Is Cornwall the new California? No, but the question is no longer preposterous, writes Jeni Port.
IT WAS a shock - no, a big shock - when an English sparkling wine outpointed 250 champagnes to win the International Wine Challenge in 2005.
Surely it was a figment.
The wind-chill factor is nearing the extreme.
Then English sparkling wine started winning more awards, kicking more goals. In 2010 and 2011, one British winemaker took out the title of sparkling rosé world champion in Verona.
There was even talk that some champagne houses were buying land down south in parts of Cornwall and Sussex, such was the growing reputation of their wines.
This, apparently, was a figment but it all helped to fuel curiosity about something that, frankly, shouldn't exist.
England was always considered too wet, too cold, for serious wine production. Those brave souls who persisted with grapes were often viewed as just another example of English eccentricity. But as visitors to the London Olympics will discover, English sparkling wines can be seriously good, so much so they are the new darlings of the London food and wine scene.
There is no embarrassment in ordering a Camel Valley (which will be served at the opening of the Paralympics), Avonleigh or Nyetimber sparkling. Wine-list prices for some now enter champagne territory.
Such is the new patriotic zeal, English wine-drinkers turn up in droves for weekly vineyard and winery tours at one of the better-known champagne giant-killers, Camel Valley, outside the Cornish village of Bodmin.
Its Englishness is classic: winding, narrow lanes, lush pastures, a permanent green colour scheme, red roses, sodden skies and an enveloping grey light. The summer has been one of the wettest and coldest on record, something to which Camel Valley's Lindo family seem oblivious. Winemaker Sam Lindo, long, lanky, 30-odd and three-time winner of UK winemaker of the year, is in shorts. The thermometer is barely into double digits. Camel Valley is high, as English vineyards go, so the accompanying wind-chill factor is nearing the extreme.
This is pinot noir country through and through. It's also home to some unusual hybrids or crossbreeds grown for table wine, with names such as seyval blanc (''for us, seyval is our chardonnay,'' Lindo says), dornfelder and bacchus.
''We choose grape varieties with features that help them grow in this climate,'' he says. ''Grapes here grow really slowly.''
The Lindos haven't had a summer day above 33 degrees since 2007. Sometimes they're still picking grapes at the end of October.
Full ripeness takes time to achieve, yields are low. The upside, according to Lindo, is a ''different'' taste in the wines. There is more roundness than might be expected and definitely more fruit.
Camel Valley sparklings are full of vitality in their youth, something the family likes to emphasise.
Bottle ageing before release is 18 months, ensuring a fresh, fruit-dominant style. ''We release early,'' he says, ''because we want [to emphasise] the aromas.''
The vines were planted in 1989 and are at that interesting emerging adult stage. Lindo's father, Bob, was an RAF pilot with no experience in winegrowing or winemaking when they started out. It's a good story, one that has encouraged others to follow.
''In England, we are really pushing the limits of grape growing,'' Lindo says. ''People are planting vines everywhere.''
One excited television presenter has called Cornwall the ''California of England'', which might be overstating the region's ability a tad, especially producing premium wines in any great quantity. This is a small industry, probably always will be.
That is why, for the moment, Australians keen to get their hands on English sparkling wines will have to order direct. Hopefully, this will change soon.
The wines offer yet another dimension to the sparkling world and clearly quality is rising.
The cool weather explains half the story. The rest is in the ground: loam over shillet.
There is chalk through parts of Cornwall (which has fuelled the reported interest of champagne houses in the area) but Lindo says his soils have no chalk. Instead, his vineyard has a fair bit of shillet, a shale-slate. Big shards of broken grey slate can be seen under the vines. This brings a natural minerality to the wine and its structure.
It's there in the Camel Valley 2010 Cornwall Brut ($37.60), a wine quite generous in body but with high-ish acidity and that minerality to rein it in, the effect is minimised. Lemon, vanilla and light florals on the nose follow with more of the same on the palate and a light creaminess and shortbread biscuity-ness.
It's not a simple wine but neither is it complex at this time. It's so drinkable I doubt it gets to see any further ageing by consumers.
Camel Valley 2010 Cornwall pinot noir sparkling rosé ($37.60) highlights the Lindo philosophy to emphasise the fruit. It is its reason for being: a rolling, pulsating mouthful of red apple, dusty wild strawberry, cherry, red plum and spice. Again, Camel Valley presents a highly enjoyable drink, taming what clearly can be at times some aggressive acidity.
The Lindo family also produces a sparkling red ($27) that could be described as a ye olde English country red wine. It's made from the rondo grape and the flavour is briar, cherry, bramble and lots of earth with very little tannin structure.
An Australian might describe it as Vegemite-like. Lindo refers to it as a ''Marmite thing''.
''People like it,'' he says. It is full of colour and quite dry. It's no sparkling shiraz but then the rondo grape is not a classic vitis vinifera.
This is a hybrid created to put up with, and ripen, in the chillier climes of Europe. Or an English summer …
*Prices are converted from British pounds quoted from the Camel Valley website: camelvalley.com