The variety of English wine

English wine: varieties & style in a nutshell!

Over 90% is white wine
mainly from Germanic vines
floral bouquet,
high acids, fruity
- but changing
  Around 1/3rd officially classified as Quality Wine


How were the varieties chosen?
"Recommended" and "Authorised"
White wines
Red wines
Sparkling wines
Special wines
An English style?
Table Wines and Quality Wines
Tell us your views and experiences

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How were the varieties chosen?

It used to be simple. In any one wine growing area the varieties of vine grown and the characteristics of wine produced were limited and, largely, unchanging. That all began to change with the emergence of New World wine growing areas - California, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile - and then even areas of France which had not previously been regarded as wine regions for anything other than vin de pays or country wine. In new areas, with no traditions, no history, anything was possible. The whole world of vines and viticulture and winemaking and wine was open to experiment, to trial and error, to innovation

Not that it was quite like that in England. The first challenge to the new winegrowers in the 1950s and 60s was to find varieties which would ripen in Britain's adverse climate. No basking in weeks and months of unbroken dawn to dusk sun here for vines! Only the most determined vines can ripen their crop and produce acceptable levels of sugar to be converted into alcohol. The second challenge was that of producing sufficient quantity to be commercially sensible, whilst ensuring quality was maintained.

Initially, the vines planted in English vineyards were mainly those of German origin which had been shown to do well in England in trial plantings. Even today, the plantings in English vineyards are significantly dominated by those early plantings, even though new varieties have since been identified which on one or more, sometimes several, parameters do better in England. The plantings in new vineyards do, of course, tend to reflect this later knowledge.

"Recommended and authorised"

England and Wales is, you may have noticed, part of the European Union. As a result our wine industry is overseen, regulated, controlled not only by MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) from a national standpoint but even more significantly by the European Commission. Its directives are, of course, mainly aimed at the giant wine industries of the more southern EU member states and sometimes seem anomalous when applied to a tiny fledgling industry struggling to survive and establish itself.

One of the EU's strictures has been to specify what varieties of vines should/can/cannot be grown commercially in the United Kingdom.

The official EU "Recommended Varieties" for the UK are:

  • Huxelrebe
  • Madeleine Angevine 7672
  • Muller-Thurgau (Rivaner)
  • Reichensteiner
  • Schonburger
  • Seyval Blanc
There are a further 12 "Authorised" varieties and another 18 "Provisionally Authorised", so there are lots to choose from. The 6 "Recommended" varieties plus Bacchus account for over 70% of UK vineyard plantings.

White wines

90% of English wine production is white wines and, as mentioned above, around 70% of that is from the "Recommended" varieties (plus Bacchus). Slowly this is changing as more of some of the "Authorised" and "Provisionally Authorised" varieties are planted (even though they are on the lists, some varieties are not much planted as it is felt others are clearly better).

Red wines

It may be thought that England and Wales are just too far north to grow black grapes outside in open vineyards, but varieties have been identified which will ripen and produce good quality wine including - Triomphe d'Alsace (not fashionable to plant now), Cascade (Siebel 13053) - a hybrid, Leon Millot, Rondo (GM6494/5) - said to be most promising red so far, hybrid, good acids and sugars, and Pinot Meunier.

In 1998 approximately 9% of English Wine production was red wines and this proportion has been steadily growing. Some vineyards also produce rosé wines.

Sparkling Wines

One of the great successes of recent years has been the production of sparkling wines (generally by the traditional mèthode champenoise). Some of these have beaten great French champagnes in blind tastings.

Special wines

A few English vineyards have produced special wines, such as "noble rot" wines which are highly concentrated with very high alcohol levels.

An English style?

The most-planted varieties of vine, mainly German in origin, have tended to produce wines which have both clear and distinct characteristics but also a broad style. This is by no means the same as when the same varieties are grown in, say, Germany. As ever, the importance of "terroir" - the place, the soil, the climate - where vines are grown, has a most significant effect on the final wine.

Because there is a broad range of vine varieties and micro-climates within English and Welsh viticulture there is no universal style, but it is probably not unfair to say there is a typical style, particularly from the most-planted vines - their wines tend to have a floral bouquet, sometimes very much so, a fresh taste, and an acidic finish. A combination which can be very agreeable indeed and is distinct from the style of any other wine producing country. Pretty certainly what you are tasting is the unique combination of England, her latitude and her climate - a country in a bottle!

As more of the recently planted vine varieties come into full production (and are more widely planted) there is likely to be an even greater diversity in the styles and characters of English wine.

And all the more opportunities for enjoyment by its consumers!

Table Wine and Quality Wine

Under EU regulations all wine is "table wine" unless it has been tested and judged to merit the designation "Quality Wine" by an approved standards-setting body. In England and Wales this is undertaken by the Wine Standards Board of the Vintners Company and the UKVA work closely with the Board in its work.

At the present time, about 1/3rd of English Wine has surmounted the hurdles and received the designation "Quality Wine". The remainder has to be described as "Table Wine". Wine from distinct regions now has to be described as such - e.g. Cornish regional wine.

However, much of the 2/3rds which is designated as Table Wine may be of Quality Wine standard, but English vineyards have, until now, been somewhat reluctant to submit their wines to the testing and judging process, or to incur the not inconsiderable costs involved.

Much English wine is made from hybrid vines. Irrespective of the objective quality of the wine, wine from hybrid vines is ineligible for inclusion in the Quality Wine scheme. This has nothing to do with quality but everything to do with traditionalism, protectionism and restrictive practices by the wine producers of other countries (notably France).

So don't be put off by labels which say "table wine" or "regional wine". The only sensible course of action is to taste and make up your own mind!

Tell us your views and experiences

Send an e-mail with your views and/or experiences of English wine to "ew" at ""

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