There's a right old hoo-hah going on over the water. English (and Welsh) wine, quality-wise, has come on in leaps and bounds since a couple of questing wine buffs planted grapevines on the Sussex Downs in the late 1980s. Wineries such as Nyetimber (Sussex), Chapel Down (Kent) and Camel Valley (Cornwall) have won both acclaim and awards.
Unfortunately, for these upwardly mobile wineries, there is a rival for the public's affections. It's called 'British Wine' and it has been around a long time -- in fact, far longer than the 'English' tipple. 'British Wine' is the legally accredited classification for wines made in the UK from imported grape concentrate.
The quality is nothing to write home about but it seems, in these newly austere times, your average British quaffer cares more about price than nose, palate or aftertaste. Britwine brands hit supermarket shelves at around £3.49, cheaper, even, than the rock-bottom imports. One such, called Silver Bay Point, has hiked its sales by a staggering 657pc in the past year.
English (and Welsh) winemakers are concerned that Britwine is benefiting from the great press their own wines are getting. Julia Trustram Eve, their spokesperson, has complained that people read the good reviews then pop off to the offie or, more likely, the supermarket and cop for a bottle of British, imagining they are getting the stuff at a knock-down price.
Britwine advocates, on the other hand, are quick to point out that their product complies with packaging regulations and that "it ain't that bad". From a recent experience, I'd beg to differ. On a visit to England, I bought a bottle of Brit out of pure curiosity. It was on sale at £3.20 (around €3.65) and, after a second swig, I consigned it to a BBQ marinade.
I've long been an advocate of clearer and more informative wine labelling, even though it's doubtful if the punter reads much beyond the 'fresh'n'fruity' on the back label. It's essential to provide the customer with info such as the grape varieties in the blend; where the wine is made and bottled; the alcohol level; whether or not sulphites are added; and, if oak is used, whether it's sawdust, chippings, staves or barrels. I can do without nanny-state stuff like health warnings but others may dissent.
As proof that cheap wine doesn't have to be crap, Cimarosa Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 from Chile's Central Valley, (€4.49, Lidl) is smartly made, balanced and true to the grape variety. It took Gold at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Supermarket buyers seem to be snapping up aged Gran Reservas from minor Spanish regions at the minute. If you love old-style, silky, oaky Rioja you might like Valdepenas Gran Reserva Vina Albali 2001 (SuperValu, €7) and Baturrica Tarragona Gran Reserva 2004 (Lidl, €6.49, pictured), both pretty good pastiches.