Two Good Reads

Looking for a gift for a wine lover this year? Then 2 recently published books – one on the Wines of England and Wales, the other on the Wines of Portugal – may be the answer.
Both books start with the historical background to their wines, followed by a look at the key grape varieties grown and main regions of production and include a selection of producers to note. Both also highlight the major changes experienced in recent decades, not just to the styles of wines produced but also to the 2 wine industries themselves.
But despite these similarities, I suspect that the books will appeal to rather different audiences.
Oz Clarke’s “English Wine – From Still to Sparkling” (Pavilion Books, £16.99) relates his personal experiences visiting his favourite vineyards and winemakers throughout the country. An underlying theme of the book is the rise and rise in sparkling wine production in England and Wales this century and the reasons behind it. In short, England’s cool climate is ideally suited to making fizz and many of our vineyards are situated on the same seam of chalk that underlies the Champagne vineyards. So, with similar temperatures to Champagne and the same soil, it’s a no-brainer to plant the same grape varieties – mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and make the same kind of wine. And we’ve been very successful at it!
Clarke’s book is a much-needed update on the rapidly changing English and Welsh wine scene and is a most enjoyable and approachable read.
Richard Mayson’s “The Wines of Portugal” (Infinite Ideas, £30) is far more in-depth – I might say almost encyclopaedic. The writer has been immersed in Portuguese wine (not literally, I hope!) for his entire adult life and it is clear that he is writing about a country he loves – and has loved since his first visit as a 10 year old child.
Portugal’s wine transformation began when they joined the European Union in 1986 prompting them to introduce a proper quality hierarchy, mirrored on France’s Appellation Contrôlée system, across the whole industry. As a result, wines from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada, Vinho Verde and others, historically variable in quality, were all spurred on to improve and are now worth their place on every wine rack. Even the previously unexciting Alentejo in the south of the country is now regularly producing attractive, excellent value for money bottles.
For lovers of Portuguese wine or for anyone who wants to get to know the many delicious wines of that country better, this book is a must-buy.
Whichever you choose, I wish you happy reading (accompanied by an appropriate glass, of course!)

Drink Local

English Wine Week

This should have been English Wine Week – the annual celebration of our local product; a week when wine producers open their doors to visitors and wine merchants lay on special tastings to promote one or more of the over 500 vineyards now making wines commercially in England and Wales. But not this year. The restrictions arising from the coronavirus outbreak mean that the date has had to be postponed and we will have to wait another month – until the (possibly optimistic?) revised timeframe of 20 – 28 June – before we can sample the latest home-grown award winners.

But we, and 2 local wine-loving friends of ours, decided not to wait. Our garden is (just about) big enough for appropriate social distancing for 4 people and, with a little planning and each couple contributing a bottle, a most enjoyable and informative comparative tasting of English fizz took place, accompanied, of course, by our usual attempts to solve most of the world’s problems!

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Wines from the Chapel Down Estate in Kent are widely available in most larger supermarkets with a number of different bottlings, both sparkling and still, to choose from. But, it’s, perhaps, their Sparkling Bacchus (around £15 – £18) that most says ‘English fizz’ to me.   Bacchus is rapidly becoming one of England’s most important grape varieties and this crisp, fresh example has lovely hints of pineapple and fragrant elderflower.

Just a short drive from Chapel Down is the Hush Heath Estate, who make wines under the Balfour label. Their non-vintage Leslie’s Reserve (Marks and Spencer, £25, Waitrose, £28 or direct from the vineyard) contrasted well with the Bacchus. Bottle-fermented in what we must now call the ‘Traditional Method’ (the people of Champagne say we mustn’t use the term ‘Champagne Method’), this is a typical blend of the major Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, given 18 months on its lees to add a slight biscuity or brioche character to the lemony fruit.

So, 2 very different English sparklers, both attractive in their own way and showing just how far English Sparkling wine has come in only a couple of decades.