Raise a glass to English wines

When Champagne magnate Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger inspects his grape harvest this year, all eyes will be on his latest plot of land.

Not just because the former orchard he purchased two years ago is about to produce its first grapes – but because it is in England.

Taittinger is the first champagne house to grow grapes in the UK, and it is likely his decision will be closely watched by other wine growers around the world.

This week is English Wine Week, and after decades as being seen as the poor relation to the better-known wine producing countries such as France and Italy, English wines are finally being taken seriously both at home and abroad.

Warmer weather and improved production technique have transformed English wines in recent years, and the fact that a famous champagne house such as Taittinger has seen fit to invest in these shores is a huge vote of confidence in what is still essentially a cottage industry.

Robert Boutflower of Shrewsbury-based wine merchant Tanners, says English sparkling wine in particular is able to compete with the best that other European countries can produce.

He points out that the trend towards warmer weather in recent years has allowed the English regions to grow the noble grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay, more traditionally associated with France and the production of champagne.

And he says the chalky soils and south-facing slopes of southern England are essentially the same as those found in the Champagne region of north-east France.

"We are in a position now to grow wines that approach the quality which can be found in Champagne," says Mr Boutflower, choosing his words carefully.

And he adds that while growers in Shropshire and the West Midlands do not enjoy quite the same benefits as those further south, he says there are many wine producers in the region which are now growing excellent wines.

Mr Boutflower singles out the Rodington vineyard, just outside Telford, for particular praise, saying that its Blue Tractor wine, which used Solaris grapes, is worthy of special mention.

"The Rodington vineyard has only been planted five or six years ago, and it is already making a seriously good white," he says.

"It took a silver medal last year in an international wine competition for its 2014 vintage, and it deserved to do so.

"It is such a good, well-balanced wine."

Other successful vineyards in the area include Wroxeter Roman Vineyard and Halfpenny Green at Bobbington in Staffordshire, both of which have been operating for more than a quarter of a century and have picked up numerous awards. But he says that the newer vineyards have the advantage of being able to grow newer grape varieties, such as Solaris, which was first developed in 1975.

He says the one difficulty that English wine producers have traditionally suffered from has been that the summer is not sufficiently long or warm enough to allow the grapes to fully ripen.

But that is less of a problem with sparkling wines, which tend to work well with younger grapes.

The unpredictable nature of the British climate can still throw a spanner in the works though. Mr Boutflower says this year's harvest is likely to be much smaller than that previously due to a frost which struck in March.

"Whether it impacts on the quality will depend on what sort of weather we have over the summer," he says.

"If we have a spectacularly warm summer, it might only impact on quantity."

And while English wines can now compete on quality with the best that the rest of Europe can offer, price is still something of a problem. Because the UK is still something of a minnow in the wine-producing world, it cannot enjoy the economies of scale enjoyed by the bigger producers.

"Because we are a wet, maritime climate, it is still much more difficult for a UK wine producer to predict what will happen from year to year, which makes it much more difficult and expensive to produce wines compared to somebody in, say, the south of France who is pretty much guaranteed sunshine from year to year," says Mr Boutflower.

"They could really do with some support from the Government in the form of tax breaks."

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