Previously thought impossible in our marginal climate, a group of determined winemakers across the country have been producing various expressions of sweeter, English dessert wines. These producers have experimented with techniques such as late harvesting, noble rot (botrytis - a fungus that starves grapes of water and intensifies sweetness) and even making wines from frozen grapes (such as the Hattingley Entice Bacchus, which featured in our 12 wines of Christmas).
I've put together a small selection of golden wines that are perfect for pairing with festive fare. Cheese platters, duck liver pâtés and an array of sweet, spiced desserts all lend themselves perfectly to pairing with sweeter wines, so why not pick up one of these four bottles of English nectar and try something a little different this year?
Beacon Down Riesling 2018 Medium Sweet
REGION: Sussex GRAPES: Riesling
Owner Paul Pippard has managed to release an off-dry English Riesling through a meticulous selection of fruit at the end of October last year and careful winemaking techniques. Fermentation was stopped early to preserve natural sugars (42.9g/l) and a resulting lower alcohol of 8%.
The nose on this Riesling was a little more subdued than I had hoped, but I picked up on aromas of meadow grass, light mango and stone fruit notes, with some appealing floral hues.
To taste, however, there were many more hallmarks of Riesling evident. There's quite a body to the wine: a mixture of succulent, ripe apricot and mango flavours with an off-dry character. Lightly honeyed notes and a hint of creaminess, before a clean, refreshing citrus cut through keeps the sweetness under control.
Paul describes this as a Kabinett-style Riesling – which really hits the nail on the head. There's still a hint of English greenness when compared to native German Riesling, but this really was a most welcome surprise, and the crisp citrus notes lend themselves well to cut through creamier cheeses and even moderately spiced Asian dishes.
Hush Heath Late Harvest 2018
REGION: Kent GRAPES: Chardonnay
Winemaker Fergus Elias describes this as a real one-off wine. Coming from young vines in their second vintage of fruit, Fergus revealed that the fruit was very nearly dropped. That was before it was discovered that there was some genuine botrytis in the grapes.
The Chardonnay were then not picked until 5th December last year, then left to macerate for 16 hours before pressing. Careful selection of yeasts throughout maceration and fermentation protected the wine from oxidation and preserved the botrytis-induced aromatics. The Late Harvest spent a further eight months on lees in American & French oak, before bottling in August.
This is really something else! Firstly there's the alluring golden hue of the wine, but then, what a nose! Rich aromas of dried orange peel, honey, dried herbs and subtle winter spices.
To taste, there's a big, fresh fusion of citrus upfront; tangerine, orange marmalade and pithy lemon, with a hint of bitter blood orange and red grapefruit. The mid-taste is where riper stone fruit flavours come out, and there's a nice lick of oily texture to add structure.
Without doubt, the higher alcohol level (12.5%) and integrated oak textures all lend this wine best of the four to food pairing. It was an absolute delight with duck liver parfait, and similarly divine with a selection of cheeses.
- Buy from Grape Britannia £32.99
Chapel Down Nectar 2017
REGION: Kent GRAPES: Schönburger
As one of the longest-standing sweeter wines from England, Chapel Down's Nectar has both an accessible character and price (£12.99). The latest 2017 vintage was made from 100% Schönburger from Sandhurst Vineyard.
Winemaker Josh Donaghay‑Spire's approach is to chill and filter the wine mid-fermentation to remove the yeast and stop fermentation. The resulting wine has a lower alcohol (8.5%) and a natural sweetness, with residual sugar sitting at 53g/l.
The Nectar 2017 has a rather appealing nose of mango, honeysuckle and peach, with a hint of lychee or rosewater that is reminiscent of the Gewürztraminer grape.
To taste, a medley of tropical fruit, fleshy peach and floral flavours. The low alcohol, balanced sweetness and presence of acidity and citrus freshness makes it a very easy-drinking option for those that might find traditional dessert wines too sweet or cloying.
- Buy from Grape Britannia £12.99
Denbies Noble Harvest 2016
REGION: Surrey GRAPES: Ortega
Another comparative veteran of sweet wine in England is Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey. Denbies also make a premium 'The Brokes' version of this, which retails at an eye-watering £60 for a half bottle, but I have focussed on the more accessible Noble Harvest version, which clocks in at £19.99 from Waitrose. This wine took home a Silver Medal at the Independent English Wine Awards 2019, while The Brokes went one better with a Gold.
This wine was made from 100% Ortega grapes that were again botrytis affected. The fruit was macerated for 12 hours before a gentle pressing for a further 12 hours. The wine was partly fermented in oak and stainless steel and was released with a residual sugar of 94.3g/l.
The nose on this wine is the most developed and rich of the four wines. It's got classic botrytis dessert wine character (think Sauternes) with aromas of orange peel, apricots and spice.
The palate follows suit, with a pleasing richness of apricot and peach flavours with a citrus fusion of grapefruit and orange. The sugar level is high for an English dessert wine, but there's still enough acidity and citrus freshness to make sure it doesn't overwhelm.
- Buy from Waitrose Cellar £19.99