Beginner’s guide to English wine
Discover more about English wine with our expert guide, including what grapes are used, where English wine is from and a brief history of English winemaking
Until fairly recently, English wine was nothing more than a novelty. We could grow vines in the southern chalky terroir we share with France, but we didn't have the climate, and possibly even the ambition, to make the most of it.
All this has changed in the past 30 years, after warmer temperatures gave rise to earlier ripening vines. In 1998, Kent winery Nyetimber put English sparkling on the map when it won the best sparkling wine in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Competition at Bloomsbury hotel in London. It had been blind-tasted by top judges against a number of wines from premium Champagne houses, a victory that marked the start of an exciting journey. English sparkling wine now sweeps the board at award time – the 2020 Decanter awards produced a record number of wins for English fizz.
It's still early days for wine production in England and Wales, but considering the prestige English sparkling wine has achieved in such a short space of time, it's an exciting and burgeoning scene. New vines are planted every year: since 2017, the number of vines has tripled from 1 million to 3.2 million as more and more farmers diversify into viticulture and wedding events to substitute their income.
It's not risk-free, however. However chalky our soil may be, we can't compete with the likes of France and Italy when it comes to sunshine and heat. Wetter conditions leave our vines more vulnerable to fungal infections such as mildew – another reason why most UK vineyards are situated in the southern counties, which has the least amount of rainfall, along with East Anglia.
Where do English wine grapes grow in the UK?
The undisputed king of English terroirs is the South-East, with 61.5% wine production in Kent and Sussex. The chalk downland has the same soil and topography as the Champagne region in France, and so grapes such as Pinots Noir and Meunier simply thrive in the warmer southern conditions. But other regions are hot on its heels: with Wales, East Anglia and the Midlands planning new plantings. Vineyards have sprung up in the most unlikely places: Yorkshire, Cornwall and Norfolk.
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What to look for in an English wine
As with any wine, look for those with named varietal on the label (as opposed to just 'red' or 'white'). Those with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) on the label are excellent quality, and the most premium is Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – these will be marked 'Wine of England'.
The English climate is very unpredictable, and a good vintage relies on minimal spring frost, a fairly dry flowering season and a long period of warm weather during ripening. This happened in 2018 and 2019 – so look for these vintages if you can.
What grapes are used to make English wine?
Black-skinned grapes are integral to red, rosé and sparkling wine blends – but many are tricky to grow in the UK because we don’t have the warm conditions required to ripen them. The holy sparkling wine trinity of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier all do well here, as do white and green-skinned grapes that originated in Northern Europe, such as Bacchus, Madeleine Angevine.
But that’s not stopping wine producers all over the UK – including those more unlikely locations such as East Yorkshire, Norfolk and Cornwall – from reaching a high standard of lighter-bodied reds that are perfect for a summer’s evening. English reds aren't known for their body, so don't expect it to taste like your favourite Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here are some of the most successful wine grapes growing in the UK:
Chardonnay: A mild-tasting grape that brings freshness and acidity to English sparkling white. In its still form, it’s more comparable to a Chablis than the type of medium-sweet chardonnays you may have tried from overseas. Many vineyards that produce sparkling wines with it tend to release their still Chardonnay wines while waiting for the fizzy stuff to mature, whereas others specialise in still white.
Bacchus: Thought of as England’s answer to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc grape, the excellently named Bacchus fruit produces dry wines with a gentle minerality. However, it’s not as dry as its new world counterpart, which may disappoint die-hard fans but does make it a great crowd-pleaser.
Madeleine Angevine: As its name suggests, this originally French wine thrives in the south-east of England, where the terroir is very similar. This produces floral and delicate wines. When blended with Bacchus, something magical happens.
Pinot Noir: A delicate, thin-skinned black variety that's highly susceptible to climatic conditions. In warm countries, consistent heat brings full ripening, however this means it often loses the acidity that gives those plum and bramble flavours, as the sugars take over within the grape. In cool climates however, slower ripening gives a light, fresh and sophisticated expression that brings delicious cherry and violet notes to sparkling wine. Red wines are light, damsony and laced with bramble throughout.
Pinot Meunier: A black grape that brings body and fruitiness to sparkling wine, complementing the black Pinot Noir and white Chardonnay grapes.
Rondo: This grape is cultivated widely throughout northern Europe, and is resistant to frost and mildew. With its dark skin, it produces a ruby-coloured wine, making it useful for blending. Its early maturation means it doesn’t perish through lack of sunshine, which can't be relied upon in the UK.
Regent: This grape is well suited to the UK’s climate, being early to ripen, high in sugar and resistant to fungal diseases, probably due to its thick skin. Because of its high sugar content, regent grapes usually produce wine with a high volume of alcohol. Red wines made with regent grapes show intense colour as the flesh itself is, unusually, stained red. This grape brings cherry and blackcurrant flavours as well as a high level of tannins.
Dornfelder: A blue-purple variety that crops well, Dornfelder typically makes a light, but dry red wine with bramble and red fruit flavours. Originally from Germany, Dornfelder ripens early and is usually oaked in red wine to bring out its potential. Creates pale, soft and fruity reds and rosés.
How is 'English wine' different to 'British wine'?
With ‘British wine’, the fermented grape juice or concentrate can originate from anywhere in the world, whereas in ‘English wine’ (or ‘Welsh wine’), the grapes are grown and pressed right here.
When was wine first produced in the UK?
The Romans introduced wine production to England and even attempted to grow grapes as far north as Lincolnshire. You can’t fault them for trying.
Millennia ago, when Britain was part of the European landmass, large swaths of south-east England were joined to what is France’s modern day Champagne.
Main image: Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall.
Tanya Jackson is the acting group digital editor of countryfile.com and discoverwildlife.com. She loves campfire cooking, swimming in the sea, trail running, rural folklore, barn owls and red kites, hiking with the kids and looking for signs of ancient settlements in the Wiltshire hills where she lives. Tanya also has a passion for English food and drink, and loves uncovering the stories of the land as told through local produce.