Bubbles and beyond: a turning point for English wine

Peter Ranscombe ventures south of the Border to assess wines from the 2018 vintage and discovers a surprise or two along the way.

THERE aren’t many wine trade tastings at which you can feel the excitement that permeated through yesterday’s Wine GB event in London.

Winemakers from across England and Wales gathered to present their bottles to buyers from shops and restaurants, and to the press – and the enthusiasm in the Royal Horticultural Halls was tangible.

Last year marked many turning points for the UK’s domestic wine industry: Camel Valley in Cornwall became the first label to receive a royal warrant; Cherie Spriggs from Nyetimber was the first producer from outside the Champagne region to be crowned International Wine Challenge sparkling winemaker of the year; and output leapt by 130% year-on-year to a record-breaking 15.6 million bottles, eclipsing 2014’s 6.3 million haul.

That jump in production was due to last summer’s sunshine, which also boosted quality.

England and Wales have traditionally been on the northernmost cusp of where it’s possible to get winemaking grapes to ripen fully, yet the warmer weather is starting to bring more consistency between vintages.

There’ll always be variation – and there were plenty of bottles on show yesterday that lacked balance, with not enough ripe fruit flavours to tame the acidity, along with green, unripe notes – but there were some knockout wines presented at the Wine GB trade body’s annual tasting.

Getting hold of some of the smaller brands isn’t always easy, although many are now available online direct from the wineries.

There’s increasing interest north of the Border though, with Woodwinters stocking Gusbourne, Alexander Wines promoting the Digby Fine English label in retailers and restaurants, and adventurous bottle shops like Cork & Cask, St Andrews Wine Company and Valhalla’s Goat taking on start-ups like Blackbook.

Splitting the selection below into bubbles and beyond is a natural arrangement; sparkling wines remain England’s forte, but regular readers will know about my passion for still examples, which continue to get better and better.


Greyfriars Cuvee Royale 2015 (£30, greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk)
Mike Wagstaff swapped the geology of the North Sea for that of the South Downs when he went from being the chief executive of Aberdeen-based gas company Venture Production to the owner of Greyfriars Vineyard in 2010. His 2015 special edition really stood out yesterday thanks to its pineapple, lychee and peachy flavours, combined with a lick of butter and fresh acidity.

Roebuck Estates Classic Cuvee 2014 (around £35, roebuckestates.co.uk)
A new one on me – and a tip of the hat to Peter Dickens from Pietrovini for the suggestion – but definitely a rising star, winning both the best newcomer category and the best classic cuvee vintage prize in the 2019 Wine GB Awards. Such a warm nose, full of red apple, apricot and brown sugar, with lemon and lemon rind joining the red apple and demerara on the palate. Part of its richness comes from some of the grapes being fermented into wine inside French oak casks.

Hambledon Premiere Cuvee (£45.50, Berry Bros)
Hambledon is one of the most consistently-reliable bigger brands and it was its premiere cuvee that triumphed yesterday over its entry-level Classic Cuvee (£29.95, Berry Bros), displaying for me a better fruit-acid balance. The premiere cuvee sang with warm apricot and peach flavours, mingling with red apples and a smothering of butter, all working together to balance its acidity.

Coates & Seely Brut Reserve (£29.25, The Whisky Exchange)
A touch of smoke and biscuit woven through the apricot and red and green apples on the nose drew me into the richer red apple and hot buttered toast on the palate. Great value fizz, made from a blend of 50% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay and 10% pinot meunier – the classic three grape varieties used in Champagne but clearly finding a favourable new home in Hampshire.

Gusbourne Blanc de Blanc 2014 (£45, Woodwinters)
Winemaker Charlie Holland is one of the best in the business and this bottle is his fizzy calling card. Made from chardonnay grapes, it smells of crisp cotton sheets and white peaches. There’s apricot, there’s lemon and there’s more savoury lemon rind to balance its fresh acidity. This can rival vintage Champagne at the same price point.

Wiston Estate Blanc de Noirs 2010 (£55, Hennings Wine)
While Gusbourne’s blanc de blanc was on fire, Wiston has stuck to the black-skinned pinot noir for its stunning blanc de noir. Another pricier example, but worth every penny, with attractive aromas of peach, apricot and butter giving way to digestive biscuits smothered in butter on the palate – a classic after-school snack at my Grandma’s house. It was the texture that got me though – rounded and lingering.


Gusbourne Pinot Noir 2016 (£24, The English Wine Collection)
I’ve raved about Charlie Holland’s still wines before on this blog and social media, but the 2016 pinot noir is another step up in quality. Concentrated blackcurrant, raspberry and sweeter raspberry jam flavours are joined by fresh acidity and well-integrated tannins. I can’t wait to see what Charlie did with last summer’s ripe fruit.

Balfour Luke’s Pinot Noir 2018 (£21.95, Grand Cru Co)
Hush Heath’s pinot noirs have always been among my favourites since trying them at its The Bull & The Hide hotel in London and its 2018 is a corker, with tonnes of ripe red plum and raspberry flavours, plus well-judged use of oak to add a roundness to the wine. Its partner-in-crime, the 2018 Balfour Skye’s Blend (£18, hushheath.com), is a blend of bacchus, chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir, delivering fresh acidity balanced by green apple, asparagus and green pepper flavours.

Biddenden Gamay Noir 2018 (£15.50, biddenden.myshopify.com)
Gamay is the backbone of Beaujolais, producing light reds that can take a half-hour chill in the fridge during the summer. Yet this is no wishy-washy pinot-noir substitute; it’s inky and lush, with red cherry, boysenberry and vanilla flavours, plus a savoury twist on the nose. In a ripe year, gamay clearly has lots of promise to show in Kent.

Simpsons Wine Estate Derringstone Pinot Meunier 2018 (£19, Roberson)
Scottish expat Ruth Simpson and her Northern Irish husband, Charles, not only make wine under their Domaine Sainte Rose label in the South of France but also have vineyards in Kent, where they set out to produce sparkling wine. The grapes tasted so good, they’ve also diversified into still wines, including this sensational pinot meunier – so textured, with a touch of cream and butter alongside the pear and green apple flavours, and so unlike anything else on show from England.

Woodchester Valley Orpheus Bacchus 2018 (£17.55, Le Vignoble; £14.95 for the 2017, woodchestervalleyvineyard.co.uk)
The acceptable face of bacchus. I find the grape can just be too green – lots of commentators liken it to sauvignon blanc, but that’s no excuse for producing acidic, vegetal wines. Yet at its best – like here in the Cotswolds – it shows real class when it reaches ripeness. I loved the ripe pear, green bean and green pepper flavours, which balanced its crisp acidity. This is where the sauvignon blanc comparison stands the test.

Blackbook Tamesis Bacchus (£19.50, St Andrews Wine Company)
I’ve raved about the Blackbook Tamesis Bacchus a couple of times now, but it’s showing better and better each time I taste it. The mouthfeel to me is now much rounder after it’s spent a bit more time in the bottle. Produced by American winemaker Sergio Verrillo and his Scottish wife, Lynsey, at their Blackbook winery underneath the railway arches in Battersea, Tamesis uses grapes from Forty Hall, an organic vineyard run as a social enterprise in London; it’s the first wine to be produced in the city since Roman times.

For more stories from Peter Ranscombe’s  The Grape & The Grain drinks blog visit https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/category/grapegrain/