England's green and pleasant wine

Chapel Down BacchusIt's English Wine Week, so of course it must be raining. That pretty much captures the essence of what it's like to be an English winemaker - great when the sun shines but for the other 300 days of the year it's just plain hard work getting grapes to ripen in less than ideal conditions. Luckily newer cross-bred grape varieties make it easier to produce an end product surpassing New World competitors.

The Bacchus grape is a common sight in many English vineyards. It may have started life as a Riesling, but grapevine breeding know-how has since produced a variety without the Germanic tendency to make semi-sweet wine. Combine this with the ideal growing conditions in Kent and the wine making expertise at Chapel Down vineyards and you produce the best example of a Bacchus I've come across.

Their 2006 vintage is similar to an expensive Sauvignon Blanc – it smells and tastes of gooseberry - but with more complex nuances of lemon balm, elderflower and peaches. There is downside to all this good news - the wine costs £8.99 a bottle.

Esk Valley logoThis may sound expensive until you realise the wine is of similar quality and taste to that fashionable antipodean icon - New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. An Esk Valley Sauvignon doesn't seem unreasonable priced at £10 (Laithwaites) with its balanced gooseberry and grapefruit flavours, but neither does the English Chapel Down Bacchus (Waitrose stores) with similar but additional multi-dimensional aromas and flavours.

English winemakers needn't now hope harvesting grapesagainst hope that their grapes will ripen fully in our several hundred hours of yearly sunshine. Red grapes need more sun to ripen than white grapes, but even these can now be harvested at optimum levels of sweetness - as long as English grape growers choose not to grow varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot.

These warm country favourites need over a thousand hours of sunshine to ripen and so any UK vineyard owner seduced into planting these varieties would find the resulting under-ripe fruit only capable of making nasty, acidic wines no-one would rightly part cash for.

Dunkfelder, Dornfelder, Rondo, Regent, or a few other classily named grape varieties, are better choices for English vineyards. Their resulting wine, will more often than not, taste fruitily ripe – like Bookers Vineyard's juicy Dark Harvest 2005. This £7.80 is a blend of two red grape varieties, the German Dornfelder and the Chinese-Austrian half-breed Rondo, and tastes like a blackcurranty Merlot with a dash of English elderberry. And we can expect more of the same fully-ripened sweet and fruity flavours to follow year on year.

Bookers Vineyard labelEngland's commercial vine growers now not only have the knowledge to make good wine but grape technology is enabling them to make good wine too. Beating the French hands-down in a few international wine competitions certainly helped boost the image of English wine abroad, now English wine plc needs to fully convince us wine buyers who share their nationality to swap the easy-drinking Aussie whites for a Shires cuvée.