HHaving spent much of my working life with winemakers who never had to leave home to find their dream job, I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to be born and raised in a great wine region. Would it have taken away the romantic lens through which British wine lovers like myself tend to view places like Burgundy or the Barossa? Or would I now be filled with the same carefree pride that Burgundians and Barossans, even those not working in the wine business, feel in their local product?
Probably the latter given recent developments in the part of Essex where I grew up. Praise for the latest wine produced within 10 miles of where I was born always provides a small flare of positivity and approval, much like stumbling upon my small town on TV as a kid (“Look, we’re in love joy!”). Over the past decade, place names of bus routes from my childhood have been infused with a touch of glamor. Danbury, Althorne, Latchingdon, Purleigh are all home to vineyards and wines that helped set the new mood in English wine.
This will be a familiar feeling across southern England, particularly in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset. Much of the 21st century wine boom took place in these counties, with the total area of acreage used for vineyards in England and Wales having quadrupled since 2000 and now stands at 3,800 hectares. Has the sentimental attachment of some of us to the names that now appear on wine labels dulled our critical faculties? Possibly, though the number of critics inclined to give English wines an easy ride inspired by local pride is still outnumbered by those overly strict with an industry that until the 1990s was considered an eccentric hobby.
A more balanced view would find plenty of reasons for optimism, not ignoring the occasional dark cloud. Topping the positive side of the ledger is of course the outstanding quality of the best traditional method sparkling wine producers (Nyetimber, Gusbourne, Balfour, Camel Valley, Wiston Estate, Sugrue, Hattingley Valley, Hambledon, Bride Valley, Rathfinny, Breaky Bottom). , Coates & Seely, Exton Park).
Equally exciting is the greatly improved quality of the still wines. They account for about a third of production each year, particularly from the same grapes used for sparkling wine (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) but also the fragrant English answer to Sauvignon Blanc, Bacchus. (Bolney, Camel Valley, Danbury Ridge, New Hall, Gusbourne, Balfour, Simpsons Estate, Blackbook and Stopham Estate are behind some current favorites.)
The negatives start with the somewhat bumpy character of the still wines that are produced outside of the top tier, especially in difficult vintages like 2021. Then there are the relatively high prices across the board. While understandable given the high cost of land, labor and equipment in southern England, as well as the relatively small size of its producers, this means that English wines cannot always compete with competitors from northern Europe and New Zealand.
Producers of better sparkling wines are also a little worried about the recent rise of cheaper, lighter, mass-produced wines, modeled more on Prosecco than Champagne: will they erode England’s hard-earned reputation for world-class fizz?
All is not rosy in the garden of English wine, but that is true of any wine region. And the fact is, for an English wine lover, being an English wine lover has never been easier.
Six of the finest English wines
Lark Song English Rose by Balfour
Kent, England 2021 (£12, Marks & Spencer)
As one of England’s most enduring sparkling wine producers (including some of the best supermarket own brands), Balfour is also a reliable still wine name, producing some stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a single vineyard. They also make this winning, crispy, refreshing red apple rosé.
New Hall Vineyards Purlai Gold
Essex, England 2017 (£17.50, newhallwines.com)
A true English wine pioneer, New Hall in the Crouch Valley south of Maldon in Essex now has more than 50 vintages under its belt. Quality has never been better, as evidenced by this delightful, honeyed, sun-kissed version of a Loire sweet wine from Bacchus and Schonburg.
Dillion’s Vineyard Bacchus
Sussex, England 2020 (£18, dillionsvineyard.co.uk)
The Bacchus grape is not often found outside of Britain, but the fragrant dry white wines it produces in southern England have an appeal similar to Loire-Sauvignon. This flawless example is a spring-to-summer fragrant delight, full of citrus and gooseberry and elderflower charm.
Black Book Winery Painter by Light Clayhill Vineyard Chardonnay
Essex, England 2020 (From £27.99, novelwines.co.uk; blackbookwinery.com)
The best English sparkling wine has long been able to compete with the best of the region that inspired it: Champagne. Now the best English still Chardonnays offer a quality as good as white burgundy. Crafted by an American in Battersea from Essex fruit, this is complex, resonant and full of life.
Gusbourne Estate Pinot Meunier
Kent, England 2020 (£29, gusbourne.com)
Of the three varietals used to make Champagne-style sparkling wine, Pinot Meunier is the least likely to feature as a still wine. The deliciously crisp, juicy, vibrant berries and currants of this bottling from Kent’s leading sparkling wine maker, Gusbourne, suggest it deserves to be used more often.
Busi-Jacobsohn Cuvée Brut
Sussex, England 2018 (from £38, yapp.co.uk; thesourcingtable.com; harveynichols.com; busijacobsohn.com)
From a relatively new name on the thriving English sparkling wine scene, Busi-Jacobsohn’s Chardonnay-dominant East Sussex Traditional Method Brut is characterized by its understated elegance: vibrant with life and energy, chalky mineral notes and bright lemon-posset creaminess.