We know that wine is about place. So, as the modern English wine industry moves from baby steps to bounding leaps, can we (or should we) talk about what a Kent wine tastes like next to a Hampshire one? These are regions as far apart as Alsace and Burgundy, after all.
The path to a better understanding of the main English viticultural areas is splattered with red herring, some of which are well trodden-in. Let’s take a look at what we can (and, more importantly can’t) assess.
1. East is riper than West?
Most of the UK’s troublesome weather arrives from the West, tiring itself out by the time it reaches Kent and Essex. A test, then, of how ripe grapes are getting could be to look at where the UK’s still Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are coming from, as they require the most heat and sunshine to ripen. Here is a map of all these wines from Chardonnay and the Pinots (Noir, Blanc, Meunier and Gris) that have come to market since the beginning of 2018 (mobile users please expand to Full Screen)
- Including Still Chardonnay
- Including Red Pinot Noir
- Rosé only
- Pinot Blanc/Gris (no Chardonnay or red Pinot Noir)
- I have excluded wines made fully or partially from the early-ripening variety Pinot Noir Précoce or Frühburgunder. This is not a comment on their quality, but simply reflects the need to compare like with like. Even though the inclusion of Précoce is not always declared, a little inside knowledge (and a little sleuthing) can usually get to the bottom of it! If any wines are missing, please get in touch.
- There is a vintage-warping effect here – the ripeness of 2018 enabled producers to make still wine from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay where they may not ordinarily be able to. 2017 was frost-hit, and some 2019s are yet to be released (November 2020).
- Releasing a still Chardonnay or Pinot Noir doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is good – merely that basic levels of ripeness for still wine were achieved
- Apologies that my map software puts Sussex as one county, when it is in fact two!
Comparing The Stats for Releases of Still Chardonnay/Pinots WEST of 0’00’ with those EAST of 0’00
Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir Rosés appear to be more flexible, and slightly more popular West of London. It can be easier to get acids in line with still wine goals using these varieties than with Chardonnay. Pinot Noir rosé can be made even when the sort of ripeness required for red wine is not attained – any greenness in the skins of Pinot Noir is felt very markedly in red wine, but less so in Rosé (which can be pressed off quickly).
If we remove the exceptional 2018 vintage, however, the difference becomes more marked:
The 2018 vintage did not alter the balance of releases from the East of the country. Vineyards in Kent and Essex especially have been able to produce still Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from other vintages – 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Soil is one of the herrings here. The correlation between chalk and sparkling wine is strong, so the relative paucity of still wines from chalk (Simpsons and Kit’s Coty being the only two places to have released consistently) is more about this than any causation. Altitude and aspect are more critically important, with almost all still red Pinots and still Chardonnays coming from sites under 50m.
Looks Clear Enough?
Perhaps. We need to be careful about ascribing causality to patterns. If there are regional variations, however, how do they have a bearing on sparkling wine production?
A still wine grape isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) just a riper sparkling grape. Both grapes should be ripe, but hold a different balance of sugar and acidity. Shooting for still wine and failing is not a recipe for the best sparkling wine grapes – both require deliberate growing strategies. By combining yield reduction, vigour management and the maintenance of a healthy crop at least into late October, those with the very warmest sites can make a go of it. It is an extreme sport.
For sparkling wine, the truth will be a little hazier. Under-ripeness is still the bogeyman, no doubt – that green, cows-parsley and meadow grass streak, a leanness through the palate that refuses to be puffed out with autolysis or dosage. The best sites, whether in Hampshire or Suffolk, will routinely avoid that, even in late years or when carrying large crops. Even if the theoretical ability to ripen for still wine is not a prerequisite for a top sparkling wine site, insurance against the variability of the British weather is still a huge advantage in terms of yields at the very least. As Dr Alistair Nesbitt’s research into English viticultural land indicates, this insurance appears to improve by heading Eastwards (or into the Chilterns). In terms of quality, the picture is more complex.
The industry is small (especially on the winemaking front), and friendly. Having said that, there is a degree of competitiveness and secrecy around grape sourcing, as well as an opacity around yields and ripeness levels. Behind closed doors, views on regionality do exist. We shouldn’t always expect them to emerge from the mouths of winemakers or official bodies, though – it’s up to those with no skin in the game to taste and report widely, inquisitively and honestly.
2, New Vineyard Sites Over the Last 5 Years
Below is a map of all new vineyard sites over 5ha planted since 2015. With more and more data available, where are those with deep pockets choosing to put down roots?
- Previously-chosen sites that are being expanded are not included.
- These are all grapes planted regardless of variety or destination. The vast majority are Chardonnay and Pinots.
- Chalk sites are yellow, other soils are orange. Saying whether a site is or isn’t chalk is not always straightforward, but I have counted anything with a notable chalk influence.
536 Hectares in the North Downs
The North Downs chalk in Kent has seen the big plays over the last five years, from Chapel Down, Mark Dixon and Nyetimber. Alongside Squerryes, Chapel Down’s Kit’s Coty site is the pioneer North of Maidstone. This part of the North Downs channels much of the warmth and dryness bestowed on London and southern Essex, just across the Thames Estuary.
The difference, though, is on the ground – banks of fine chalky soils at suitable altitudes, often divided into reasonably-sized lots (which are efficient to farm) rather than small, higgledy-piggledy holdings. There’s just enough coastal influence to avoid the very worst frost-susceptibility of the lower lying Wealden areas, but not so much to threaten daytime temperatures.
The South Downs – a little quieter
Hampshire has seen two major investments, from Champagne House Louis Pommery at Pinglestone and Hambledon (whose new site joins Hundred Hills and Squerryes as the highest-altitude sites in the country for quality sparkling wine). Aside from these two, Hampshire has not seen as much growth as other regions in the last 5 years, with the likes of Hattingley Valley, Raimes and Black Chalk (at Cottonworth) having been established for a little longer. Nyetimber’s first two chalk vineyards are in Hampshire, too, not far from Black Chalk’s.
The chalk gets nearer to the coast as it runs east, eventually narrowing to Rathfinny and Breaky Bottom, tucked close to the sea in East Sussex. Artelium are the only producer to have recently planted a large site in the South Downs chalk outside of Hampshire.
Essex has had more planted that East Sussex, West Sussex or Hampshire (counting 5ha+ sites)
Away from the chalk it is Essex that appears to hold the two largest new plantations at Missing Gate and Althorne. Ripeness levels are proving impressive in the Crouch Valley area, and head-turning still wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are on the cards from the best sites. Viticulturist Duncan McNeill has had a strong influence, looking after many of the vineyards with an efficiency made possible by their relative proximity. The model here is usually to sell grapes to the likes of Lyme Bay, Camel Valley, Chapel Down and the urban London wineries, although ambitious new outfits such as Danbury Estate are changing this. The cat is out of the bag, and hopping on the back of a GPS-guided planting machine.
There is a little bit of a Wild-East, frontier feeling in Essex, for now, and some new vineyards remain beneath the radar. Nevertheless it looks like at least 100Ha have gone in over the last 5 years.
The Weald remains popular, although not for the sort of mega-plantings seen in the North Downs.
The Weald is enclosed by the chalk of East Kent, Surrey and Hampshire (for a basic look at how the geology works, have a look at this IGTV video)
Low-lying Wealden clay borders on sandier, lighter soil in places, eventually revealing an arch of greensand found mostly in West Sussex. Despite the successes of Nyetimber and others in West Sussex, no further major plantings have been undertaken on these sands lately.
It’s interesting to see a line along the Kent/East Sussex border, perhaps influenced by the likes of Gusbourne and Oxney nearby. Chapel Down have a hand here too – they haven’t gone all-in with the white stuff. As you head towards the coast, the area becomes very low-lying, bordering on marshy, with clay – what Kristin Sylvetic of Oxney Estate calls her glorious mud – dominating. A claim also made in Essex is that the clay, although slower to warm, retains heat better through the night than better-drained soils, whilst also delaying budburst and lowering frost risk.
Large new sites for Chardonnay and the Pinots are rare outside of these regions. The one exception is the promise reported by Dr Alistair Nesbitt for the Chilterns and surrounding region just West of London, where sparkling producers Harrow & Hope and Fairmile have successfully established (and large outfit Hundred Hills is based, presumably releasing wine before too long). The climate here shows much less coastal influence than most other areas, but appears to offer some very warm zones.
3. The Problem of Resolution
Aside from the youth of some of the vineyard, one of the reasons it is difficult to piece together regional patterns is the practise of blending grapes from across the country. If you combine this with the strength of the stylistic stamp that sparkling winemakers have the opportunity to introduce over the many years the wines remain in their charge, it can be difficult to get to a clear sense of place.
We solve that in Champagne by having multiple data points. Let’s say that the grapes of Ambonnay go into 100 different champagnes. 100 producers tell us about their experiences with those grapes. Some release single village/vineyard wines. Some offer us a taste of base wines in the cellar. Styles may differ but, by elimination, we can come to an idea of what Ambonnay tastes like.
By way of contrast, let’s say that one producer has 200 Hectares of Chardonnay from the North Downs all to themselves. A whole village, in essence. They double-settle juice, ferment cool all in steel, block some malolactic fermentation, reduce lees-ageing times to two years and release with a low dosage. The talk would all be about the purity and precision of the fruit. If, next vintage, they picked ultra-late, waited a year on lees before tirage, fermented in oak with 100% malolactic fermentation, blended in 40% reserve wines and lees-aged for six years then.the wines would be textured, richer, deeper. Given one example of each wine, would anyone be confident of identifying the same place?
Style and substance grow separately, but co-ferment. No winemaker can override fruit any more than a chef can override their ingredients. Transparency, though, is an illusion. We arrive at a sense of place not through one crystal-clear vistas, but piece-by-piece, like a detective cross-referencing what they see of a darkened house through cracks in the door, beside the curtains, through the letterbox.
It is as question of resolution, not just size.
With thanks to Stephen Skelton MW for his work documenting English plantings.
Part Two – Tasting Regionality (coming soon)