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English Wine. What's all the fuss about?

20th May 2018

With Sergio do Santos, Head Sommelier at The Montagu Arms Hotel

In great celebration of the upcoming English Wine Week 2018, which commences Saturday 26th May, we caught up with Sergio dos Santos, Head Sommelier at The Montagu Arms Hotel and Elisabeth Else, one of the biggest supporters of English and Welsh wine and Founder of www.WineCellarDoor.co.uk, to discuss passion, popularity and perfect pairings.

Sergio, when did your passion for English wines begin?

Since arriving in the New Forest, in 2003, I have always been around English Vineyards says Sergio. I remember tasting the first vintage of Nyetimber (1992) while visiting the Hampshire and Sussex vineyards and it instantly reminded me of France; speaking with the winegrowers, exploring the vines and imagining the fascinating that each grape would entually take!"

Following my decision to return to England in 2015, after seven years on the island of Jersey, I decided to rediscover the Hampshire vineyards and beyond. The difference in the vineyards I had visited on many occasions seven years before was instantly noticeable - the wine growers were more experienced and precise.

 

Are English wines becoming more popular?

Due to increased availability, quality and a general interest in local products, English wine has become more popular.

More and more prestige bars and restaurants are including English wines on their lists and that is often where people will have their first taste of English sparkling. The availability of English wines by the glass enables people to try with no risk, and that first taste may convince them to try a bottle next time. 

It will become more common for people to ask for “A glass of English sparkling”, and bars and restaurants that cannot meet this request will be left behind.

Obviously, English wine will not be stocked, nor consumed more than once, if the quality is not good enough, but more and more wines are reaching this standard.

“…what could be better than local wine?…”

People are fascinated by the story behind a product. Even when the economic climate is not so buoyant, people don’t necessarily resort to cheaper products but certainly care about where they spend their money, and support for the local economy is so relevant. Once people have developed an interest in English & Welsh wines, they’re able to go out and explore their local vineyard.

Local food is a huge story at the moment, and what could be better than local wine to pair with it?

 

Which [English] regions currently have the best offerings?

The South East of England (Kent, Sussex, Surrey & Hampshire) are most renowned for their sparkling wines and some of the best still wines come from East Anglia (Norfolk, Sussex & Essex). That is only a generalisation of course, because grapes for wine are grown from the Scilly Isles to Yorkshire. Outside the obvious regions, you might have to search harder to find great quality, but isn’t the prize greater when you’ve had to work for it?

 

Are there any qualities in English wines that are distinct, or different to other regions or countries?

While the initial buzz around English sparkling compared the chalky terroir of the North and South Downs with Champagne, it’s almost as though the top producers are now thinking – “We’ve proved we can make Champagne-style wines as good as the French, now let’s do something that’s more typically English or Welsh”.

Over the coming couple of years, I think we will find different styles coming through, whether that’s experimenting with subtle oak, new grape varieties or different terroir like Greensand. Right now, some of our Blanc de Blancs are exceptional, and we’ve spotted a few more Blanc de Noirs being created too.

Aromatic still white wines are becoming a typical style now, with Bacchus the named grape variety that is getting the most acclaim. The best examples are distinctive and delicious.

While conditions are not always suitable, we also produce some very good dessert wines too.

 

What’s new in the world of sparkling English wines?

The big talk in the industry right now is of two new launches – the Rathfinny Estate, a huge new estate in Sussex, launched three weeks ago. And at the other end of the scale, the tiny Black Chalk has been launched by winemaker Jacob Leadley. Both have released a Classic Cuvée and a Rosé, with excellent initial feedback.

 

Which English wine you are most excited about right now?

Winbirri Vineyards make some stunning wines and it is testament to the commitment to quality and tireless efforts of Lee Dyer and his team, especially with the Bacchus, the fourth most planted grape variety in England.

Bacchus is in fact about the closest that England can come to the herbal pungency of Sauvignon Blanc. What makes Lee’s Bacchus so special is its sense of place. His Bacchus represents everything you look for in this grape variety and Lee masterminds and exploits the full potential of Bacchus in the best possible environment, creating a magnificent Bacchus of precision, elegance and freshness. Here at Winbirri, I have discovered Bacchus-land.

 

Sergio, what is your current favourite English wine and dish pairing on the menu at The Terrace Restaurant?

Hake with courgettes, Provençal mussel sauce and crispy breadcrumbs with a Winbirri Vineyard, Bacchus, 2016, Norfolk, East Anglia.

The Hake is a firm textured Atlantic fish, which I know well, being the symbol of my hometown in Brittany, is pan fried and topped with breadcrumbs which pair beautifully with the elegant texture and slight spritz of the young wine. The fresh, aromatic complex nose of spice, grassy and citrus, combine and harmonise with the Provencal sauce to create a special unique match.

 

Discover and enjoy new wines upon every visit to the Montagu Arms Hotel and The Terrace Restaurant.

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