Saturday, 12 June 2010

World Cup Wines. Day Two. England vs USA

The really great thing about wine is that virtually every country, nation, region, state, appellation, has its own style. 

While the United States of America now offers wine grown from grapes drawn from virtually every corner of the world, in styles that range from cheap and cheerful Chateau Cardboard, through innovative blends of grapes from different continents, to exclusive low-volume high ticket premium wines made with all the care and craftsmanship that the great melting pot of winemaking skills can muster.

But the USA also offers one wine that has become as synonymous with America as hamburgers, hot dogs and, especially, pizza. It's not soccer. It's as American as basketball, baseball and gridiron. 

It's Zinfandel.

As with the development of the pizza, America has taken something distinctly Italian and moulded and re-moulded it to fit the needs of a comparatively youthful nation, experimenting continually - not always successfully - to create and recreate something now distinctly American.

And as with pizza there have been hiccups along the way - Blush still outsells red Zinfandel by six to one in the US. 

Outside the States, American Zinfandel has established a significant niche for itself and the range on offer meets everybody's needs. Just as you can grab a basic cheese and tomato calzone from a sidewalk vendor, so you can find boxed Blush on the shelves of cornershops in London and can see Ridge Zinfandel on the shelves of quality wine merchants right around the globe.

In England the Ravenswood range is a massive seller. The style to which winemaker Joel Peterson adheres gives his red Zinfandel as distinctive a sense of terroir as any Old World wine and his uncompromising loyalty to the essence of the grape makes his wines the stand out choice for anybody supporting the USA in the football World Cup. 

You can't go far wrong with the Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel. Deep ruby red with the weight of alcohol at 13.5% sticking it to the glass, thick with black cherry aromas and hints of liquorice pepper and vanilla, medium to fullish bodied with flavours of blueberries and raspberries, cherries and oak spice in a fruit laden red. Supple and balanced, eminently drinkable.

It is very difficult for England to match that. 

It's not really a vine-growing country, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). We only make two million bottles ourselves. To put that into context, we are the world's largest wine importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and makes English wines very expensive to make (England has minimum wage legislation). Like all alcohol, wine is also heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to local would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

Consequently distribution of English made wine is really poor. Very few wine merchants nor supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.


There is one wine style at which England excels. Champagne. It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the méthode traditionnelle - traditional method - as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class.

Top of my list, and virtually on my doorstep is RidgeView Winery, high up on the South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge, Belgravia and bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason, and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

They offer all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé.

The Sunday Times Wine Club has an exclusive deal with RidgeView to offer South Ridge Cuvée Merret 2006 at just £15.41 a bottle when you order half a case. Which prices it right alongside Champagne.

Other notable producers include Nyetimber, whose 2001 Brut Chardonnay is exceptional and creamy, Gusbourne Estate, Hush Heath from Kent, Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down and Carr-Taylor. 

Of course, contrasting Zinfandel to English Sparkling Wine is, as they say, apples and pears, that is, they are incomparable. Ravenswood has been around since 1976, RidgeView only since 1994.

Meanwhile however, the USA football team has crept up the world rankings to 14th, only six places behind England at eight. 

If you expect to be drowning your sorrows, choose the Zinfandel. Fizz for me.

England 2 USA 0.

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