I’m English and I’ve always lived in England, but to my shame, until recently I had only ever tried English wine once. As we’ve all been locked down for some time now and we’re being encouraged to buy more locally, I found myself wondering about English wines. Are they actually any good?
It’s too cold in England to make wine. The best grapes are grown in Italy, Spain, Portugal, California, South Africa, France, Germany, but not England, right? This has been a common perception for a long time, and it has perhaps been true in the past, especially when it comes to red wine. Years ago, the odd English vineyard here and there in the south produced pretty good whites, especially sparkling whites, but not reds.
This is changing. Charlie Holland at Gusbourne Wines told us, “There were only 2 years in the first decade of the century (2003 and 2009) where England could properly ripen Pinot Noir for still wine. In the last decade, there were at least 6 (2011, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020).”
I did find that sparkling white still dominates when it comes to English wine, but there are some seriously good reds and roses now being produced too. English wine has also been unfairly thought of as not being as sophisticated as European wines. Again, this may have been true in the past, but it certainly isn’t now. So, who is producing what?
Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey has been a family-owned vineyard since 1984. In the time they’ve been operating, not only have they been producing a wide range of wines, but they’ve also opened a Vineyard Hotel! I tried Surrey Gold, Baccus, Rose Hill, Greenfields, Pinot Noir, and Redlands. The whites and the sparkling white are very good, as you’d expect from such an established vineyard.
The Surrey Gold is the most reasonably priced of all the English wines I tried and goes perfectly with Chinese food. Rose Hill is priced the same as Surrey Gold and is also a lovely crisp and fruity wine. Greenfields is their original sparkling wine and has won awards for its richness.
But let’s talk about the reds. I was especially keen to try some English reds, and I was pleased to find Denbies have three available. The Pinot Noir is extremely drinkable! This one is £24.95 so a bit more than you might be used to spending. However, at a slightly lesser price of £15.95, I was very impressed with the Redlands. Of the two, this is the one I would go back for again and again. And I will be going back for it again and again!
Simpsons is a fairly new vineyard, begun in 2014 in Kent. I tried the Derringstone Pinot Meunier. This is a beautifully presented bottle, by the way, with a glass bottle stopper, but with Simpsons, it is definitely all about the wine. I have to say, I was seriously impressed with this still white. I began thinking it was fairly light and could easily be drunk at lunch on a summer’s day, which it could. But this white wine has layers, and a glass in, I found it to be as good as any Italian wine I’ve ever had.
If we’re talking about established English vineyards, I doubt we’re going to find more established than Gusbourne. The original Vineyard in Kent dates back to 1410! Who knew we were making wine in England so long ago? Now in Kent and West Sussex, the vineyards are huge and span over 200 acres between them.
I tried the Blanc de Blanc 2016. Okay, this one is a bit special. Gusbourne has said they aim to make sparkling wines to rival the best in the world. They are definitely up there!
Fox And Fox
Set in Sussex, with one vineyard labeled “secret,” Fox and Fox has been growing since 2004 and producing wine since 2009. I was especially keen to try a wine from Fox and Fox as every wine they produce is suitable for a vegan diet, something which is hard to find!
I tried the Mosaic Rose Brut 2015 and the Inspiration Blanc de Gris Brut 2014. The hint of ginger in the Inspiration makes it the perfect wine to drink with spicy foods. But it was the rose I was most interested in. As this was the only sparkling rose I’d be trying, I was intrigued. It’s a lovely summery drink, and you can really taste the berries. At 75 percent Pinot Noir, it’s a rich sparkling rose.
When I said I’d only ever tried English wine once, it was from the Lyme Bay Winery, though many years ago. I can’t remember exactly what I had, but I know it was one of their fruit wines, and I remember thinking how very English it was. So, I was pretty keen to try something else from them.
I tried the Brut Reserve Sparkling and the Bacchus Block. Both of these wines are perfect for drinking with lunch or on a lazy afternoon in the sun. The Sparkling wine makes a good celebration wine, while the Bacchus Block is light and grapefruity and a good accompaniment to an evening meal. Lyme Bay Winery is now Lyme Bay Winery Drinks, and I was intrigued to see they also produce cider, rum, and gin.
Nestled in the East Sussex wine region, Busi Jacobsohn has a fascinating backstory and a compelling journey to where they are now. From Sweden, with routes in Greece and Italy, the family owns a beautiful wine estate. You can really feel how family-orientated this business is, and the estate itself is stunning.
I tried the Cuvee Brut 2017, made with 60 percent Chardonnay grapes. This is a limited-edition wine, and the bottles are individually numbered, making it feel special before you even open it. At £38, it’s a touch above an average bottle, but this particular one has already sold out, so grab the 2018 before that’s all gone too!
Herbert Hall began farming in the village of Marden in Kent at the end of the 19th century. In 2007 his great-grandson planted a vineyard here. He’s been producing handmade sparkling wines ever since. I tried the Herbert Hall Brut, which is 40 percent Chardonnay, 30 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Pinot Meunier. This makes it a very balanced sparkling wine. Herbert Hall has recently partnered with sailing specialist SailSterling to launch a Wine and Catamaran Tour of Sicily, including two very special visits to vineyards in the region.
The Langham Vineyard was begun in 2009, though the manor house on this estate in Dorset dates back to the time of Edward VI. I tried the Culver Classic Cuvee, which is a sparkling white wine made with majority red grapes. It sounds like a paradox, but it works wonderfully well. In fact, it’s 66 percent Pinot Noir, although you wouldn’t believe it to look at it. It does have a wonderful golden appearance and a beautiful blossoming flavor. At £27.50, I found this very reasonable for what you get and definitely worth it.
Ridgeview Vineyard in Sussex was established in 1995, when, they recognize, it was widely believed good wine just couldn’t be made in England. They certainly proved the doubters wrong, producing award-winning wines. They make sparkling wines only, but this focused approach is working for them. I tried the Bloomsbury -- light, crisp, and perfect with a lunch on a warm day. Ridgeview wines are also entirely suitable for vegans, and they hold a music festival every year at their vineyard where you can try out the wines while you’re entertained.
Tips For Buying
All of the wines listed are available direct from the vineyards, and most of them are also available from Waitrose Cellar. The vineyards offer tours and tastings, which makes a great way to discover your own favorite.
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