Biddenden Late Harvest Ortega, Kent, England 2018 (£122, biddendenvineyards.com) “One-hundred-and-twenty-two pounds for an English wine?” It’s a question that is easy to imagine arising just as a mouthful of said wine is being sprayed to all corners in incredulous rage: “You what mate?” I’m not going to get too distracted by issues of value or fairness here. Suffice to say once you’ve got beyond a certain threshold (roughly £25) there’s very little logic to wine pricing. Above that, it’s not about quality per se, it’s about reputation, scarcity, image. But that doesn’t mean a wine cannot be worth that much to someone. If the wine has something unique about it, and you happen to have the money and inclination to spend on it, then who am I to judge. I will, however, say that I tasted Biddenden’s Kentish dessert wine, made from their speciality grape variety Ortega, before I knew the price, and found it’s combination of fresh tropical and English apple fruit, electric acidity, silk-sheet texture and endless length very special indeed.
Weingut Joh Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Mosel, Germany 2018 (from £26.95, corneyandbarrow.com; bbr.com; howardripley.com) Part of the Biddenden Ortega’s attraction for me is that it provides some evidence to support a long-held conviction of mine: that the UK has even greater potential for relatively delicate (the Biddenden has just 10% alcohol) sweet wines in a German style than it does for champagne-alikes. Given that the sparkling wine category is one of the most popular and fastest growing all over the world, and that sweet wine sales have been declining for years, I can understand why most ambitious English winemakers are sticking to the fizz. All the same, if I were to start my own English venture I would be sorely tempted to adapt a German model, planting riesling, and aiming to take advantage of the cool English climate to create wines with the filigree detail, steel-thread acidity, and cushion of sweet exotic fruit that you find in a classic old school, semi-sweet kabinett riesling from the Mosel Valley such as Weingut Joh Jos. Prüm’s.
Booths Sauternes, Bordeaux, France 2017 (£14.50, 37.5cl, booths.co.uk) Another underrated and it seems to me seldom-drunk great sweet wine style is the one made from a blend of the semillon and sauvignon blanc grape varieties in Bordeaux’s Sauternes sub-region. This is sweet wine in a much richer, thicker, more golden and viscous style than Biddenden’s ortega or Prüm’s riesling kabinett. It’s an example of a widespread art of dessert winemaking that depends on the development of so-called noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that grows on the grapes, concentrating the sugars and flavours and acidity in the grapes. The results can be glorious, with notes of marmalade and toffee and cystallised fruits – all of which are found in the benchmark example stocked by the smart northern supermarket Booths; in the flat-out gorgeous, incredible value, multi-vintage blend Ulysse Sauternes (£9.95, 37.5cl, thewinesociety.com); and, with slightly less intensity but still working very well with blue cheese and even the sweetest desserts, Tesco Finest Sauternes 2018 (£12, 37.5cl).
Follow David Williams on Twitter @Daveydaibach