Chardonnay vines in The King's Vineyard, Rochester, Kent, planted on the site of the vineyard of the medieval priory. Simpsons Wine Estate, near Canterbury, will be making the wine on behalf of Rochester Cathedral (photo taken on 16 June 2023)
Last year, seven of my 11 wine recommendations for English Wine Week were sparkling wines and four were still. This year, the still wines way outnumber the fizz. I'm focusing on still wines from three estates in different parts of the country, one a new estate and two that are new to me in the past year. Then, to redress the balance, there are two cracking new vintages of sparkling wines from well established names.
It's not that there's been any fall-off in the quality or numbers of sparkling wines made by the classic (Champagne-like) method. I could have recommended many more (Hope & Glory, Gusbourne, Wyfold and Hambledon spring to mind), but I wanted to highlight the advances being made in England’s still wines, especially outside the Kent-Sussex-Hampshire heartland.
Why the improvements? Well, not least climate change. Since 1980 there has been a 1ºC warming in south-east and eastern England, which means we can ripen more and different grape varieties.
In the right spots, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir get ripe enough to make good still wines in most years, if not all. Previously, they only ripened enough to produce classic-method sparkling wines, for which the key to quality and finesse is barely ripe grapes – something they discovered in Champagne centuries ago.
We’re also discovering new varieties, crosses such as the red Divico and hybrids such as the white Solaris, as well as varieties that aren’t in themselves new but are new to our shores, such as Pinot Noir Précoce, a mutation of Pinot Noir that ripens a helpful two weeks earlier. (In case you’re wondering about the difference, a cross is where two Vitis vinifera varieties are cross-bred and a hybrid is a cross of Vitis vinifiera with another species, usually Vitis labrusca.)
Another reason for progress is expertise and experience in soil mapping, climate and viticulture, so that the most suitable sites are being identified then being planted with suitable grape varieties and a viticulturist is often advising or looking after them. In the past, too many vineyards resulted from someone saying, “This is a nice sunny, probably frost-free slope; let’s plant grapes.”
Danbury Ridge Wine Estate, one of the brightest stars in the UK’s still wine firmament, is a great example of the new, more professional approach. The viti-vini consultant since 2018 has been John Atkinson, a Master of Wine who, over the last 30 years, has worked with a roll call of top producers around the world, including Ridge Vineyards, Anne Gros, Armand Rousseau, Telmo Rodriguez, Alvaro Espinosa and 18 years with Champagne Billecart-Salmon.
Then there are the winemakers. We’ve not only got years of experience now, we’ve got a whole lot of highly trained winemakers from our own Plumpton College in East Sussex and from establishments around the world.
We’re also making far more wines. In the years from 2004–2021, there was a 400% growth in vineyards in the UK – and it looks set to continue. The scientific journal OENO One projected last year that England and Wales will warm up by a further 1.4ºC by 2040, expanding the area suitable for red wines made from Pinot Noir and white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Semillon.
Danbury Ridge Wine Estate, Essex
I bumped into Danbury Ridge winemaker Liam Idzikowski earlier this year at an illuminating seminar called ‘Moving the edge: viticulture in England’, organised by Tom Hewson and at which John Atkinson was a speaker. I hadn’t seen Liam since he was making very good sparkling wines at Langham Estate in Dorset. That was before he went to Devon as winemaker for Lyme Bay.
Now on the other side of the country in Essex, he was talking enthusiastically about Danbury’s about-to-be released 2020 Octagon Block Chardonnay and about how he was making it in the same way as a Grand Cru Burgundy. “I’ll send you a bottle,” he said. As I’d been impressed by Danbury Ridge’s straight Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both tasted towards the end of last year and then again at the seminar, I didn’t turn down the offer. The bottle, one of only 1,708, duly arrived a few weeks later. My tasting notes are below, but let me give bit more background first.
Danbury Ridge was founded and belongs to two generations of the local Bunker family, who planted the first vines in 2014 after commissioning a feasibility study. The first harvest was 2016 and they don’t seem to have looked back. Even in 2021, a very tricky year in which they finished picking on November 10, Liam says they made good wines, although quantities were inevitably down.
The estate is between the Crouch Valley and Blackwater Estuary in Estuarine Essex, an area of high sunlight levels and low rainfall, making it one of the sunniest and driest places in the UK. This mesoclimate is key, but so are the soils: a thick layer of London clay lying under fluvial-glacial sand and gravel.
There are five soils in all – deep gravel, sandy clay, calcareous marl, and south-facing slopes of illite and smectite clay – making the estate very similar to the east side of Pomerol (the Pétrus side), says consultant John Atkinson. The 12-acre (just under 5 hectares) Octagon Block is the most established. A former orchard, it has outcrops of clay at the lower end, but most of the vineyard is on a plateau of gravelly loam.
England's answer to Grand Cru Burgundy? Danbury Ridge's Octagon Block Chardonnay is well on its way
Danbury Ridge Wine Estate Octagon Block Chardonnay 2020
Hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed; fermented and aged on lees in Burgundian oak barrels for 18 months; bottled unfined and unfiltered. 1708 bottles.
Pale, translucent straw. Lots going on on the nose: lemon, brown butter and hazelnut with touches of cardamom, woodsmoke, parsley, coffee and and wet-rock minerality – very Burgundian. Intense, taut, tightly woven palate with high-wire acidity, but at the same time a creamy rich texture. Complex, very impressive and still very young. 13.5%. 95
Danbury Ridge Chardonnay 2020
Hand-picked fruit from Danbury’s own vineyards and a vineyard on the Blackwater Estuary and another to the south on the River Crouch; whole-bunch pressed, fermented and aged on lees in Burgundian oak barrels (40% new) for 10 months, then 6 months in tank (still on gross lees); bottled unfined and unfiltered. 5447 bottles.
Pale straw. On the nose, lightly toasted oak under appetising lemon-scented fruit with a light floral – honeysuckle – note. Delicately creamy, fine texture; ripe, concentrated, sweet-toned, preserved-lemon fruit with spicy lift and refined, sustained, laser-cut acidity. Long, layered, graceful. 13%. 93
Danbury Ridge Pinot Noir 2020
A mix of clones from Danbury Ridge’s 3 vineyards; hand-picked, destemmed gently to keep berries whole; 3–5-day cold soak in open-top oak fermenters; malolactic in French oak barrels with bâtonnage; 10 months’ ageing then bottled unfined and unfiltered. 4573 bottles.
Medium ruby. Glorious perfume - raspberry, black cherry, roses, pomegranate. Crystalline palate with intense, bright, crunchy fruit, polished oak, silky texture, salty acidity and an enticing hint of cherry-skin bitterness on the finish. Burgundian in shape and flavour. Still young – oak and acidity will integrate more – excellent potential. 13%. 93
Pattingham Vineyard, Staffordshire
Two generations of the Wilcox family planted the 12-acre Pattingham Vineyard in 2018 on land they’d bought next to their home and released the first vintage, 2021, last November. They freely admit that they didn’t know much about making wine, but they had south-facing slopes, free-draining sandy topsoil and natural spring water, which was a good start.
Taking advice on grape varieties from Martin Vickers of Halfpenny Green Vineyards, 10 minutes’ drive away, and doing some of their own research, they came up with the new varieties Solaris and Divico and the newish to the UK Pinot Noir Précoce, plus Seyval Blanc, Seigerriebe and Rondo. Judging by the three wines I’ve tasted, their next good move was to ask Halfpenny Green’s Ben Hunt to make the wines. And the next was to make a real effort with their labels, which are taken from abstract oil paintings that they commissioned of their fields from above by local artist Stu Perry.
Pattingham Vineyard Nurton Brook Solaris 2021
Solaris is a German hybrid dating from the 1970s, although not authorised until this century. It’s frost and disease-resistant, especially to downy mildew and other fungal diseases, and is early ripening, so it’s ideal for cool climates.
Pale straw. Moderately aromatic with Russet apple, floral and woody spice notes. Medium-bodied, lively and rounded, with fruity sweetness and a gentle white-peach flavour on a dry, fresh finish. Serve as an aperitif or with a light seafood salad. 12%. 88
£14.99, Pattingham Vineyard
Pattingham Vineyard Great Moor Pinot Noir Précoce 2021 £16.99
Pale garnet. Very pretty, roses and raspberry perfume. Equally pretty, fresh, supple palate, with sweet raspberry and strawberry fruit, a suggestion of herbal tannin for structure and a fresh finish. Serve cool: 14ºC was perfect, but 12º would be fine. Try it with some mild chorizo and charcuterie or sweet veg such as butternut squash. 89
£16.99, Pattingham Vineyard
Pattingham Vineyard Rudge Heath Divico 2021
Divico is a new, mildew and grey-rot resistant Swiss cross that Pattingham blend in this wine with 15% Rondo.
Deepish ruby. Perfumed red berries and rose hips on the nose. Crunchy, fresh, wild-berry fruit on the palate with a touch of coffee-ish French oak to add a dimension and soften the edges. Fresh, lively, supple. Good barbecue wine. 89
£18.99, Pattingham Vineyard
Knightor Winery, Cornwall
Knightor makes a whole range of still and sparkling wines, vermouths and a spritz at its winery in Trethurgy, near St Austell Bay on the south Cornwall coast. The fruit comes from its vineyards at Portscatho on the Roseland Peninsula to the southwest and Seaton in the Plymouth direction to the east. I have only tasted two wines, one white, one pink, but two vintages of each, the current 2022 and the difficult 2021 vintage, and I would have been as happy to recommend the 2021s as the 2022s. All credit to the winemaker David Brocklehurst, who makes wines with minimal intervention, so they’re low in sulphur and vegan-friendly.
Knightor Trevannion 2022
A blend of Siegerrebe and Seyval Blanc, fermented separately in stainless steel and then blended. Pale, very aromatic, medium-dry. Smells of lychees and roses; tastes of lychees, peaches and Pink Lady apples. High acidity balanced by residual sweetness and soft, rose-petal texture. A really original white wine. Especially good as an aperitif. 11.5%. 89
£18, Knightor Winery
Knightor Pinot Noir Rosé 2022
Grapes were crushed and cold-macerated for 14 hours; 40% fermented in 400-litre 3rd and 4th fill American oak, the rest in stainless steel.
Powder pink. Aromas of cranberry juice and redcurrants that carry through on to the palate, there to be met by a streak of juniper and citrus. Light-bodied, sprightly and dry with a silky texture. The oak has been cleverly used to smooth the palate without giving oaky flavour. 11.5%. 88
£20, Knightor Winery
Wiston Estate Rosé 2018, West Sussex
Wiston’s first vintage sparkling rosé since the 2014 comes from the remarkable 2018 vintage – remarkable for both its quality and quantity. It's a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Meunier fermented in old French barrels, bottled after 9 months and then kept on its lees for three and half years, not all that long by Wiston’s standards.
Dark copper-pink. Rose, strawberry and delicate nut-sprinkled patisserie aromas. Exuberant, strawberries-and-cream palate with redcurrant and orange-zest zing. Textural and creamy, vivacious and persistent. Clean cut, but no edges or angles. 12%. Dosage: 8–9g/l. 93
£54, Wiston Estate
Exton Park Blanc de Blancs 2014, Hampshire
Winemaker Corinne Seely focuses on blends, using Exton Park’s 10-plus-years library of reserve wines for the Reserve Blend range and makes a vintage only in outstanding years. This 100% Chardonnay was made from the first 20 rows of the estate’s 20-year-old vines and was 6 years on lees. Pin-prick bubbles; toasted nut, dried flower, straw, candied lemon and a hint of honey on the nose. Quince, peach, toasted sourdough, patisserie and salted-caramel ice cream on the palate. Chiselled and fine-boned with sustained tight-rope acidity. Still very young, it has real ageing potential. 11.5%. Dosage: 8g/l. I'm sure in five years' time I'll be giving this a higher score, but for now: 93+
This is not being released until July 3, but it deserves to be highlighted now. It will be £65, Exton Park Vineyard
Photographs by Joanna Simon