Hambledon Classic Cuvée, Hampshire, England NV (from £28.03, laywheeler.com; Waitrose; majestic.co.uk) When I started writing about wine around the turn of the millennium, most coverage of English wine portrayed an industry that was lacking in confidence. English winemakers seemed embarrassed, even a little defensive, about what they were doing making wine this far north. A typical piece would almost always say something like, “It’s not all eccentric retired generals with hobbies that got out of hand, and weird grape varieties that are only planted because they can endure the cold and wet, you know!” Climate change has had a hand in the change of perception since then, but that’s only a small part of the story. More important is the realization, made by first a handful, then something like a flood, of producers across the south that they had the conditions (including, crucially, the soils) for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier to produce great sparkling wine. Hampshire’s Hambledon is one of the stars of this development, its Classic Cuvée a tingling, Cox’s apple-tangy, subtly toasty delight.
Hidden Spring Bacchus Fumé, East Sussex NV (from £18, hiddenspring.co.uk; buybritain.com) For posh merchants Lay & Wheeler, the widespread recognition of English quality is very recent. In a recent press release announcing an offer of top English sparkling wines, the company – which is more used to putting together its fine wine offers from the classic regions of France, Italy and Germany – said “the idea of putting together a formal range of eleven of the finest English Sparkling Wines, from four different producers, varying from £28 to £148 a bottle, would have seemed unthinkable” a decade ago. The four producers in question are representative of English wine’s new elite in Sussex and Hampshire: Hambledon, Wiston Estate, Rathfinney Estate and, one of the key sparkling pioneers, Nyetimber – and tasting through each estate’s wines in the Lay & Wheeler offer was a study in exciting consistency. I wonder, however, when a comparable merchant will give England’s still wines similar treatment. Certainly dry whites such as Hidden Spring’s gloriously verdant, floral, pink grapefruit-racy Bacchus Fumé, are getting better all the time.
Domaine of the Bee The Bee Side Grenache, IGP Côtes Catalanes, Roussillon, France 2019 (from £18, noblegreenwines.co.uk; thesampler.co.uk; hic-winemerchants.com) As the results from this year’s Wine GB Awards rather dramatically illustrate, English wine’s current strengths are very much sparkling wine. Of the 10 wines to pick up a trophy, the competition’s highest award, seven were sparkling, with one apiece going to a still rosé (Sussex’s Bluebell Vineyard Ashdown Rosé 2018), a Chardonnay (Kent’s Gusbourne Chardonnay Guinevere 2019) and a Bacchus (Kent’s Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Bacchus 2019). English red wines are certainly improving. But the fact that the highest-scoring reds at the GB Awards were down among the silver medalists suggests English red winemakers are still better off looking a lot further south if they want reliable ripeness and richer styles. That’s the path taken by former supermarket buyer Justin Howard-Sneyd. The grenache and carignan-based red wines from his small sun-soaked Roussillon estate, Domaine of the Bee, get better every year, with the standouts from his latest batch of releases being the deeply flavoured but ethereal, silky Les Genoux 2019 (£35) and the vibrant, vivid, succulent The Bee-side.