I love visiting the English countryside. The historic houses, the beautiful gardens, the rolling green hills filled with sheep and most of all, the pubs. There’s something about having a drink in a pub that is 700 years old or sitting in the same chair as Charles Dickens that I find rather amazing. While the craft beers of the UK have their appeal and the local ciders are definitely a specialty, what I really get excited about are the drinks that I can’t find back home. Like some obscure producer in Bordeaux that doesn’t find its way to the States. Or honest-to-goodness ginger beer. Or an Elderflower Presse. And now, thanks to my niece, I can add English sparkling wines to that list.
And yes, I know what you are thinking. With an abundance of great quality wines from France, Italy, Spain and assorted New World wineries at reasonable prices why would anyone intentionally seek out English wines during a trip to the UK? Like most Americans, I thought “English Wine” was the punchline for some sort of Monty Python running gag. But, on a recent holiday in the southwest of England, at the suggestion of my niece, who had seen it featured on a Travel show, we did a tour and tasting at Camel Valley winery in Cornwall. That visit changed my perception of English wines. I’ve had English wines before. But they were mostly of the novelty variety: Blackberry, Nettle, Elderflower, Cowslip, and Ginger to name a few. Not exactly my cup of tea. But at Camel Valley they are making traditional wines from traditional grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bacchus and Reichensteiner (a grape grown primarily in Germany). And they are surprisingly good. Especially the sparkling wines.
Ex-RAF pilot Bob Lindo and his wife Annie bought a farm in the heart of the Cornish countryside in the 1980’s and planted their vineyard in 1989. Eager to learn, Bob took courses in viticulture and read everything he could find on growing and making wine. Much of the work in the early days was done by hand with the help of a few friends. Now Camel Valley has 17 acres planted with production peaking at about 16,000 cases in a good year. Their wines can now be found in various well-respected English restaurants, Waitrose supermarkets and Fortnum & Mason. Bob’s son Sam, a math graduate who seemed destined for a career in London, decided that he wanted to make his life in Cornwall and has been the winemaker at Camel Valley for the past nine years. In addition to receiving Wine of the Year in the UK Vineyards annual competition, Sam was named the UK Winemaker of the Year in 2007.
After the tour and a tasting of four wines (of which the Camel Valley Cornwall Pinot Noir Brut Rose was a real standout), I had the chance to ask Sam a few questions. When asked about the improvement in the quality of English wine, Sam replied “There has been an improvement in all wines from around the world in the last 20 years. Better winemaking benefits delicate wines more and we make delicate wines. Traditional winemaking countries making red wine benefit less.” “Twenty years ago” Sam continued, “people were looking to not like our wine because it wasn’t French. Actually we owe everything to the judgement in Paris is 1972 which democratized winemaking and wine culture for us all.”
Sam corrected me on a common misconception about the growing season in Cornwall and explained that the growing season at Camel Valley was actually 30-40 days longer than the Champagne Region of France. “Basically our grapes retain a high acidity and light flavor which is perfect for sparkling wine. The long growing season is important as we get a lot more protein than champagne and have bubbles in young wines.” He also touched on global warming and said that there have been good warm years more frequently in recent years. However, he cautioned that there are still some very cold years. Sam concluded by saying “There is a lot of work to do with tastings, but these are exciting times for English wine.”
While English wines in general and English sparkling wines in particular, have been a well-documented success story in Europe, the news is just beginning to reach the other side of the pond. Not only are these exciting times for English producers, but for consumers like me, who are always looking for the next great thing. So, the next time I’m in the UK and I find myself sitting in a pub deciding what to drink, or browsing the shelves at Waitrose looking for a wine to have with my dinner, in addition to my usual list of beverages, I’ll now be looking for some English sparkling wine. Not as a punchline to a joke, but as an earnest desire to drink them. They are really that good. Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink. Know whatahmean?