Richard McComb visits a vineyard that is flying the flag for British wine-making.
English wine, once the butt of sommeliers’ jokes across Europe, has long since cast off its classification as appellation d’origine Naff.
The dark days of thin Chateau Duff and the like are gone thanks to a number of niche producers successfully adapting grape varieties to soil types and climate and refining their wine-making techniques.
One of the wineries leading the revolution is Halfpenny Green in south Staffordshire, which was recently honoured with five awards in the 2011 English and Welsh Wine of the Year Competition.
Using evocatively named grapes such as Madeleine angevine and seyval blanc, husband and wife Martin and Tina Vickers, with the help of their wine-maker son Clive, are helping to raise the quality bar for vin Angleterre.
A panel comprising five masters of wine judged three of their wines – the 2006 Halfpenny Green Pink Sparkling, Tom Hill (a single variety Huxelrebe) and Penny Black (a medium-dry blended of grapes) as bronze winners.
Long Acre and Halfpenny Green Sparkling picked up silvers.
Halfpenny Green Sparkling is a white English sparkler made in the traditional Champagne method, but Martin, aged 68, says the Long Acre, a single variety Schönburger, always receives rave reviews at tastings and typifies the winery’s growing appeal.
Martin believes consumers have tired of the usual diet of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc whites and are keen to explore new, floral-scented, light single varietals. English wines are perfectly placed to exploit this growing demand.
Halfpenny Green’s Old Meadow is made exclusively from madeleine angevine, originally a French grape that is rarely grown outside the UK today.
In the past, Halfpenny’s Black Country Gold was the winery’s top seller but now four single varietals also vie for the top spot.
They are well matched to consumers’ changing drinking habits, which has seen a backlash against some of the heavier alcohol content, big berried wines of the New World.
Martin says: “Recently people are going for 11-12 per cent wine rather than 14 per cent.
‘‘There is a demand for lighter wines, which is what ours are.
‘‘Our wines reflect the English climate.”
Grape buds starting coming out almost a month early this year and it looks like the quality of the grapes, and therefore the wines, will be “brilliant”.
There has been a dramatic change in output since the Vickers first started production in 1983.
Back then, winemaking was strictly a hobby for the arable farmers and 300 bottles were produced in the first year.
It is hoped that 2011’s harvest will produce more than 50,000 bottles.
Although whites predominate for climactic reasons (they are well matched with fish, chicken and as aperitifs),
Halfpenny also produces a rosé and will make two reds this year, mainly from the Rondo grape, including an oaked red.
What hasn’t changed over the years is Halfpenny’s close links with its customers.
Martin admits that attempts to sell the wines through supermarkets were not entirely successful but the business has benefited from the surge in interest in delicatessens and farmers’ shops and farmers’ markets.
“We are always directly in touch with the consumer,” says Martin.
* For more details visit: www.halfpenny-green-vineyards.co.uk