With English Wine Week taking place on 25th May – 2nd June, Tom Litten examines the burgeoning West Country wine scene.
Whilst the UK is one of the biggest global consumers of wine, it may surprise you to learn that it is also one of the smallest wine-producing countries in the world. Things are slowly changing though – the area under vine in the UK has increased by 135% in the last decade and winemaking is becoming one of the UK’s fastest growing industries…
For many years, the climate across the West Country has lent itself to the production of sparkling wines. Lower temperatures across the growing season can make it harder to ripen grapes, meaning the wines that are produced have particularly high levels of acidity. Whilst this would sometimes be an undesirable trait for still wines, these grapes perfectly lend themselves to the production of sparkling wine. Indeed, winemakers in Champagne will often pick their grapes before they are fully ripe to preserve these high levels of acidity.
Few have taken advantage of these growing conditions better than Camel Valley, located in Nanstallon, just outside of Bodmin. Cornwall’s winemaking conditions are very similar to Mosel in Germany, due to the hilly terrain, cool growing season and slate-rich soils. So, it was particularly fortunate that ex-RAF pilot Bob Lindo spent a year working in Germany’s vineyards. He founded Camel Valley with his wife, Annie, in 1989 and they’ve been making award-winning wines there ever since. As testament to the quality of their fizz, Camel Valley has since scooped up a plethora of awards; including ‘Best International Traditional Method Sparkling Wine’. You’ll also notice their bottles on the wine lists of many of the West Country’s most prestigious restaurants.
Over on Cornwall’s south coast you’ll find the vineyards of Knightor Winery. The wines here tend to have a slightly more ‘new world’ influence than those at Camel Valley. The winery itself is located a couple of miles from the Eden Project, and the capsules that sit on top of the cork are made of Cornish tin in a nod to the areas mining history. Whilst Knightor make exceptional wines, I highly recommend their Vermouth. Vermouth is fortified wine that is aromatised with a unique recipe of herbs and spices, and the balance of sweetness and flavour that Knightor achieve across their range is why they’re one of my favourite cocktail ingredients at the moment. The Rosé Vermouth is also a great drink to pair with cheese and makes an interesting after dinner alternative.
Moving east, Lyme Bay Winery work with growers all over the country to source the best grapes for their still and sparkling wines. The wines are made in a more aromatic style to pair with the seafood dishes the surrounding area has become famous for, which is best reflected in their ‘Bacchus Block’. I like Bacchus, as it’s probably the only grape that has a dominant ‘grape’ characteristic once it’s been made in to wine. Lyme Bay have added additional complexity to it by ageing a small amount of this wine in old oak barriques.
There are some excellent wines being made in the West Country, but unpicking the nuances of grape and region can be a tricky (and expensive) task. Thankfully, there’s help at hand from Mark Banham, owner of Morrish and Banham Wine Merchant in Brewery Square, Dorchester. Mark started in the wine trade in 1990 and became a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Certified Educator in 2014. He now presides over a wide range of wines to enjoy either in their tasting room or at home. Morrish and Banham hold wine tasting and food matching events across Dorset on a monthly basis, and for true enthusiasts, Mark also runs the Morrish and Banham Wine School.
English Wine accounts for around 1% of the UK wine market, which isn’t too surprising considering we pop over 100 million bottles of Prosecco a year. But recent changes in climate and additional investment are meaning that some of the wines we’re making are ranking high on an international scale. Try swapping your usual pre-dinner drink for a glass of West County fizz next time you’re out, you might just be surprised…