One of the joys of being a wine-writer based in London is that most of the world's wine-producers beat a path to your door. This is not only because the British are great consumers of wine, but because there is only a small amount of home-grown wine produced in England and Wales - at least in terms of the quantities needed by supermarkets.
As Spring finally emerged from Winter, the wine-tasting season began in earnest, and inevitably much of this operation occurs in London. There are now 277 members of the London-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW) and though a growing proportion of this membership is overseas-dwelling - many of them living in continental Europe - modern communications ensure that the Circle is now as cosmopolitan as the wines offered for inspection.
A main annual event is the three-day London International Wine & Spirits Fair from 16th to 18th May held at the Excel Centre in London's former Docklands area, now an increasingly used conference commercial district.
Here, some 1,300 exhibitors are displaying their wines from all over the wine-growing world - from Europe to Australasia, and from the United States to South America. Journalists from all over the world attend the Fair, and members of the wine trade at every level meet and taste the pick of the wines of the current year (in the case of New World wines whose harvests occur first) to a wide-ranging selection from the 2005 harvest and earlier vintages.
Your correspondent Lovat Stephen has distinguished one modern trend, which he finds increasingly convenient himself, is that wine-growers take advantage of the numbers of wine writers and traders likely to be in London for this Excel Fair to hold their own individual side-shows, either concurrently or just before the main event. He and his colleagues find it both welcome and convenient to test wines in small quantities in the quiet of a private venue, as well as viewing (and tasting) from dozens at the main event in May.
One of the growers' associations to take advantage of the start of the tasting season was that of the English Wine Producers, which held a very fine tasting in the Great Hall of the Institution of Civil Engineers just off Parliament Square at the end of April. This gathering also served to announce the holding of an English Wine Week to follow on after the May Wine Fair.
A central table held a selection of some eighty English wines, with many more available at other regional tables around the perimeter of the Great Hall. Although most of the regional associations were from the southern half of England (the South East, East Anglia, the West Country) there were others from the Midlands and the Heart of England, including even wine from as far north as Yorkshire.
Most of the wines on the central table were sparkling or dry white wines, but there were also a dozen reds and three Late Harvest or Dessert wines.
The terroir of most English vineyards in the south of the country is quite close to that of the champagne country in France, and many of the sparkling wines tasted were fully deserving of champagne-type consideration. Indeed the top of the range here were from the traditional champagne grape mixture of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. With prices to match!
Other English sparkling whites were still based on the German-origined grapes which were mostly used in past years: Müller Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Kerner and various crosses. But there were also several 100% Chardonnays, mostly labelled as Blanc de Blancs, or as in the case of a Nyetimber 1998, as a Prestige Cuvée, a quality wine which has been served at some British Embassy dinners abroad and even at a royal reception or two.
Here he rather perversely preferred the cheaper of the three Ridgeview wines - the Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2003 (70% Chardonnay, 23% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier) at £ 17.95 to the Ridgeview Merret Cavendish of the same year (46% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Meunier) at a full two pounds more. And he preferred both these to the Ridgeview Merret Grosvenor 2001 - which was 100% Chardonnay and retailing at £21.95.
Perhaps your correspondent should stick to the much cheaper Dry Whites on the central tasting table, and leave the champagne-type sparklers to those more accustomed to everyday champagne drinking (and those with deeper pockets).
In the Dry White category he enjoyed two wines from A'Beckett's vineyard in Devizes, Wiltshire. Both were Estate Blend mixtures of Reichensteiner and Auxerrois - the 2004 in a proportion of 70% Auxerrois to 30% and in the 2005 55% Reichensteiner to 45% Auxerrois, the latter a wine which does well in Alsace and is now reported to be gaining ground in England.
Not tremendously different one from the other, and both priced reasonably at £8.50. Lovat Stephen's tasting pad noted a very satisfactory after-taste. Both these wines from Devizes were completely new to him - and welcome.
At this stage in the tasting your correspondent was unashamedly skipping the strongly Germanic category of Aromatic Dry Whites (mostly from grapes such as the Schönburger, Siegerrebe, Bacchus) and also the half-dozen Rose bottles, in order to do his duty by the dozen Red wines on display.
Here he took the opportunity to taste two Chapel Down wines from the Tenterden Estate in Kent, because as they were both priced at £24.99 they would be normally be well out of his reach at that figure. Both the 2003 and the 2004 were 100% Pinot Noir and as the saying goes "well worth the visit". If he was buying for himself he would have been satisfied with a Denbies Yew Tree 2003 at £13.99 or even a Three Choirs 2004 at £7.50, in each case both also 100% Pinot Noir. Interesting to be able to compare them anyway.
I am afraid your correspondent finds that sipping Dessert Wines at the end of a long wine tasting, without any accompanying largish meal and a pudding, is probably not the best moment to judge the merits of sweeter after-dinner wines. He thought the three half-bottles on offer - a Chapel Down Nectar, a Three Choirs Late Harvest and an Astley Late Harvest - all priced at between £7 and £8 a half-bottle - all deserved consideration and that aforementioned pudding. The last two were 100% Siegerrebe, while the Chapel Down was a mix of three grapes.
Although this wine-tasting at the Institution of Civil Engineers stood by itself it also served to introduce English Wine Week in that last week of May, after the International Wine Fair in Docklands. Several English wineries will be putting on special events to match this year's slogan of "think English, drink English" and will be open to visitors.