Wine growing is not new in Britain. While it seems likely that the Romans introduced vineyards it was in the Norman period, with the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, that successful viticulture really took off. English wine is a growing industry with increased sales both here and overseas. Recent years have also seen a rise in wine tourism initiatives including Cellar Door openings and wine festivals across England and Wales. There are around 3,500 hectares under vine in the UK, up 150% in the past ten years, with an additional 3.2m vines planted in 2019.*
The Domesday Book records more than 40 vineyards. Today there are 770 and 165 wineries producing 10.5m bottles in 2019. Award-winning English wines are also being exported around the world.
The most dominant grapes grown are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with both varietals used in sparkling and still wines. However, increasingly there is a renewed interest in other traditional wines such as mead and fruit wines, that have a history going back centuries. With 86% of wine in the UK being purchased at a supermarket along with the weekend shop and mostly choosen based on the label and the price, it’s time to rediscover the delights of ancient English wines.
Not sure what to drink with heritage wines? Below are some vintage recipes from my own collection to get you started.
Elderberry has a centuries-long tradition, both for food and medicinal purposes and wine making, where it was known as the ‘Englishman’s grape’. The elderbery also has the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit so another good excuse, if you need one, to drink this dark nectar. Production involves steeping the elderberries in a grape base to instil the flavours. Like most good robust red wines it’s best served at room temperature. Lyme Bay’s Elderberry wine is a rich red in colour with intense fruit flavours in the mouth, inititally sweet on the tongue but then dry as it develops. Perfect with a full-flavoured hard cheese, such as an English Cheddar or a flavoursome goats cheese. It will also pair beautifully with red meats, like the casserole recipe below. Lyme Bay Elderberry Wine. Alcohol content 9%. Vegan, vegetarian. £9.49 per 75cl bottle, Half bottle £5.79 375ml.
Recipe, Beef with Orange
This is a recipe from The Best of Sainsbury’s Wholefood Cooking (1986). It’s nice and simple yet full of rich flavour.
Ingredients. 1½ tablespoons plain wholemeal flour; salt and pepper; 350g (12oz) chuck steak; cubed, 15g (½ oz) butter; 1 small onion, chopped; ½ green pepper, seeded and chopped; grated rind and juice of 2 small oranges; 200ml (⅓ pint) beef stock; chopped parsley to garnish.
Method. Season the flour with the salt and pepper and use to coat the meat. Melt the butter in a pan, add the onion and pepper and fry until soft. Add the meat and fry, turning, until evenly browned. Transfer to a 900ml (1½ pint) casserole dish. Stir in the orange rind and juice, stock and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook in a preheated moderate oven, 160°C (325°F), Gas Mark 3, for 1 to 1¼ hours. Serve hot garnished with parsley. Serves 2.
Tip. Source pasture-fed beef from an ethical butcher using regenerative farming methods. Pasture For Life lists where to buy quality grass-fed meat in the UK delivered to your door in chilled, sustainble packaging.
Mead or Honey Wine
Mead (or honey-wine) is probably the world’s oldest alcoholic drink. The ancient Greeks called mead ambrosia or nectar. It was believed to be the drink of the gods, falling from the Heavens as dew and gathered by bees. Thought by many to be an elixir of health, fertility and longevity it was the favoured drink of the Vikings. In Celtic myth it features in ceremonial rituals to bestow magical powers. The Anglo-Saxons believed mead contributed to longevity. A ‘moon’s worth’ of mead was gifted to a bride and groom to ensure a fruitful union, hency the term ‘honeymoon’.
Long ago, mead was probably made in a similar way to orange wine, also gaining popularity with modern drinkers, with fermentation from natural airborne yeasts. Fruits, spices, grains or hops can be added and the alcoholic content varies from around 3.5% to over 18%. Mead can be still or sparkling; dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.
The mead from Lyme Bay Winery is made without added grape juice at all during fermentation. Polyfloral honey from the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico is blended with a small amount of English honey to produce a rich, warm caramel colour and intense flavour. Honey production in the UK is not high enough to provide sufficient for sole use but here it adds a rich, slightly herbal aspect to the blend.
The Traditional Mead is sweet, full-flavoured with rich, deep honey flavours and a delicious honeycomb finish. A perfect accompaniment to strong cheeses and full-flavoured casseroles, or combined in cocktails. 14.5% alcohol content. Traditional Mead. Price £9.75, 75cl. Other Lyme Bay meads include a Black Cherry, a Rhubarb and a Chilli. www.lymebaywinery.co.uk
The humble cheese straw
If you love cheese straws and usually buy a box or two when you’re dashing around the supermarket, try making your own. They will transport you to another level. Simple to make they’re a perfect nibble with drinks, or to accompany soup. The secret to a tasty cheese straw is to use a good quality, strong cheese. This is a tried and tested recipe from The Dairy Book of Family Cookery (1990). I don’t have a photo as they never last long enough to take a picture!
Ingredients. 75g (3oz) flour, salt and freshly ground pepper, 40g (1½ oz) butter, 40g (1½ oz) English Cheddar Cheese, grated, 1 egg, beaten, 5ml (1 level tsp) French mustard.
Method. Mix the flour and seasonings together and rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and stir to mix evenly. Combine half the beaten egg with the mustard and stir into the flour mixture to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured work surface and knead lightly until just smooth. Roll out the dough to a 15-cm (6 inch) square and place on a baking sheet. Brush with the remaining beaten egg. Divide the dough into 7.5 x 1cm (3 x ½ inch) oblongs and separate out. Bake in the oven at 180°C (350 °F) mark 4 for 12 – 15 minutes until golden. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 24.
Tip. Although the recipe doesn’t call for it, dust the straws generously with grated fresh Parmesan cheese before cooking. You might also think about making double the quantity!
English sparkling wines
English Sparkling Wine dates back to 1662 although wines made with local grapes didn’t occur until around 1952. Lyme Bay winery sources quality grapes from vineyards across England. Their full size bottles of sparkling wine are made using the Traditional Method, or méthode champenoise, with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle. A new half bottle is produced using the charmat method where the carbonation process is in large steel tanks. The resulting Non-Vintage Brut has a pleasing warm blush and is packed with smaller bubbles (an indicator of quality) for a lively fizz in the mouth, and a fresh taste that lingers. For a small bottle it bestows a satisfying drinking experience, perfect as an aperitif or to accompany a wicked dessert.
This recipe for a rich, easily-made mousse comes from the Good Housekeeping Complete Book of Chocolate (1993). This is my go-to book for chocolate recipes. Serves 6, if you can bear to share!
Ingredients. Three 61.5g Mars bars; 15ml (1tbsp) milk; 300ml (1/2 pint) double cream; egg white. For the decoration: caster sugar, whipped cream, cape gooseberies.
Method. Thinly slice the Mars bars and put them in a heatproof bowl with the milk. Place over a saucepan of simmering water, and heat gently, stirring occasionally, until melted and almost smooth. Cool for about 10 minutes, stirring.
Whip the cream until it just holds its shape, then gently stir a large spoonful into the Mars bars mixture. Fold in the remaining cream with a large metal spoon. Lightly whisk the egg white and fold into the chocolate mixture. Pour into a bowl, cover and leave in the refrigerator overnight. Alternatively, poor into elegant wine glasses to chill.
To make crushed caramel to decorate, line a small baking sheet with foil and brush generously with oil. Sprinkle caster sugar evenly over the foil and cook under a hot grill until melted and golden. (Don’t take your eyes off it for a second as it can suddenly catch and burn). As the sugar melts it will run into uneven pools of caramel. Remove from the grill immediately and allow to cool slightly before peeling off the foil and breaking into pieces. Use to decorate the mousse with whipped cream and cape gooseberries.
Tip: Experiment with different chocolate. I’ve been reviewing 80Noir Ultra beads which make a delicious cup of smooth, flavoursome hot chocolate. Made to a bespoke recipe it doesn’t have the bitterness you often get with a high cocoa percentage product. I imagine it would work well here, melted and added to the cream, or as an addition to the bars for an extra cacao kick. Price 80NU Dark Chocolate Beads x 300g and 5 Bars £17.50.
Thanks to Lyme Bay Winery for the wines reviewed. The winery is a small, independent drinks company that has been producing award-winning English Wine, Fruit Wine, Cider, Mead, Liqueurs and Spirits for 25 years from Devon’s Axe Valley. Wines are fermented, blended and aged at the Winery. Awards include the International Wine and Spirit Competition, the International Cider Challenge, the Decanter World Wine Awards. Lyme Bay Winery https://lymebaywinery.co.uk
Other UK mead and fruit wine producers include the Lancashire Mead Company www.lancashiremeadcompany.co.uk; Gosnells of London www.gosnells.co.uk; and The Cornish Mead Company https://cornishmead.co.uk
*Data source: Wine GB www.winegb.co.uk.
Please check the various web sites for details and prices. All vews expressed belong solely to the original author of the view/opinion.