FLICKING through the pages of a wine textbook sometimes feels like looking back at an old photo album.
There on the pages are all the old friends – from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir through to Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and that cheeky wee Sauvignon Blanc.
Then you reach the pages about England and the names become a bit less familiar.
Varieties like Dornfelder, Ortega, Rondo and Muller-Thurgau don’t exactly trip off the tongue, yet some of these weird-and-wonderful-sounding grapes are helping English wine producers to move beyond bubbles and start to make still wines that are gaining in recognition.
Sparkling wines have won England a richly-deserved spot on the vinicultural map, with Champagne producers even hopping “Le Channel” to snap up acres – or should that now be hectares? – of prime slopes.
The same soils that produce world-beating fizz are now being used to turn out credible still wines too.
Those unusual varieties may not have the same brand-recognition of Malbec or Shiraz, but they’re better suited to England’s colder climate.
Bacchus is a classic case-in-point; once relegated to the “oddities” shelf in a bottle shop, the variety is now being shaped into interesting wines.
The 2014 Lyme Bay Bacchus (£13.50, Oddbins) from Devon has juicy lemon and lime notes on the nose, along with an elderflower aroma that reminds me of Sauvignon Blanc.
On the palate, it’s off-dry, with the slight roundness from the residual sugar helping to balance the refreshing acidity.
Elderflower and grassy aromas are even further to the fore with the Lamberhurst Estate Bacchus Reserve (£14, Marks & Spencer), made by Chapel Down in Kent.
It’s drier on the palate, with the lemon and grapefruit flavours giving way to richer lime curd notes.
Ortega is another lesser-known variety that’s caught my eye – the 2014 Biddenden Vineyards Ortega (£11.95, Corney & Barrow) is really characterful, reminding me of an off-dry Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in France.
There’s plenty of acidity and concentrated fruit flavours, ranging from peach and apricot through to rounder guava and pineapple.
Another stand-out white for me is the Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc (£15, M&S) from Sussex, an organic wine that performs an excellent balancing act between its rounder ripe pear and guava flavours and its fresher lemon and grapefruit notes.
The variety’s cousin puts in an appearance with the 2015 Bolney Estate Pinot Gris (£10.75, Justerini & Brooks), which sported an almost waxy texture with its rounded pear flavours.
It’s got the classic Pinot Gris aromas of lychee and honeysuckle, with some more tropical passionfruit and guava thrown in for good measure.
With English fizz having proved to be so successful, it’s only natural that the same varieties used to make sparkling wines are also shining as still wines, perhaps even more so than some of the more idiosyncratic grapes.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir form the backbone of sparkling wine production and together account for nearly half of all the vines planted in England.
Though it may appear pale and even water-white, Hush Heath Estate’s 2015 Skye’s English Chardonnay (£16.50, Hushheath.com) from Kent packs a stone-fruit punch, with apricot and nectarine aromas on the nose giving way to peach and lemon flavours on the tongue.
It’s dry, yet strikes a fine balance between its acidity and its long fruity finish.
While England’s cool climate lends itself to make fresh white wines, the reds are getting me even more excited.
The red twin to the white Chardonnay is the 2015 Hush Heath Manor Pinot Noir (£19, Hushheath.com) – it shares the same pale appearance but is jammed full of strawberry and raspberry preserve aromas, along with bonfire smoke, damp earth and white pepper.
On the palate, the red fruits are much fresher, coupled with bright acidity and sweeter vanilla notes.
The 2014 Bolney Estate Pinot Noir (£14.50, Justerini & Brooks) can hold its own against any similarly-priced cool climate pinot.
Crunchy cranberry and fresh raspberry flavours are paired with well-integrated vanilla from its ageing in oak, producing a rounded feeling in the mouth.
It reminded me of the 2011 Gusbourne Estate Pinot Noir from the Commonwealth Games blog entry a couple of years ago.
It’s hard to get away from the price-tag associated with English still wine – it remains a minority sport and so the price reflects the cost of production.
Below the £10-mark, it’s worth looking for bottles labelled as “English regional wine” – these wines are the equivalent of the old French “vin de pays” country wines, both falling under the current “protected geographical indication” (PGI) or “indication géographique protégée” (IGP) designation.
Different rules cover English regional wines compared to the protected designation of origin (PDO) regulations that govern “English quality wines” – the equivalent of France’s appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) or Spain’s denominación de origen (DOC) – and allow the use of easier-to-grow hybrid vines, which is usually reflected in the bottle price.
2014 The Limes Home Grown English Dry White (£8.99, Waitrose) is a great introduction to Blighty’s bottles without breaking the bank.
Made by Denbies in Surrey, it has warmer lemon aromas on the nose, leading into concentrated lemon and lime flavours on the palate.
Waitrose has championed English sparklers and so it’s natural that the chain stocks a wide range of still wines too.