When we opened Park+Bridge in 2013, English wine was still a tough sell. We certainly had some customers asking for it, especially sparkling wines. But there were still many looks of horror at the very suggestion of a wine from this country.
Eight years later at Vindinista, this has all changed. We rarely get any shocked looks, though some customers do still seem surprised at just how tasty English wines can be.
Writing this on a cold, wet and windy summer solstice in 2021, it’s not hard to understand the reticence. How can England possibly produce good wine when the weather can be so rubbish?
A bit of rain in June is not actually a problem for winemakers who pick their sites, and grapes, carefully to get the best from their vines and to cope with the UK climate. Late frosts when vines are beginning to bud, and heavy rain before harvest are much bigger issues - but that’s not exclusive to the UK. Overall, temperatures have risen over the last decade or so, which does mean grapes grown here ripen better.
There are now almost 800 vineyards in England and Wales, and more than 160 wineries. The total number of hectares under vine has quadrupled since 2000. In 2019, England and Wales produced almost 11 million bottles of wine, a quarter of which was still wine. The rest is sparkling, much of it made the same way as Champagne and often with the same grapes - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. While some UK winemakers may bristle at comparisons, it is how most of us judge sparkling wines, right?
The quality has kept increasing and, for a small shop like ours, it is a hard choice to decide who to stock. (And if you’re wondering why we’re just calling it English wine, it’s because we don’t currently stock one from Wales - only 1.5% of production comes from there at the moment.)
So let’s take a look at three of our favourite producers.
Just a few miles north of the picturesque East Sussex Medieval hilltop town of Rye lies Oxney Organic Estate. Kristin Syltevik and her partner Paul Dobson converted part of their organic farm into a vineyard in 2009, and their 14 hectares of vines produce around 20% of organic grapes grown in the UK.
Their first vintage was the Classic in 2014 and, in pre-pandemic days when large trade tastings in London were the norm, we fell in love with this traditional method fizz at the annual GB wine event - especially as we had been searching for an English organic producer. They’ve now branched out to special, limited-edition cuveés and a couple of still wines (their Chardonnay sold out super quick last year and we’re waiting for the new vintage). Less is more is the signature style of Oxney and we love the elegance and restraint of the wines.
It’s really worth visiting for the tour, or renting one of the well-equipped shepherd’s huts in the vineyards, where we spent a blissful night last September, cooking on an open fire and hearing nothing but the crackle of the logs, the rustling of the vines and a hooting owl or two.
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Head further west and you’ll find Bolney Wine Estate, half way between Brighton and Crawley. It’s a bigger operation than Oxney - one of its vineyards is called Eighteen Acre (7.28 hectares) - and it now also produces gin and vermouth, made from English grapes of course.
Nevertheless, it still has the feel of a family business. Started in 1972 by English wine pioneers Janet and Rodney Pratt (who sadly passed away earlier this month), it is now in the hands of their daughter and winemaker Sam Lintner. While Bolney once relied on contract growers to complement its own vineyards in order to keep up with demand, over the years, it’s been able to add to its own estate. We’ve taken a selection of Bolney’s wines in the past, both still and sparkling. The constant is the Lychgate Bacchus, which really is Sancerre-like and has a solid fan base among our customers. It’s one of the best expressions of Bacchus we’ve tasted.
You can book a tour at Bolney, of course, but there’s also a café with a great terrace overlooking the vines (and plenty of space inside for when it rains, as it did when we last visited in 2019!)
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You’ll find the new(er) kid on the block, Simpsons Wine Estate, nestled in the pretty red-brick village of Barham, a short hop off the A2, between Canterbury and Dover. The winery itself is separate from its two vineyards and a few weeks ago, on a sun-dappled afternoon, we walked through the village to the Roman Road vineyard - which is on a gently-sloped south-facing hillside surrounded by ancient trees.
Simpsons is owned by Charles and Ruth Simpson, who also own a vineyard in the Languedoc (their head winemaker, Leigh Sparrow, splits his time between the two estates). Their original plan was to only make sparkling wines, using Pinot and Chardonnay clones of vines found in Burgundy, to add complexity (they also grow Pinot Meunier). But just a few years after their first vintage in 2016, they’re now also making sell-out still wines. We’ve just taken on the Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir 2020 - which we know will change people’s minds over English reds - in addition to the Chalklands Classic Cuveé.
In the summer, Simpson’s offers a number of different experiences, from a weekday tasting in its attractive tasting room overlooking the tanks in the winery, to tours of the vineyards and Sunset Sessions with cheese and meat platters.