Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Olly Smith - England Expects

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Olly Smith Olly Smith / 22 May 2019

Will 2018 be the greatest harvest for our home-grown wines this century? 'Yes, it just well might be,' decides Olly Smith

When the elements unite, the wonder of nature can be thrilling to behold. The Northern Lights, rolling ocean surf, starlings moving as one in mysterious murmuration. Yet none of these come close to the magic of the 2018 wine vintage here in Great Britain.

What makes this spell so perfectly conjured? That mercurial equilibrium of perfectly balanced warmth, light and rain – all taking it in turns to nurture what’s being hailed as the greatest British wine harvest of the century. I’ve been collecting English wine since 2000 and my cellar is stocked with a serious back catalogue of sparklers in particular – though I am also convinced and captivated by the ability of the bacchus grape to evolve in a similar way to some of the world’s finest rieslings. This year, I’ll be buying as much English bacchus as I can, since the quality of the grapes from 2018 is as strikingly memorable and impressively jubilant as winning Strictly Come Dancing while riding a lion.

Sergio & Lynsey Verrillo from Blackbook Winery, Battersea, England
Sergio & Lynsey Verrillo from Blackbook Winery, Battersea, England

Sergio Verrillo at London urban winery Blackbook couldn’t be more enthusiastic; ‘there was ideal weather at all the right times. A warm and long summer and autumn made the season pretty perfect, particularly as the 2017 vintage was hit with widespread frost resulting in high crop loss. For us at Blackbook, we are really excited to see the finished wines as all the potential is there.’ Look out for their bacchus-ortega blend The Mixup new to The Wine Society’s List this month (ref N-EN1411, £22/11.5%). Sam Lindo, multi-award-winning winemaker at Cornwall’s Camel Valley is finding a beautiful balance between the quality and the quantity of their bacchus, ‘2018 was obviously the warmest summer ever and it shows with a little more tropical notes in the wines. Not much more as the crop was also the biggest ever so the wines have retained their typically restrained character’.

Bob and Sam Lindo amongst the vines at Camel Valley vineyards, Cornwall
Bob and Sam Lindo amongst the vines at Camel Valley vineyards, Cornwall

But the large quantity of grapes in 2018 didn’t make life easy for all English winegrowers. Alison Nightingale of Albourne Estate reflects that ‘the quantity was unusual for the UK – I’m not sure I’ll ever see my vines producing that many grapes again – and following on from the very low 2017 harvest it was a shock for us all and hence there was quite a last minute scramble to find capacity in the winery. Whilst we are still blending our final bacchus for 2018 the summer has delivered an enhanced generosity and fullness on the palate whilst still retaining the crisp, refreshing acidity and aromatic notes that are its hallmark.’ Martin Fowke at Three Choirs vineyard agrees that the challenges were uniquely poised in favour of intuitive blending: ‘the 2018 vintage was extremely good. It was not an easy harvest though. Acidity dropped in the early varieties quicker than sugars increased, so we needed a bit of patience to wait for sugars to reach their potential. Later varieties had a much better acid structure, and so the art of blending will be important this year!’ On the basis of his Three Choirs Silver Jubilee 2018 (ref N-EN1401, £8.50/11.5%), I’d say he’s got the blending bang on – it’s a wonderful wine of perfectly poised exotic refreshment, rather like a wedge of pink grapefruit skewering a lychee.

Martin Fowke, winemaker at Three Choirs
Martin Fowke, winemaker at Three Choirs

So what does all that mean for fans of Great British wine? Well, for sure these whites will have alluring concentration. Balance that with the thrilling zing of our home-grown grapes that tend to be as dazzling as a thunderbolt hurtling from the hedgerow and you’re in for treats that’ll quench, refresh and enthral with every sip. Thanks to the generosity of the vintage there will no doubt be a plentiful supply and while there is some talk in the trade of competitive pricing, I take my hat off to British winegrowers who take these risks year in year out in their unending quest for deliciousness – remember the disaster of the 2012 wash out? Growing and making wine in Britain can be a dicey business, and I for one am more than happy to pay a fair price to reflect the magic of these natural wonders. If you haven’t yet tried the vinous output of our sceptred isle, then now is definitely the time!

Wine expert Olly Smith is an award-winning TV and radio presenter, author and columnist. He is also one third of Three Wine Men (threewinemen.co.uk)

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