The rise of English wine in recent years is something that I’ve been following with interest. As you would have seen if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’ve loved my visits to two very small wineries in the South Downs: Upperton and Jenkyn Place.
The South Downs are a stretch of chalky hills running along the south coast of England, from Hampshire and Surrey in the west to Kent in the east, and they have been touted as the new “Champagne” because of the similarity of the terroir and the savoir-faire of those making the wines.
Yet, for me, the most exciting recent development is the increase of still wine production in the UK. Previously, English wine producers concentrated on sparkling wine – understandable given that it is far more forgiving than still wine. Instead of being woo-ed by bubbles (which, let’s face it, do have instant appeal), the consumer looks for things such as tannins, acidity, minerality etc and these things can’t be masked by an extra dose of sugar.
The best place to go in order to get to grips with the English wine movement is, without a doubt, the Exceptional English Wine Comany just outside Midhurst, in West Sussex. It is run by two very passionate English wine converts: Iain and James.
They have a fabulous selection of wines from all over the country but what is fantastic is that they always have a few bottles open on the “Tasting Bar.” I popped by last week and was delighted to make the following discoveries:
STANLAKE PARK (Berkshire) “King’s Fumé” 2011 blend of Ortega, Regner, Scheurebe and Bacchus (11.5%)
Given to me blind, I would have guessed white Burgundy. With its buttery, oak-aged Chardonnay characters and a rich, fresh acidity on the finish, this wine screams of France. Learning, however, that there was not as much as even one bunch of Chardonnay grapes in this bottle came as a huge surprise to me! The wine is very classic in style; clean and crisp with a marked wood presence. Almost certainly aged on the lees. It’s strange because it is a wine which ticks all the right boxes… but which smacks me rather as a cheat who has copied someone else’s answers. I’m almost upset that those indigenous grapes couldn’t make something more original.
SMITH & EVANS (Somerset) “Higher Plot” 2014 Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Bacchus
It is composed of the classic Champagne trio and 10% Bacchus but this wine was way more exciting than I was expecting. I had been lulled in with the familiar pale salmon colour of a rosé from Provence, yet this had startlingly more body. Incredibly Pinot heavy, the word I want to use to sum up this word is vineux: meaning it had great grip, tension and acidity. A long, strong finish too; I would love to be drinking this wine while on a summery picnic.
ALBOURNE ESTATE (West Sussex) Bacchus 2014 Bacchus (12%)
The Albourne Estate has burst onto the scene in the past year with a flurry of IWSC and UKVA trophies for their single varietal wines. It was with much anticipation therefore that we tried the 2014 Bacchus. As it was poured, it is impossible not to notice the very clear colour of this wine – in fact, it’s practically colourless. Bacchus is a low acid, high fruit variety and is popular in the UK because of its ressemblance (in flavour, at least ) to Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was no different. Stylistically, it had all the aromas of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: elderflower, stone fruit, citrus… and the estate harvested relatively early in 2014 to conserve the freshness. Very hard to believe that 2014 was only their second vintage. I’m sure this winery will go places!
STOPHAM ESTATE (West Sussex) Pinot Blanc 2013 Pinot Blanc and 3% Auxerrois (11.5%)
This was a new discovery for me and my favourite of the afternoon. Apparently the owner was once a Formula 1 engineer who now has just 10 acres near Pulborough. Pinot Blanc can often be such a disappointment (especially when compared to its over-achieving siblings Noir and Gris) but I very much liked this expression. I picked up on aromas of savoury musk, salinity and umami, as well as the traditional Pinot Blanc fruit notes. The mouthfeel was smooth, rich and generous. Undoubtedly, it is a very much more conventional wine than what I choose to drink when I’m in Paris (Stefano Bellotti’s cortese, for example, is a staple in my flat) but this is a winery that I would like to watch.
By this point in the afternoon, it had become obvious that we were in for the long-haul!
Suddenly, a new bottle of something that was not 750ml appeared in front of us.
It was “Atilla’s Bite” – an eau-de-vie made from Seyval Blanc grapes at the Albury Organic Vineyard in Surrey.
ALBURY ORGANIC VINEYARD (Surrey) “Attila’s Bite” (50cl, 40%)
Quite a few wineries seem to be diversifying their offering to other products. Chapel Down, for example, make a couple of beers called Curious Brew. Albury also experimented in 2014 with a sparkling wine now known as “Monty’s Pet Nat.”
The liquid has a smooth, clean, floral nose. It is really very attractive. On the mouth, there’s lots of burnt toffee and chocolate characters. Unfortunately, right at the end upon swallowing, there’s a whack of hot alcohol making this much better suited to a wintery evening digestif than a mid-afternoon tipple.
Finally, we finished with an English Pinot Noir. It was something rather special given that only 6-7% of the total English wine production is for still, red wine.
HUSH HEATH ESTATE (Kent) Pinot Noir 2013. 100% Pinot Noir (12%)
I love the Hush Heath winery – especially for their Balfour Brut Rosé – but this Pinot Noir was more Beaujolais than Burgundy. The nose was surprisingly floral (violet and rose, as well as red cherry) but the wine had a soft tannic structure. The mouthfeel was very light, thin, reminiscent of a Gamay and also to be drunk slightly chilled.
Iain’s final recommendation was to seek out and try Bolney Estate‘s Pinot Noir for a more classic (aka, French) expression of the varietial. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out!