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Britain is making wine. And, much like the fine artisan cheese market, finally the rest of the world is sitting up and taking note of what’s being bottled in our vineyards. It’s big business. According to Wine GB’s most recent report (2021-22) investment in planting vines is up 70% over the last five years.
While Chardonnay dominates for versatility (as a stand-alone still wine, and essential factor in English sparkling wine), Pinot Noir follows in at second place, and is a huge part of the wider picture, especially in Kent where it’s grown most abundantly.
Pinot Noir, like Chardonnay, is important to the increasingly popular fizz market, but a changing climate, with longer, warmer summers, has given many producers the confidence to experiment with still (and sparkling) reds. Although still red wine currently only represents around 14% of English wine sales (WineGB), this number is predicted to rise.
Now is the time for fine food and drink retailers to be looking more closely at English wine says John Callow of the Northern Wine School.
“It really is a golden age for wine made in the UK,” John claims. Speaking of reds he continues, “There aren’t as many grape varieties, but the ones that are being grown are very interesting. German grapes like Rondo, Dornfelder and Regent are especially suited to cooler, wetter climates and do well, with levels of tannin, and a colour and fruitiness we haven’t really seen here before.”
Pinot Noir is leading the way as the finest English red wine, says John, but retailers will have to fork out more, as its scarcity means pricing is often at a premium.
He suggests starting with an English-grown German grape varietal or blend, which prove reliably fruity, with a lower ABV than many other red wines.
“Rondo and Regent wines are delicate and do work nicely slightly chilled with a picnic, or a cold spread of cheeses, maybe alongside a pork pie. They have a crisp acidity that cuts through fatty food or anything with a bit of salt, and those kinds of foods will soften the wine, add body, and bring out its fruitiness.”
When it comes to choosing English red wine, says not to expect the same mouthfeel or body as a warm climate wine. “We’re just not there yet. We don’t have the weather to make plummy Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Look out for wines from 2020, which was a particularly dry year and a good harvest. I recommend the Bolney Estate Pinot Noir for a taste comparable to a good Burgundy. They’ve got the balance of price and quality right there.”
Lucy Winward is commercial manager New Hall, one of the UK’s oldest vineyards, perched in the Crouch Valley, which is gaining pace as one of the hottest (literally) spots to produce wine in Great Britain.
The team have just committed to planting an additional 15 acres of red fruit within the next two years to meet demand for the vineyard’s still red wines.
“Our signature grape is Pinot Noir Precoce,” says Lucy. “This variety ripens early, so we’re able to keep it on the vine for a long time, which is different to a classic Pinot Noir. It’s a lovely grape not many people have heard of, but we’ve been growing it here for 25 years. It’s a big, Germanic variety, with robust, super juicy grapes which make a lovely rose and red.”
New Hall also grows Rondo, Regent, Triomphe and Zweigelt, but their expansion plan looks to focus on Pinot Noir Precoce and, says Lucy, some more tannic, ‘heavier’ red grapes.
“We have a view to growing these vines for the next 40 years. We’re looking ahead to the climate, and the market style people might want in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Lucy puts the success of Essex wines, particularly Essex still reds, down to what she calls the unique ‘microregion’ of the Crouch Valley.
“There are now 22 commercial vineyards established around the river Crouch, which is quite significant. A few things make this area unique. First of all, the heavy clay soil has a high nutritional factor which retains moisture. So, in a year like 2022, when we had droughts, the vines survive.
“Then, we have the highest amount of growing days based on temperature, and the least rainfall in the UK, which is great for soft fruit.”
Lucy adds that the area is generally frost-free due to the influence of the river. “And this all adds up to us being able to produce very very ripe fruit that’s perfect for still wine.”
She encourages retailers to try English red at the cellar door, saying, “It’s just nothing like what you might have talked about or tried 10 years ago. In the English wine industry, everything is made in small batches, so our producers are fixated on quality. These are good farming families, giving a great deal of respect to their wines, and that care shows in the end result. It’s not seen as a novelty, like it used to be.”
In addition to flavour, Lucy says the ABV of English red wine is putting it in good stead with direct customers and merchants. “It’s generally only 11-12% ABV. The market has been saturated with 14-15% ABV wines, and my customers say they find that a bit much. They’re looking for something lighter.
“Certainly, Pinot Noir is having its moment.”
James Hawkins, of merchant and winemaker Hawkins Bros in Surrey, says thinking ‘outside of the box’ will steer retailers in the right direction this summer.
James points to sparkling red wine, which he says is underrated in the UK, but beloved on the other side of the world. He explains, “Sparkling red is just great. Ask any Aussie. It’s their go-to for a barbecue. A nice sparkling Shiraz. These wines are generally less tannic, because tannins and bubbles don’t go brilliantly together.
“Albury Organic Vineyard makes a very nice sparkling red, which goes well with a chocolate brownie. Bolney have a Cuvee Noir made with Dornfelder, which I think is very good too.”
James says sparkling red wines are a great choice for retailers to recommend to customers in warmer weather, particularly if they’re grilling outside.
As for stills? He would advise seeking vintages from 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022. “Those were all good years for winemaking, and we don’t often get a good run of years like that.”
Pinot Noir flourished in the relatively dry, hot weather of those vintages, making for much better red wines than the UK has seen before. “They are all really rather good,” James says. “I’d compare some of them to northern Burgundies or New Zealand Pinot Noirs.”
Winemaker James Lambert, MD of Lyme Bay Winery, agrees Pinot Noir is going to be an important crop going forward, and says he’s been looking to demonstrate the potential of English still wines since 2015.
“We’ve done that through a relentless search of pockets of land owned by growers who share the same passion as we do, looking for the highest degrees of potential ripeness, and wines that can really showcase the terroir.”
James reflects that sales of English red wine are still only miniscule compared to the rest of the world but, “The climate is changing quickly, and the rate of change is impacting growing conditions in the UK, making them ideal for planting still varietals.
“There’s so much potential for not just Pinot Noir, but other red varieties as well. With the right clones and the right grapes in the right places, the UK is uniquely positioned to produce world class Pinot Noir – we just need a little patience!”
Making the switch from traditional crops to vines is, quite literally, a growing trend, predicts Susan Vaughan, co-founder and director of new British brand Radlow Hundred.
She says her grandad would never have dreamed of putting vines in English soil, but that climate is having a steady impact on the industry, and she “very much” sees British wine growth as a potential staple for farming in the UK.
“As it stands, the last few years have been incredibly exciting for English wine. Sparkling is now firmly cemented as a category to be taken very seriously indeed. But we think the next chapter is going to be in still wine for the next few years. More specifically in the red wine category.”
Susan continues, “Across the market, producers are starting to branch out from the Pinot Noir focus that has largely dominated the English reds scene. At Radlow Hundred we’ve planted a lesser-known grape, Rondo, that’s intensely fruity and juicy, and holds a lot of promise for the years ahead.”
Radlow Hundred has invested heavily in red wine, with the Rondo grape matched to their terroir by grower Robert Hancocks, who chose it for its resistance to English chills, love of warm summers, and dominant vanilla and cherry notes.
Susan says their Rondo 2022 is one of the few bottles of the single variety in that vintage in England, coming in light at 12% ABV.
She suggests retailers get to know the English red market now, adding that it’s, “Incredibly inspiring to be on the cusp of an English wine revolution, whereby local restaurants and retailers can tap into vineyards only a few miles away.”
The environmental impact of choosing English-grown wine, with reduced transport distance from vine to counter, is another factor she says should be considered.
High summer is a busy time for Rachael Templeton and her family. While traditional winegrowers wait for grapes to ripen on the vines, ready for picking in late September and October, Rachael’s harvest comes in a little earlier.
“We hand-pick around 600 tonnes in a season,” she says, talking about her blueberry farm in Lutton, Northamptonshire.
Fruit wine is not uncommon in Britain, but Blue Aurora’s range claims to be one of the first collections of blueberry wines in the UK – crafted in a bid to reduce food waste.
Rachael explains, “We’re a big blueberry grower, supplying leading supermarkets. But the reason we started looking into wines is because we end up grading out 20% of the crop. Supermarkets only want the biggest, juiciest berries.”
Smaller fruits, she says, often end up in the supply chain for juicing or freezing, but there was a consensus on the farm that wine could be an even more innovative way to use their fresh berries.
“We contacted Haygrove Evolution in Ledbury, to see if blueberries would behave the same way as grapes.”
The result, Rachael says, was delicious, and consumers agree, with sales up from 600 bottles in year one of production, to an average of 10,000 per annum today, supplying farm shops, delis, wine merchants, and a selection of fine dining restaurants.
Three wines make up the range – Dusk, Midnight and Ice Wine – each with their own unique characteristics, and every one interchangeable for traditional grape bottles.
“Dusk,” says Rachael, “is made in the same way as a white wine, so with no skin contact. Whereas Midnight’s process is more like a red wine. The blueberries are pressed and fermented on the skins, giving richness and body. We add a bit of oak chip to that one for a lovely oak note. Our Ice Wine berries are picked fresh, because we won’t have a frost when our blueberries are on the bush.
“We pick them, freeze, and press from frozen in the cooler months, typically January. It takes 2kgs of blueberries to make each 37.5cl bottle of our Ice Wine. It’s a lot sweeter, and more concentrated, and makes a great alternative to Port alongside cheese. Or you can add it to sparkling wine.”
Rachael describes Dusk as medium dry, crisp, fresh and fruity – comparable to a rose. “Midnight is medium dry with a bit more intensity, and has been likened to a Pinot Noir.”
She suggests retailers point consumers in the direction of cheese or chocolate for pairing with Blue Aurora Ice Wine, adding that antipasti or tapas dishes are good bedfellows for Dusk, while Midnight is “amazing” with steak, mushroom or cheese.
“What we’ve created, with our range, is very versatile.”