We might be known more as a nation of wine drinkers than producers but Christine Austin raises a glass to our growing reputation.

There are not many times that I get invited to the Ritz in London to drink fizz but to celebrate English Wine Week, which starts this weekend, The Ritz has put English wine, Rathfinny on pour in place of their ‘Champagne of the month’.  This is only the second time in the hotel’s 113 year-history that the Ritz has replaced their pouring champagne with another type of sparkling wine.

To celebrate this extraordinary honour, English wine estate Rathfinny decided to launch their new vintage Blanc de Noirs 2015 at the Ritz and it shone out with quality and style.

Just a few years ago the very thought of English wine at the Ritz would have been laughable, if not impossible, but things have moved on.  Rathfinny is England’s most ambitious wine project with 91 hectares (that’s 224 acres) of vines planted on gentle, chalk-based slopes.  Owner Mark Driver, who seems to have a wallet of bottomless proportions, has planted over 250,000 vines and built a winery capable of producing a million bottles of wine.  All this in a period of just 8 years so the resulting wines are only just beginning to trickle on to the market.

Mark Driver (right) owner of Rathfinny with winemaker Jonathan Médard

This is not just a vineyard and winery. Rathfinny decided to go into the tourism business from the start. There is a restaurant and tasting room, and if you decide you don’t want to drive home there are the Flint Barns where you can stay.

Rathfinny is just one of the major investments in English wines and as climate change continues apace, it are unlikely to be the last.  80 new vineyards have been planted this year with other more established vineyards expanding dramatically. There are now 7000 acres of vines in the UK, from the tip of Cornwall to Scotland, although Ryedale Vineyard, near Malton is regarded as the most northerly commercial vineyard.

Grape varieties have moved on from those early plantings which majored on German and cool-climate varieties.  Now Pinot Noir is England’s most widely planted grape variety with over 30% of the vineyard space. Sparkling wine is what we do best and over two-thirds of the 15.6 million bottles of wine produced last year will be sparkling.

There are suggestions that prices might soften a little because of the bumper harvest in 2018, however exports are growing dramatically with English and Welsh wines now exported to 40 countries. What has changed is the way that English wines are now readily available in supermarkets and independents across the country.  Wines from smaller vineyards may still only be available at the winery, but even for those, Waitrose has made a real effort to stock local wines in surrounding stores.

While there are many vineyards across the southern counties, many of them with established tourism facilities, our own Yorkshire vineyards are smaller and a visit to these properties mean that you are more likely to meet the owners and be able to find out more about how the grapes are grown.

Yorkshire Heart Vineyard, located in Nun Monkton, halfway between York and Harrogate, has expanded over the years and now has 17 acres of vines and will be open for tours and tastings during English Wine Week.  They have a visitor centre, known as The Winehouse where you can taste the wines as well as their own craft beers. It is best to ring in advance to book a place on the tour (01423 330716) or book online @yorkshireheart.com.  On June 9 between 11 am and 3pm other Yorkshire vineyards will join them in Nun Monkton so you can taste wines from several properties and find the ones you like best.

Laurel Vines in Aike near Driffield now has 9500 vines in the ground and they continue to expand mainly through the efforts of friends and neighbours who pitch up when needed to help plant vines and pick grapes. ‘Last year 20 people turned up to help us plant 2800 vines and 60 volunteers were recruited to help pick the 2018 harvest,’ said Rebekah Sargent, sales manager at Laurel.

Normally Laurel Vineyards is not open to visitors but they occasionally open their doors, especially if you are volunteering.  Ring Laurel Vineyards on 07513 012708 to find out more.

Ryedale Vineyards in Westow near Malton, organise regular vineyard tours and tastings and are planning an Open Day for English Wine Week, but are not sure of the date so check their website, ryedalevineyards.co.uk for details.

A relatively new addition to the Yorkshire vineyard scene is Westow, which confusingly is not in Westow, but is around 5 miles from Driffield. With just 2 acres of vines this is on the small and, at present, still experimental stage of development but owner James Mason is already making small qualities of sparkling wine which is on sale at Castle Howard.

 

Most Yorkshire wines are available in local farm shops and restaurants.  Laurel Vines has their wines listed at Tommy Banks’ restaurant Roots, in York and at the Pipe and Glass in Beverley.

If you prefer to stay home and taste English wine then here are my top five supermarket favourites to try.

Exquisite Collection Lyme Block English Wine 2018, Aldi, £9.99

Bright, aromatic and fresh, this has the taste of an English garden in sunshine.  Floral, crisp and dry.

Denbies English White Lily 2018, Marks and Spencer, £10

Aromatic with tree blossom and grapefruit and lime notes. Crisp and delicious.

Finest English White 2018, Tesco, £12

Sourced from Hush Heath, in Kent this is arriving in stores right now.  Made from Pinot Blanc, Bacchus, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir it has structure and length as well as a bright, crisp green apple and citrus style.

The Best English White Wine 2018, Morrisons, £14

Arriving in store in July, this was the standout wine of the Morrisons tasting.  Fresh, floral sappy notes from a mix of Bacchus and Seyval Blanc grapes.  Dry and elegant.

Taste the Difference English Sparkling Brut 2015, Sainsbury, £20.50

Made by Denbies, this has a rich, creamy mousse with citrus and brioche palate.

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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