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EVERYONE knows that the recent resurgence of English wine started in the chalky geology of Sussex and Kent. Or did it? There is another county that can make a strong claim. Essex. Yes, Essex. And it comes mainly down to one place, New Hall Vineyards which has been hiding its light under a bushell for far too long.
New Hall was built up by the legendary Piers Greenwood and his father Bill and family. Piers has sold his stake in the vineyard to his brother-in-law and now lives in Canada where, surprise, surprise, he is starting another vineyard. We caught up with him a few days ago when he was back in Essex to help out with the tasting and blending.
Talking to him in front of the original 850 Reichensteiner vines planted in 1962 (above) with the help of a battalion of cheap railway sleepers to keep the trellis up, was a treat. He reminded us – OK, he didn’t remind us, we didn’t know – that he introduced Bacchus, which has become the best-selling English still wine, to this country after spending several years in Alsace learning his craft with the famous Hugel wine family.
It was only about four years ago that I realised I had been drinking Essex wine for years without realising it as New Hall had been supplying fruit to the likes of Camel Valley, Chapel Down and Denbies, the largest vineyard in the country. Even today New Hall still supplies 25% of its Bacchus grapes to other vineyards in the UK.
But this isn’t its main claim to fame. Piers says that in 1983 New Hall was the first to produce traditional method sparkling wine (using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) in the UK. The history of sparkling in England and Wales is a bit like a river fed over the years from various tributaries which had made sparkling on a small scale. In the past these tributaries included Piltdown Manor, Felstar, Hambledon and Oxted, not to mention Painshill in the mid 18th century.
But New Hall was the first to produce English sparkling from Champagne grapes on a commercial scale. Piers says that the idea was planted in his mind by Jack Ward who ran Merrydown, one of the earliest UK vineyards and who strongly believed that England was a great place for sparkling. The only other contender is the Carr Taylor vineyard in Kent which produced a sparkling about the same time in 1983 from their own home grown grapes Reichensteiner (50%) and Schonburger (50%) amounting to 20,000 bottles. The first bottles were sold in 1985 as were the New Hall wines.
So they were both pioneers at the same time but New Hall was the first to make commercial-scale English sparkling using traditional Champagne grapes.
New Hall is well known within the trade and has been festooned with top prizes and accolades but its major contribution to the resurgence of UK vineyards has yet to get the credit it deserves.
We will be hearing a lot more about Essex in future. New Hall has plans to more than double its current 100 acres.There are 12 vineyards within 8 miles of New Hall on what is regarded as ideal ground for growing Bacchus. They are actively planning to boost the undervalued brand of Essex wines rather than selling surplus fruit to other established vineyards thereby continuing a custom of growing grapes that goes back to Roman times.
We assuredly have not heard the last of Essex wines.
Wine painting by the author @BritishWino