We all have our dream pub quiz questions. Our fantasy tiebreakers. Here’s mine:

Q. Which grape variety is allowed in the English Quality Sparkling Wine PDO that is not allowed in champagne?

A. Früburgunder. Pinot Noir Précoce. Pinot Madeleine. Early Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir Early. If ever there was an identity crisis in the world of wine then this would be it. A Pinot Noir that ripens fully for red wine in mid-September…in England? It sounds too good to be true. With plantings increasing in the UK, is it time we blew away some of the (occasionally convenient) confusion about this grape and took a good look at what it can, and can’t do?

You will still hear Pinot Noir Précoce referred to as a clone of Pinot Noir. Whether deliberate or not, this is not the case. Clones arrive through selection, refinement, cultivation – they are siblings with differences in detail, but not essence. Frühburgunder is a separate variety altogether, with its origins in a centuries-old mutation of Pinot Noir in Germany. Today its most prominent home is the Ahr region of Germany, where it is often planted in places true Pinot Noir – Spätburgunder – is unlikely to ripen. As English wine expert Stephen Skelton MW explains in Wines of Great Britain,

“When growers started planting Pinot Noir is earnest in Britain, those searching for the earliest ripening clones were offered Früburgunder, believing it to be a clone of Pinot Noir.”

In other words, Früburgunder got into England in disguise. By the time codification of English wine, both still and sparkling, began to catch up, our helpfully-precocious friend had made itself too useful to ignore.

Solving The Red Wine Addition

England has had a lot of success with Pinot Noir-based sparkling rosé. But how is it being made? Some, such as Camel Valley’s, are made by deliberately crushing the grapes and allowing a little contact with the skins. With experience and care, the winery can pick up colour and flavour without too much of what you don’t want – astringency, phenolics, grip, harshness. Delicacy is still the aim.

Others follow the more traditional method of blending in a small percentage of red wine. In Champagne, red wine for rosés often comes from the warmest south-facing sites on the Montagne de Reims. Bouzy and Ambonnay are even home to a handful of commerically-available red Coteaux Champenois. In cooler England, however, producing a truly ripe still red from Pinot Noir is no mean feat. Colour is fickle, transient. Yields have to be dropped to perilously-low levels. Perhaps most importantly, the risk of extracting unappealing green flavours or harsh tannin in search of that colour is even higher.

Vineyards in the Ahr Valley, where Frühburgunder often inhabits sites too cool to ripen Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir)

Some producers, such as Nyetimber and Gusbourne, are able to produce enough red wine from Pinot Noir to make their rosés work. Others, perhaps with a site that is perfectly-pitched for sparkling production but short of the heat required to regularly produce red Pinot, will simply lack the grape material to go down this route. The appeal of the Rosé de Maceration, then, is obvious, especially if the winery is equipped to do any polishing that this style sometimes needs.

Even if they could theoretically grow or source echt Pinot Noir, some, such as Hattingley Valley, feel that the sort of percentages they would need to use to get the colour they need would be problematic. With some Précoce planted at Cottonworth vineyards, then in a ‘swap deal’ providing grapes to Hattingley, 2011 saw winemaker Emma Rice take a ‘”last-minute” decision to produce what has arguably become their highest-profile wine in their Brut Rosé:

“Précoce gives you this amazing shot of fruit and bright pink colour at 2-5% addition, without the tannins. To get the same colour with Pinot Noir would mean a larger addition. We also use Précoce at disgorgement to tweak the colour, as the time on lees tends to pull it out.”

Chapel Down and Rathfinny have followed suit and chosen small additions of Précoce red wine to colour their Rosés. But what about using Précoce as a larger component of the base wine itself, processed more like standard Pinot Noir?

A Real Pinot Noir Alternative?

Here’s where the pink fades into…grey. Josh Donaghy-Spire of Chapel Down experimented for the first time with picking some Précoce to process as a white – well, pinkish – base wine component in the late, low-sugar 2019 season:

“My concern with using it for base wine is acidity. In 2019 we picked it on the 12th September at 9.5% potential alcohol and a TA (Total Acidity) of 9.5 for some base wine. Post-fermentation it was down at 8.25. If you pick earlier for acidity, the risk is green flavours and unripe physiology. With our Rosé we don’t want a finished TA below 7, so it ended up being just 14% of the 2019 Rosé base wine.”

The lack of acidity at flavour ripeness closes the door on using larger quantities of Précoce as an alternative to Pinot Noir for sparkling wines in less-favoured sites or difficult vintages. Emma Rice again:

“We had a natural alcohol of 12.5% and a TA of 7.5 from Kent in September 2019. If you want to make a fine, champagne-like Rosé, it just doesn’t have the acidity to survive the process. It is not an insurance policy for Pinot Noir. You can’t make it into a white wine, either. Not without stripping out the colour, at least. “

In addition to a grape chemistry best-suited to still wine production*, there are some questions over whether Précoce would ever prove an economic grape to grow in any quantity. Emma Rice again:

“Growing it is tough. The yields are much, much lower. There’s lots of hen and chicken, and botrytis is a problem. Last year the same vineyard that gave us 11 tonnes per hectare of Pinot Noir gave us just 3 tonnes per hectare of Précoce. We have paid the growers a premium to plant it.”

Geisenheim, centre of Germany’s modern viticultural research, registered some more stable clones of Früburgunder in the early 1990s. For now, the prize of ripe, fruity, deeply-coloured ‘Pinot Noir’ outweighs its viticultural challenges, and both Hattingley and Chapel Down have been planting over the last five years, bringing the total plantings in the UK up to somewhere between 40 and 50 Hectares.

Hattingley Valley’s first still wine, a 100% Frühburgunder Rosé

But Is It…Cheating?

Liam Idzikowski, winemaker at Danbury Estate and ex-Langham and Lyme Bay, has no issues with its use in the sparkling wine PDO. He does, however, voice the concern that Précoce presents a bit of an integrity problem forEnglish wine as a whole:

“It bears about as much resemblance to Pinot Noir as I do to the Pope. We ripped ours out last year. The thing that worries me the most is that we can go through all the work involved to produce a real Pinot Noir – dropping bunches, canopy management – and someone else can come along with a Précoce and say ‘look at my Pinot Noir!’. I have had some Pinot Noir in barrel for 18 months here, but Précoce is a very simple wine. You couldn’t throw a new barrel at it. It belongs with Regent, Rondo, Dornfelder…I’m not saying it shouldn’t be grown. It is just an issue of labelling.”

It must be said that Idzikowski, at the forefront of an ambitious push towards quality still wine production in the Essex’s Crouch Valley, may see the world a little differently from a predominantly-sparkling wine producer such as Hattingley Valley. For a still wine producer, producing a real Pinot Noir in England is a badge of honour, and using Précoce is just not quite…cricket.

As any wine in the current PDO or PGI schemes could contain up to 15% of another variety, Précoce (or any other authorised variety) is easy to slip under the radar. Some English reds labelled Pinot Noir undoubtedly contain small amounts of Précoce. The larger issue is that wines using over 15% Précoce can be labelled as Early Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Précoce or Pinot Noir Early – not names that would signal an entirely different grape variety to the majority of wine drinkers.

Most agree, though, that forcing the use of Frühburgunder would be as good as a death sentence. I’d love to see the day when German-sounding wine terms might roll of the English wine drinker’s tongue with as much relish as a Sangiovese or a Grenache Gris, but we are not quite there yet.

The Quality Question

The jury seems to be coming round to the quality potential of Précoce in England. The die-hard Champagnistas will probably remain sceptical, but for many producers Précoce will remain a better route to sparkling rosé quality than maceration. I dare say that anyone with a few spare barrels of ripe, deeply-coloured, juicy ‘Pinot’ would always find a home for them come blending time in spring.

Will we see it as an ever-larger part of sparkling wine blends as a real alternative to Pinot Noir? It seems unlikely, perhaps with the exception of a few rosés in vintages where Pinot Noir is severely challenged. In theory still rosé is a potential outlet, but Pinot Noir is already charging ahead in this arena (and prices for still rosé are unlikely to ever rise high enough to make finicky Précoce a banker in that race).

For soft, juicy and ripe red wine production without the funky, off-kilter flavours that many of the older hybrids and early-ripeners offer up by way of compromise, Précoce looks to be a frontrunner. In the meanwhile, we can be thankful that English Sparkling rosés can enjoy the fruit of Pinot Noir’s covert cousin; a pub-quiz curio that proves England’s willingness to push, gently, at the edges of the Champagne mould.

Get To Know Frühburgunder

Meyer-Näkel Frühburgunder, Ahr Valley 2017

It is still rare to find 100% Frühburgunder wines in the UK. German specialists The Wine Barn bring in the Meyer-Näkel Frühburgunder 2017 which, although not cheap, is well worth trying as a kind of soft-focus Pinot Noir, all perfumed, smoky black cherries and cooked strawberry. It has softened up quite quickly for its age; I might be tempted to wait for the 2018 to become available.

The Flint Vineyard Pinot Noir Précoce 2019 is Norfolk’s answer, still boasting soft black cherries but brightened here with tangy redcurrant and delivered with a finely-sanded, classy grip. The smoky, buttery oak is perhaps a touch ambitious for a wine released this young, but the potential of the fruit is obvious. If anything, the extra snap of ultra cool-climate energy here makes the newcomer a little more compelling.

Flint Vineyard, Norfolk

Still By Hattingley is Hattingley Valley’s first still wine, made from 100% Pinot Noir Précoce from the 2019 vintage. It’s an easy-going wine, which in itself is a good box to tick for an English still; youthful, cool peardrop and almond sits with gentle redcurrant and strawberry fruit, clean and crisp with a very natural, elegant dryness. There’s no austerity or need for too much residual sugar, either.

Two of England’s most prominent sparkling rosés

Sparkling Rosés with small red additions are still going to be your most likely encounters with Précoce. The Chapel Down English Rose NV is currently based on the 2017 vintage, an appealing mix of raspberry, demerara sponge and a fresh, peach-fuzzy impression of sweetness. The ‘redness’ is indeed delicate here, as it is in the Hattingley Valley Rosé 2015, with just 2% Précoce added. There’s more nervous energy in the Hattingley, with bright red strawberries and cherries showing tiny signs of development towards poached quince, spiced biscuits and even some umami savour. Bright, sparky acidity. Nougat and cream richness lurks too – there’s actually quite a lot going on. It would be an interesting one to keep until next summer, too.

*although Albury Organic Vineyard have produced a 100% Précoce sparkling rosé that I have yet to try.

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