It was a lovely summer’s day and I was with friends, sipping a rosé from the adjacent vineyard. I could so easily have been in the south of France, but no, I was in England, at Albury Vineyards in the Surrey Hills, just south of London. Such has been the success of Albury’s Silent Pool Rosé, that Nick Wenman was planting more Pinot Noir and the occasion was a celebration of his new vineyard. It was a magical moment.
England and Wales have been establishing a solid reputation for sparkling wines over the past 20 years or so, since Ridgeview swept the board at the United Kingdom Vineyards Association (UKVA) annual competition with their range of sparkling wines. Back in 2012 there were 419 vineyards with 124 wineries. Now there are 800 vineyards with 178 wineries, with Wales accounting for just 1.5% of the UK’s production. The area under vines now totals 3,800 hectares, double that of eight years ago. Sparkling wine accounts for 64% of the production, but recently there has been a growing emphasis on still wines, with a considerable improvement in quality. Indeed, there are wineries that prefer to concentrate on still rather than sparkling wine, such as Stopham Vineyard and Bolney Estate.
CATALYST FOR ENGLISH WINES
The large and very successful vintage of 2018 has proved to be something of a catalyst for producers of English wines, such as those who had set out to concentrate on sparkling wine and realised that they could also make still wine. This was certainly the case at Bride Valley vineyard, planted by Steven and Bella Spurrier in 2009. Bella freely admits that it was the size of the 2018 vintage that prompted them to consider still wine, and as it has been so successful, they have continued. She admitted that it provides useful cash flow, which is certainly a consideration for other wineries too. You can sell a still wine within months, but sparkling wine production can tie up your stock for years. Nearby Langham Wine Estate is another producer that made still wine for the first time in 2018, with a particularly successful, lightly-oaked Chardonnay. Ruth Simpson at Simpsons in Kent described 2018 as the watershed year, the golden vintage that gave them the confidence to make more still wines. The flowering took place in good conditions and was followed by a long summer. Some Chardonnay grapes were picked as late as early November.
However, another key difference between still and sparkling wine is that the grapes for still wine need to be riper, with lower levels of acidity. This can be achieved with improved viticulture. And maybe climate change or global warming is playing its part too, in producing riper grapes. Sam Lintner of Bolney Estate, one of the longer established vineyards, remembers her first harvests, when she had to wrap up warmly; these days she is more often picking grapes in shorts and a T- shirt.
So, which parts of England are most suitable for successful viticulture? The quick answer is the south of England, although there are considerable variations between Essex and Cornwall. Essex is generally considered to be the warmest and driest county. Kent, too, is favoured for its dry conditions and there is also a good concentration of vineyards in Sussex and Hampshire. In fact, there are vineyards scattered all over the south of England. Camel Valley is a successful Cornish winery; while Flint Wines in Norfolk is a relatively new vineyard. The owners, Hannah and Ben Witchell had no connections with Norfolk, but planted a vineyard there as it is one of the sunniest and driest parts of the country. They were lucky enough to meet a local farmer, who became their business partner. There is even a scattering of vineyards in the north of England, with vines being planted in Scotland, outside Glasgow.
Soil varies quite considerably, with the south of England actually being the northern edge of the Parisian basin that encompasses Chablis and Sancerre in France. West Dorset — with the Jurassic coast and the village of Kimmeridge, geological names that are more often connected with Chablis — has three successful wineries, Bride Valley, Langham Wines and Furleigh Wines. All are within
a short distance of each other, but perhaps surprisingly, the soil is not identical. Bride Valley is on chalk. At Furleigh the soil is Thorncombe sand, which the owner, Ian Edwards, described as being similar to Kimmeridgian limestone. And at Langham, England’s youngest winemaker, 25-year-old Tommy Grimshaw, would argue that the winemaker is part of the terroir of a wine.
Stephen Skelton who has been involved with English wines since he first planted a vineyard in 1977, would even go so far as to say that soil is irrelevant in the UK. As a consultant, Stephen, who has advised on many new vineyard projects, says that the first question he asks any prospective vineyard owner is, ‘Where are your nearest apple orchards?’ since that gives a very good idea of the suitability of an area as regards wind and temperature.
Wind is an important consideration. While it can help prevent disease, it can also cause damage at flowering, so that windbreaks often have to be planted to protect the vines. Altitude is another consideration; too low and the vines are in danger of frost damage; too high – above about 100 metres – it will be too windy. The regional differences are very blurred and stylistic differences depend upon the winemaker as much as on the terroir of the vineyard.
COOL CLIMATE GRAPES
Bacchus is the grape variety that seems to be establishing itself as England’s very own. It was developed in Germany, a cross between Riesling and Siegerrebe, in an effort to find grape varieties that perform well in a cooler climate. There is no doubt that it ripens early and enjoys the English climate. Indeed, in warmer years, Essex is deemed to be too hot for Bacchus. The flavours are very distinctive, almost more pungent than Sauvignon with a fresh pithiness, reminiscent of English hedgerows, with aromas of elderflower and hawthorn, and other flowers totally unknown to an Indian audience.
Some of the appeal of Bacchus lies in its immediate recognition. However, there are winemakers who dislike it for its lack of subtlety. Gavin Monery of Vagabond Wines much prefers Ortega, another variety that was developed for its suitability to cooler sites. Certainly, Gavin’s Ortega is very much more nuanced than his Bacchus.
Inevitably with the success of sparkling wines, recent plantings have concentrated on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, all of which are also eminently suitable for still wines. Stephen sees potential in Pinot Meunier as a still wine, arguing that the Champenois see it as a filler, an alsoran, alongside Pinot Noir. However, there are some very convincing Pinot Meunier to be found, such as Simpsons Derringstone Blanc de Noirs. Pinot Noir needs to be properly ripe to make red wine and in the warmest years, that certainly happens. However, there is a difference between what the Germans called Spätburgunder and Frühburgunder or Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Precoce, which can ripen as much as a month earlier than the classic Pinot Noir.
The best wines are aged in barrel, with fresh, but ripe flavours, not dissimilar from some of the Pinot Noir appellations near Chablis. Rosé from Pinot Noir is of course an easier option as depth of colour is not a consideration and there are any number of successful rosés taking advantage of the current popularity of rosé.
For Chardonnay, the style follows Chablis with fresh acidity and stony fruit, and maybe some oak ageing to fill out the palate. At Langham, Tommy Grimshaw favours some lees contact as well as some oak ageing, while at Bride Valley the grapes are whole-bunch pressed, without any oak influence.
Another very successful white variety is Pinot Gris. Sam Linter at Bolney Estate was the first to plant it in 2001 and she was followed by Simon Woodhead at Stopham Vineyard in Sussex, who makes a wine with an astonishing depth of flavour. If any wine was going to change a negative perception of English still wines, this would be a firm contender. Simon also makes a very successful Pinot Blanc, with buttery flavours and a pungent Bacchus, which he would describe as ‘our signature style’. Other cool climate varieties are possible, but Riesling and Sauvignon are not yet viable.
Not all successful winemakers have their own vineyards. John Worontschak makes a convincing range of wines from purchased grapes at Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey. John was one of the pioneers of English wines, making his first vintage back in 1988 with an Australian colleague, Jon Leighton at Thames Valley Vineyards. John jokingly wondered at what point a young maverick becomes a seasoned veteran, which is how he is seen these days!
Unusually, John makes a white wine from Pinot Noir, with surprising ageability, and for Bacchus he has been experimenting with orange wine. The first vintage in 2015 was given just one week on the skins, and had an intense, resinous character, while the 2016 vintage spent 16 months on the skins, with some rich, apricot flavours. The 2019 vintaage was given 16 weeks on the skins, and 2020 18 weeks, producing the flavours that John said he was seeking, with youthful freshness, combined with an appealingly firm, tannic streak.
Not all grape growers want to make wine, and not all winemakers have the means to set up a winery and plant a vineyard. As a consequence, four urban wineries have been developed in London. This is a trend that crossed the Atlantic from the US and the winemakers have often come from elsewhere, such as Australia and Italy. Most cosmopolitan is Sergio Verrillo of Blackbook Winery, who may have been brought up in Connecticut, but his mother is Hungarian and his father from southern Italy. The first urban winery was London Cru, started in 2013, while Renegade followed in 2016 and Blackbook and Vagabond in 2017. There are good vineyard sites within easy reach of London, so that grapes can easily be transported in refrigerated lorries. Sergio’s wines emphasise the particular vineyard, with a sense of experimentation. Alex Hurley at London Cru also aims for an experiment every year, while Warwick Smith at Renegade thinks nothing of blending some English grapes with European grapes, if it makes for an interesting wine. There’s a sense that an urban winery does give you licence to play, as you do not have the financial responsibility of running a vineyard.
Indeed, there is an underlying sense of excitement in the English (and Welsh) wine industry, combined with a sense of experimentation, with so much to discover and achieve. Stephen Skelton admitted that he wished he was 28 again! And I shall certainly look forward observing the developments over the next ten or twenty years.