Roots and Medieval Vines
The origins of English winemaking can be traced back to the time of the Romans. Those enterprising conquerors brought with them their viticultural prowess and introduced vine cultivation to the fertile lands of Britannia. For centuries, monastic orders played a pivotal role in nurturing vineyards, preserving winemaking knowledge, and producing wines for sacraments and the elite. Medieval England saw a flourishing wine trade with imports from France, Spain, and beyond, but local winemaking remained in its infancy.

A Royal Resurgence and Tudor Tipples
It was during the reign of King Henry II that English winemaking experienced a significant resurgence. The king, with a keen appreciation for wine, promoted the planting of vineyards across the land. The subsequent Tudor era witnessed the blossoming of vine cultivation, as explorers returned from their voyages with new grape varieties. From the charming vineyards of Kent to the scenic hills of Sussex, English wines began to gain recognition and favour among the aristocracy.

Dark Clouds and the Wine Trade Decline
The 17th and 18th centuries posed challenging times for English winemaking. Climate inconsistencies, disease outbreaks, and the emergence of fortified wines from Portugal and Spain overshadowed the local industry. English vineyards suffered, and the focus shifted toward importing wines rather than producing them. The wine trade saw a decline, and the notion of English wines as inferior took root.

Modern Revival and Sparkling Success
But, every cloud has a silver lining, and so it was for English winemaking. The 20th century marked a turning point, with visionary individuals rekindling the flame. The pioneering work of wine enthusiasts like Hambledon Vineyard and Nyetimber re-established the vineyards and introduced new methods, particularly for sparkling wine production. England's cool climate, with its chalky soils reminiscent of Champagne, became the ideal terroir for creating exquisite sparkling wines that could rival the world's finest.

A Renaissance in the Vineyards
Fast forward to the present day, and we find ourselves amidst an English wine renaissance. Vineyards across the country are flourishing, and the quality of wines continues to impress. With advancements in viticulture, winemaking techniques, and grape varietal selection, English wines are receiving international acclaim and winning prestigious awards. From crisp whites bursting with citrus aromas to elegant reds and the renowned sparkling wines that sparkle with finesse, the range of English wines is expanding, captivating wine lovers and critics alike.

Sparkling Brilliance:
English sparkling wine has become the shining star of the nation's viticultural renaissance. The chalky soils and cool climate provide a nurturing environment for the classic Champagne grape varieties, resulting in sparkling wines that rival their French counterparts. The vineyards of Sussex, particularly in the South Downs region, have gained recognition for their exceptional sparkling offerings. Here, winemakers craft exquisite traditional method bubblies, showcasing the elegance and finesse that has put English sparkling wine firmly on the global map.

Maximilian Riedel and the Riedel UK team visited wineries in Hampshire, Kent and Sussex in 2023 and conducted wine glass development workshops with twenty-five of the foremost wine producers from across these three regions.

The quest, was to discover the perfect Riedel glass to show English Sparkling Wine at its best in each region and, if possible, to realise a Riedel glass which would successfully showcase all English Sparkling Wines.

A panel of winemakers and expert tasters tasted from a shortlist of twelve different Riedel glasses, with a large number of different English Sparkling Wines from each region. All wines were tasted blind, and the process eliminated, in stages, those glasses which failed to show the best expression of the wines – and then focused, in fine detail, on those glasses which revealed the best elements of the wines both on the palate and on the nose.

Each workshop was conducted independently, and so it was especially pleasing that a unanimous decision was reached across all three panels, with the exact same Riedel glass being selected as the best, at each session.

The winning glass was the Riesling shape in the Veloce range.

Speaking after the event, Maximilian Riedel said “I have long admired English Sparkling Wines, since I made my first vineyard visits here almost ten years ago. In that time, I have seen the industry grow and the wine develop to a truly internationally high standard, so that it is amongst the very best sparkling wines in the world. I am proud to support English Sparkling Wines with a specific Riedel glass, which shows the fruit, the freshness, and the complexity of these great wines at its very best”

He went on to say: “It is especially pleasing and forward thinking that, in selecting a Riedel Veloce glass, the panel recognised a glass which is brand new, state of the art glassmaking technology, where we are able to produce, by machine, a wine glass which is as fine and as light and as balanced as a hand-made glass and, as such, is world leading in its field”.

The Riedel Veloce English Sparkling Wine Glass will be available soon, and the Riesling glass will see some adaptations – namely, a nucleation point will be added to the glass to improve the way in which the glass manages the mousse, and the text ‘English Sparkling’ will be added to the base.

Still Wine Splendors:
There is life beyond the effervescence though, English vineyards have embraced the production of still wines with remarkable success. From crisp whites to elegant reds, these still varietals demonstrate the diverse capabilities of English winemakers and the suitability of the terroir.

Here are a few notable still wines from across the nation:

Bacchus: This aromatic white grape variety has thrived in England, producing wines with vibrant citrus notes, aromatic florals, and zesty acidity. The vineyards of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex have particularly excelled in Bacchus production, creating wines that evoke the essence of an English garden in bloom.

Pinot Noir: The cool climate of England provides the ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir grapes, yielding wines with complexity, red fruit flavours, and an elegant structure. The vineyards of Hampshire, Kent, and Sussex have become renowned for their delicate and expressive Pinot Noir offerings, showcasing the potential of English terroir for this challenging variety.

Chardonnay: English Chardonnays have gained recognition for their purity, balance, and impressive aging potential. With a lively acidity and a subtle minerality derived from the chalky soils, Chardonnay wines from vineyards across Kent, Sussex, and Essex, capture the essence of the variety while reflecting the unique English terroir.

Exquisite Terroirs and Vineyard Gems:
South Downs: The chalky soils and undulating landscapes of the South Downs in southern England have become a hotbed for exceptional sparkling wines. Vineyards like Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Hambledon have established themselves as leading producers, garnering global acclaim for their meticulous craftsmanship and dedication to quality.

Kent: Known as the "Garden of England," Kent's gently rolling hills and favourable climate have made it a haven for vine cultivation. Chapel Down, Gusbourne, and Hush Heath Estate are among the esteemed wineries in the region, producing a range of outstanding sparkling and still wines that embody the essence of the English terroir.

Sussex: With its diverse soils and maritime influences, Sussex has emerged as a prominent wine region in England. Wineries such as Bolney Estate, Rathfinny Estate, and Wiston Estate have set a high standard for sparkling wines, captivating wine enthusiasts with their exceptional expressions of the traditional method.

Hampshire: Hampshire's chalk and flint-rich soils have proven conducive to producing remarkable sparkling and still wines. Vineyards like Hattingley Valley, Exton Park, and Jenkyn Place have embraced the region's unique terroir, crafting wines that showcase the distinct characteristics of Hampshire's vineyards.

The Pursuit of Excellence:
The success of English wine is not simply a stroke of luck. It is the result of meticulous vineyard management, technological advancements, and a deep understanding of the land.

English winemakers embrace modern techniques, employ sustainable practices, and constantly strive to improve their craft. The dedication to quality is evident in every bottle, reflecting the passion and commitment of those who bring English wine to life.

So let us cherish and celebrate the fruits of England's vineyards, for they are a testament to the enduring spirit and grape expectations (sorry!) of English winemaking.

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