A strange future for English wine

Why is Reichensteiner and Ortega better quality than top English fizz? Read on.

Over the last month, I've tasted over 200 English wines in competition conditions: judging them as part of a panel. While personal preferences vary, there is a general consensus among wine professionals as to what constitutes quality in English wine at the moment, and those which are most highly prized tend to be traditional method sparkling wines made from the Champagne varieties, plus an occasional still Chardonnay, Bacchus and Pinot Noir.

(The image shows Riesling being planted at Rathfinny Estate in 2012, but I believe this has since been replaced by a different variety.)

There are lots of other grape varieties planted in England, however. According to English Wine Producers, just under 50% of the acreage is planted to non-noble varieties such as Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc, Ortega, Regent and other even more obscure varieties. They are all selected for their ability to ripen in cool climates, but they are almost never considered 'good quality' in terms of flavour profile. Having tasted plenty of examples recently, I can attest to this.

As the popularity (and profitability) of traditional method sparkling continues, plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in England will grow, at the expense of the obscure varieties.

But what if, in years to come, these old varieties are reassessed? Tastes change, and it's entirely plausible that the very same flavours that we consider poor quality today might be valued differently in future. Winemaking evolves too, and the English climate is warming up. It's entirely conceivable that the English wine of the future will look back at our generation and despair at the disrespect we showed to England's heritage varieties.

This exact scenario has recently played out in South Africa and Chile, where previously disregarded old vines have been reclaimed by a new young vanguard (or rather vinguard, arf arf) of winemakers. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc and Rhône blends from the Swartland region have revolutionised our perception of that country's wines. In Chile, old vine País, Cinsault and Carignan that were virtually abandoned are currently being revived, and are already getting an enthusiastic reception (read more about that here).

Until recently, these very same vines were being largely ignored, and their fruit was going into cheap blends at best. It may sound strange to us, but there's a distinct possibility that the same thing could happen in England. When the next generation of English wine producers emerges, and seeks to make their own mark - which usually involves rebelling against the beliefs of their forebears - who's to say we couldn't see premium Reichensteiner and Ortega being highly prized by wine professionals?

Postscript: this article was prompted by a discussion with Christine Parkinson, who came up with the suggestion that England's heritage varieties could have value in future. Thanks Christine!