While the English winemaking tradition harks back to the Roman occupation, for many centuries our vineyards were abandoned or repurposed, playing second fiddle to other forms of agriculture.
Yet since the 1950s, we’ve seen a welcome revival in the industry’s fortunes and – thanks to the passion of a small number of producers, a shifting climate (now similar to the Champagne region 40 years ago) and significant investment – English wines are now turning heads on a global stage.
“The popularity of English wine is growing and with good reason,” says Clive Barlow, master of wine at Buy Britain, which has acknowledged this trend through its newly launched British wine club.
“English wines have come of age and are increasingly well regarded because the growers and producers have built a great understanding of the unique climate in their vineyards, the application of viticultural knowledge to get the best out the vines, plus winemaking savvy and techniques.”
To navigate the challenging British weather and unpredictable yields, today’s producers typically focus on cool-climate grapes that include bacchus, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, although recent years have seen far greater diversity in the styles of wine on offer.
And while, traditionally, it’s been English sparkling wines leading the charge, the past few years have seen still wine raise its game, too.
A turning point came in 2018 when warm weather, combined with a larger number of vineyards reaching maturity, resulted in a bumper high-quality harvest that saw wine production more than double. This, coupled with a growing trend for vineyard tourism, means English wines are reaching a larger and more engaged audience than ever.
During testing, we set out to experience a range of wines – spanning different grape varieties, winemaking styles and price points – to give an accurate snapshot of the English wine market as it currently stands. Each was served at the recommended temperature and sampled on their own as well as with those foods we felt might pair well.
From easy-drinking whites to savour with seafood to new-release reds with surprising complexity, here are 10 of the best bottles worth adding to your wine rack (or cool box) this year.
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Chapel Down kit’s coty chardonnay 2017, 12.5%
From one of the UK’s biggest and best-known producers, Chapel Down – based at Tenterden, Kent – this stunning subtly oaked chardonnay epitomises English wine’s huge potential. Scooping top honours at multiple international award ceremonies, it’s one of the most refined English wines we’ve encountered and a statement-making addition to summer gatherings.
This 2017 release was the fifth from Chapel Down’s premium kit’s coty collection, which have all been produced from a single vineyard on the North Downs. It’s a beautifully balanced wine that really opens up in the glass, bearing brioche and hazelnut aromas and plenty of fresh apple flavours, offset by buttery notes that come from its second fermentation in old French oak barrels, adding a complexity that really makes this wine stand out.
Westwell ortega amphora 2019, 11.5%
Former record label founder Adrian Pike has added real swagger to the English wine scene since taking over at Westwell in 2016. Set just off the Pilgrims Way on Kent’s North Downs, this 14 hectare, south-facing vineyard has charted an exciting new course under his ownership, paring back pesticide usage and experimenting with wild or “indigenous” yeasts across an innovative range with a strong identity courtesy of labels bearing beautiful etchings inspired by the winemaking process.
Another fascinating touch plays out on this characterful 2019 ortega – an early ripening grape with muscat and peach aromas. The Westwell team chose to ferment and age the wine in terracotta amphora – a traditional winemaking vessel used for thousands of years – which delivers added depth to this zesty, floral white that plays well alongside seafood or white meats alike.
Aldi limited-edition bacchus 2020, 12%
Further bolstering Aldi’s increasingly respected oenological credentials, this fragrant white wine is a refreshing recent addition to the supermarket’s Specially Selected range. Made from 100 per cent bacchus – a grape particularly suited to the English climate and reminiscent of sauvignon blanc in style – it’s light in colour and tailor-made for hot summer days.
Costing less than a tenner, it’s an extremely well-priced introduction to one of English viticulture’s most successful varietals. Its high acidity and a hefty dose of citrus proved highly drinkable on its own, although it would also pair well with seafood.
Hattingley Valley still white 2020, 12.5%
We loved the vibrancy of this 2020 chardonnay from Hattingley Valley – a well-balanced bottle that fully justifies its founders’ recent foray into still wines. Starting life as a farm diversification project back in 2008, this eco-friendly Hampshire vineyard has been getting better and better, with this newly released vintage testament to last year’s fantastic growing conditions.
Championing the company’s environmental credentials with a silver-washed fritillary on its label – a butterfly now rare in the UK but a summer resident at Hattingley – this classy drop will appeal to lovers of chablis. Pale in colour and bearing a zingy citrus aroma with notes of blossom and pear, it comes with a dash of bright acidity and apple flavours, as well as an underlying element of spice thanks to a process that sees a small proportion of grapes fermented in old oak barrels before blending.
Camel Valley bacchus dry 2019, 12.5%
At the whim of Atlantic weather fronts, Cornwall might not immediately spring to mind as wine country but the Lindo family – who planted their first vines in the Camel Valley, near Bodmin, in 1989 – have gone on to become one of the UK’s standout producers with a slew of awards to their name. While sparkling wines are a particular forte, this still white from 2019 is a strong addition to its roster, with Cornwall’s unique microclimate resulting in a beautifully crisp expression of the bacchus grape.
Expect plenty of youthful character thanks to a grassy hue and big primary notes of apples and elderflower as well as citrusy lemon and grapefruit. High acidity gives it a crisp mouthfeel, making it a fresh, summery drop that we found a natural partner for shellfish.
Gusbourne pinot noir rose 2020, 12.5%
Another UK producer with a portfolio of stunning sparkling wines to its name, Gusbourne – based near Ashford, Kent – has more recently turned its hand to still wines, with similarly memorable results. We loved this newly released special-edition rosé, which – made with 100 per cent pinot noir grapes from a single vineyard – pairs elegance and earthiness.
It’s the perfect drop for warmer weather, with a refreshing dryness to it and hits of vibrant summery fruit – berries and nectarine – on the nose and citrus on the finish. With a deeper, pinker colour than Provençal-style rosés, it works best paired with equally characterful foods – lobster, seared tuna or rinded soft cheeses.
Balfour hush health Nannette rosé 2019, 11.5%
Aiming to replicate their favourite pink champagne, Billecart’s salmon rosé, on UK soil, Leslie and Richard Balfour-Lynn planted their first vineyard at Hush Heath Estate in 2002. Their experiment worked and – now a major player within the English wine industry – the company has expanded its operations with a sophisticated selection of both still and sparkling wines.
Nannette’s rosé, named after their youngest daughter, is a masterful blend of regent, dornfelder, pinot noir, meunier, chardonnay and bacchus grapes. Delicate and pale in colour, it’s an effortlessly easy drinker that – thanks to its fresh acidity and bold strawberry and stone fruit notes – feels quintessentially English.
Bolney pinot noir 2019, 12.5%
While the UK’s cool climate makes it more difficult for red grape varieties to ripen here, continued dogged determination from a number of vineyards is starting to pay off with some impressive results that tend to be lighter in body (and therefore perfect for summer). Case in point is this classy 2019 pinot from the Bolney Estate in Sussex.
Building on the vineyard’s strong showing in 2018, this elegant, medium-bodied red comes with gentle tannins and black cherry on the nose. And alongside a vibrant dose of red fruit in the mouth – in particular plum and strawberry – it also boasts an impressive level of complexity, with a portion of fruit aged on oak for six months before blending adding notes of chocolate and spice. While we found it paired beautifully with soft cheeses, this is a versatile drop that would work well served with chicken, pork or smoked fish.
Sharpham pinot noir 2019, 12%
Another great example of a cool-climate pinot noir, this time from Devon. Part of the first wave of modern vineyards to emerge after the demise of all commercial vineyards during World War II, the Sharpham Estate has a winemaking history stretching back almost 40 years and this hard-earned knowledge of getting the best from their Dart Valley location is paying off in the form of some fascinating wines.
This refined pinot noir is youthful in spirit and boasts plenty of tannic clout. Although light in tone, it’s a full-flavoured wine – bold enough to work with stews and red meat – with six months spent in French oak barrels adding subtle spice to a juicy backdrop of cherry and red berry.
Litmus orange bacchus 2019, 12.5%
Tapping into the recent growing interest in orange wines, this is a typically bold example of the high skin-contact style that will divide as much as it delights. Headed up by winemakers John Worontschak and Mattheiu Elsinga, Litmus creates wines for a number of smaller English vineyards, with the duo’s vast experience evident in this big-hitting bottle, produced at the Denbies Estate in Surrey.
Pale gold in hue, it packs plenty of punch on the nose, with notes of hazelnut, fennel and marzipan marking it out as one of the most characterful wines we tested. An emphasis on skin maceration during the winemaking process delivers depth, complexity and tannins across a nuanced flavour that nods to pepper and passion fruit, making this a distinctive take on the bacchus grape that’s worthy of exploration.
The verdict: English still wines
Several strong years of still wine production mean that the choice and diversity of English wines on the market is better now than ever before. Of the white wines on offer, two distinct styles – bacchus and chardonnay – tend to dominate, with Chapel Down’s kit’s coty chardonnay from 2017 among the most refined bottles tested, thanks to an incredibly balanced flavour profile.
Elsewhere, the pinot noir produced on these shores has advanced in leaps and bounds, providing plenty of optimism for the future, with Bolney’s 2019 pinot noir offering a particularly classy example. Alternatively, for something a little more adventurous, we particularly enjoyed the Litmus orange bacchus, although its funky notes and lively flavour profile mean it certainly won’t be for everyone.
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