Monday was St George's day and I thought it would be appropriate to sing the praises of English wine. Not content with simply trying some wine, I decided to visit an actual English winery. As vineyards go, Three Choirs is pretty small with seventy five acres under vine. The first half acre of wine was planted in 1973 as an experiment in a natural bowl with lower rainfall and warmer temperatures than most parts of England. Seven years later it became the first vineyard in England to build a purpose built winery and still continues to innovate with several acres set aside for trying out new varieties.
The last vineyard I visited was in Italy, and I remembered standing in the warm sunshine, overlooking the vineyards in Friuli. This April morning however, I was standing overlooking a vineyard in Gloucester with the rain starting and a temperature in single figures. How can anyone produce wine here, particularly on a commercial basis I asked my guide Jo. Firstly, their location is key. Their own microclimate, surrounded and protected by the Malvern hills and Brecon Beacons, results in a couple of degrees warmer weather, which can mean the difference between a vine becoming dormant in winter and one becoming dead. Secondly their grape selection. Relying on Germanic varieties is key, particularly those resistant to disease, but the selection at this vineyard is to create a 'Three Choirs style" - something unique to them. The third factor is their winemaker Martin Fowke who battles against the elements to create the wines, not only for Three Choirs, but for up to 120 other growers and wineries in England, using his skill to produce wine in a challenging climate.
Bottled under screwcap, Three Choirs wines are intended for immediate drinking. They don't have the ability to produce darker, fuller bodied styles of wine and therefore don't try to. Another honest answer came when I asked why they weren't producing wines from more well known varieties, such as Riesling. At the minute, they don't think they can produce Rieslings that can compete with rivals from other countries. So far, so good, I liked the place, I liked the ambition and I liked the passion. But would I like the wines?
For only £3.50, you can sample five of the wines from their range of a dozen. The first up was the 2010 Three Choirs Coleridge Hill. A blend of Phoenix, Madeleine Angevine and Huxelrebe. It had a slightly musky aroma with a nice lemon and sweetened honey sneaking through with some brighter lime aromas cutting the sweetness. The palate was bright, with fresh grapey notes mixed with some elderflower. A nice, simple, clean wine and, for the money, pretty damn good. 85pts £9.50
Next up was the 2009 Three Choirs Willow Brook - a Schonburger and Siegerrebe blend. Nettles leaped out at me, with lots of elderflower. Unlike the first wine that was simple and easy drinking, this off dry wine was more tricky, but in a good way. There was a seriousness with this wine, still light and gentle, but with structure, pepper, vegetal notes and again, more elderflower. 88pts £9.50
Madeleine Angevine comes from the Loire Valley and is an early ripening grape that makes it perfect for growing in cooler climates such as England. The product of a crossing of Madeleine Royale and Précoce de Malingre in the mid 19th century. It was first commercially available in the 1860s and has been used as a parent for numerous new varieties.Reichensteiner is mainly grown in Germany and England and is a cross of Müller Thurgau and Madeleine Angevine and was first bred just before the Second World War. Like it's parents, it grows in cooler climates, and is high in sugar making it suitable for both still and sparkling wines, but tends to lack some flavour which means it needs oaked or blended.
Another single varietal, the 2009 Three Choirs Reichensteiner, showed melon and peach skin on the nose with some mango finishing with some pear drops. There is a rounder, ripe fruit flavour, some sweet peach and a bit of toast coming from the wood that this wine has been put in. Nicely balanced and juicy with the richer flavours and oak cut by a bit of elderflower on the end. I like this a lot but is it worth the money? 90pts £23.50
A 2010 Three Choirs Rosé came next - a blend of Seyval Blanc and Triomphe. It was full of aromas of strawberries and cream, a bit confected but with some spice emerging. The palate has the ever present elderflower (is this the Three Choirs style?!), but with some sweeter elements and crisp cranberry clashing a touch with the creamier elements. It is nice enough, but not my thing. 84pts £9.50
Finally, and somewhat bravely, I was given the 2010 Three Choirs Pinot Noir. Despite saying that they don't think they can produce Riesling to compete with other nations' products, the fact that they are making this Burgundian varietal and charging twenty quid for it, is a bold statement. Can they manage to compete with France's finest or New Zealand's juicier style? Well the answer is no, they can't, and I don't think they are trying. This wine is a different beast - it has redcurrants, then some crisp red apple skin, and then some plums bursting forward. There is an earthier flavour, some smoke and then some red fruit and spice on the back end. Very gentle, clean and bright and a wine that has the potential, I think, to be an English classic. 88pts £20
I wanted to go to Three Choirs as they are a commercial vineyard in England and, if English wine is to be taken seriously, it does need to move away from the farmdoor reputation it has. Sure, these tiny producers are fantastic, but it is the bigger companies that have to lead the way when it comes to promoting the nation's wines. Three Choirs has the products, and the volume - even if it is still relatively tiny - to lead the way.
Three Choirs Wines are available through the cellar door, their website and in select Waitrose stores.