The rise and rise of English wines

<span>English sparkling wine’s a speciality at Breaky Bottom vineyard near Lewes in East Sussex.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy</span>
English sparkling wine’s a speciality at Breaky Bottom vineyard near Lewes in East Sussex.Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

If you weren’t already aware, it’s been English Wine Week this week. If you haven’t tried the stuff for a while, you might feel that that’s nothing to write home about – the fizz is great but expensive, while the still wines can be sharp and underripe – but they’re improving all the time, and I speak as a former sceptic. I helped judge the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA) last month, and found lots to love, including some really good chardonnay and, intriguingly, orange wine.

Bacchus is the signature grape variety in the UK and, being distinctly sauvignon blanc-ish in character, it’s one you might well reach for with salads. But salads don’t have to be light, and frequently aren’t these days: grilled veg, seared steak and pulses all make them as likely to go with an orange or a red wine as with a white or rosé.

Corn, squash and grilled chicken are all ingredients that work with chardonnay, while anything with a bit of crunch – crisp chicken skin and croutons, say – is fine with fizz. Actually, most food is fine with fizz, including the gently sparkling pet nats I wrote about last month.

One of the things I was struck by when the results of the IEWA judging were revealed was how many of those named I didn’t recognise, which suggests there’s a whole lot more out there to discover: Winding Wood in Berkshire for fizz, Burn Valley in Norfolk for chardonnay, Ark in Suffolk for gamay … The best wines tend to be found in the drier east of the country, rather than the wetter west, with the Crouch Valley in Essex being a particularly sought-after location.

The downside to English wine, of course, is its price, which makes them out of reach for many wine lovers. There are reasons for this: the high cost of land and of planting a brand new vineyard, marginal growing conditions that lead to low yields, really small production runs, to name just a few. Yes, there are less expensive English wines than those I’ve listed in today’s pick, but even in supermarkets English wine doesn’t come cheap, and is rarely as good as these bottles from small producers.

Your best bet is to visit a winery direct. There will be loads open this weekend, but frankly you don’t have to restrict yourself to the officially designated English Wine Week. Last year, I visited Gusbourne, Simpsons, Terlingham, Tillingham and Westwell over the course of a highly enjoyable weekend road trip around Kent and Sussex. All we need is the weather.

Six English wines to enjoy

Aldi Specially Selected Bowler & Brolly Bacchus 2023, £9.99 until end of June, 11.5%. Surprisingly subdued for bacchus, and rather proving my point about how hard it is to find English wine under a tenner. Worth a try to see if you like it better than I do. (Confession: I’m not mad about Bacchus).

The Heretics Blowhorn Rosé 2023 £29 We Are The Heretics, 12.5%. Utterly beguiling pale pink rosé from Essex, unusually fermented in wood. Pairs well, they say, with sunshine, good music and a hammock.

Burn Valley Chardonnay 2022 £24.99 Burn Valley Vineyard, £27.49 Grape Britannia, 13.5%. Sumptuously rich chardonnay that bears comparison with good white burgundy.

Ark Gamay Noir 2022 £27 Ark Wines, 11.5%. Fresh, juicy, light, beaujolais-style red: perfect for salads with berries or pomegranate seeds.

Aldwick Seyval Jubilate 2020 £28.50 Aldwick Wine, £30.99 Novel Wines, 11.5%. Fresh and fruity, rather than rich and toasty, so really well suited to a summer wedding or other celebration.

Vagabond Solena Batch 002 £30 Vagabond Wines, 12%. Rich, textured, gently tannic orange wine with a touch of quince that would be great with anything aubergine-related, especially Middle Eastern and Georgian food. A great option for natural wine fans.