English wines and winemaking have come a long way just in the 25 years that I have known and tasted them. With increased investment in vineyards and wineries, more experienced winemakers and even, it must be said, better temperatures for grape growing thanks to global warming (!), English wine has now firmly earned its place on the world wine map.
In terms of grapes, we're now masters of the mostly Germanic varieties we first started growing in the 1950s, including müller-thurgau, huxelrebe, reichensteiner, scheurebe, seyval blanc and madeleine angevin.
But English soils often have similarities to those across the Channel in Champagne, and we're beginning to triumph with the famous bubbly's preferred grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier too. So it seems fitting for me to begin my food and wine matching suggestions with our fine English fizz.
English sparkling wine
Our bubbly is made in the same way as Champagne and is an excellent food match. What with? Well, the short answer is seafood!
English sparkling wine's zesty, lively character cuts through the crunchy batter and flaky fish of a traditional fish and chips, the acidity and zingy bubbles are like drizzling lemon juice over smoked, oily fish like salmon or trout, and the fruit and bite will be a winning partner for a crab or lobster salad.
One dish that I can personally vouch for (although perhaps old-fashioned these days) is a glass of our very own Exhibition English Sparkling Wine with herring roes on toast. The gentle bready character of the wine melded with the hot, buttered toast, while the citrus cut of the acidity lifted every mouthful of the soft, floured and fried roes with their dusting of sea salt and white pepper.
Beyond the bubblies, bacchus is probably the darling of the English wine scene. A cross between müller-thurgau and a sylvaner-riesling cross, it shares aroma and flavour characteristics with sauvignon blanc, and often shares food matches with this grape too.
This fragrant, acidic style is a match for many cheeses - think the fresh sharpness of goat's cheese, crumbly Lancashire and Wensleydale, as well as saltier cheeses like sheep's milk Berkeswell or Manchego. The grassy, nettley, elderflower character is a summer food dream, from a herby pea risotto to a seared salmon fillet with green veg like asparagus, mangetout or runner beans. Smoked salmon with a cucumber salad or gravadlax with a sweet, sharp mustard sauce will also cut the… well, mustard.
Aromatic English blends
Many English whites are a skilful mix of some of the Germanic grapes I mentioned in the intro, and these gently floral and fruity wines make for excellent summer drinking, especially with light, aromatic foods. Try them with fragrant Eastern Asian dishes like Thai, Szechuan, Vietnamese - perhaps a sea bass fillet steamed with ginger, lemongrass, basil and garlic, or a good old Chinese takeaway.
Another very familiar grape variety making huge strides in the UK is chardonnay. Known all over the world for its brilliance and versatility and for making some of the most sought-after whites, but also for occasionally trying too hard to please, chardonnay plantings in England and Wales have bounced with the growth and success of our brilliant homegrown bubblies in which it is so often a key component. More and more excellent examples are coming from UK vineyards, and as our climate shifts into a warmer gear these plantings are going to provide us with the wonderful raw material for an even greater number of terrific varietal bottlings. The only way is up. As with good examples anywhere, chardonnay makes a cracking food wine and the freshness of our versions can complement fine fish dishes, shellfish naked but for a squeeze of lemon (just like Chablis and oysters), simple roast chicken salads and spring or summer vegetable risottos.