Did the English wine revolution start in, er . . . Essex?

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 29, 2017
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Piers Greenwood painted in wine (Barons Red 2015) produced from his own vineyard

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.

Piers in the tasting room

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

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Will still white wines be the next big thing for Britain?

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 27, 2016
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Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

Vines at Sharpham in Devon leading down to the river Dart

THE AMAZING resurgence of UK vineyards in recent years has overwhelmingly been the story of sparkling wines which have been so festooned with gold medals that even French champagne makers have woken up to it. But is the same success about to happen to our still white wines which have languished in the shadows for so long? You could definitely draw this conclusion from the recent English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition where an astonishing 20 out of 32 gold medals awarded went to white wines of which no less than 11 were made from the appropriately named Bacchus grape (after the god of wine) which is emerging as the UK’s still wine of choice for consumers. Several other non-Bacchus wines also struck gold including chardonnays from Chapel Down’s Kits Coty vineyard and from the long-established New Hall in Essex.

This competition was blind tasted by Masters of Wine judged, it is claimed, to international standards which means that there ought to be no national bias. The trouble is that at the more recent Decanter blind tasting – which includes wines from everywhere and not just England and Wales – there were no golds for Bacchus or indeed any other still wines from the UK though there were three silvers (plus a few more for other still whites). This is par for the course for international competitions. So what on earth is going on? There are various explanations. It could be that domestic Bacchus producers did not enter in sufficient numbers for Decanter. Maybe there a subconscious patriotic preference for home producers by the judges. Not at all unlikely. Or , just possibly, the success of Bacchus in domestic competitions is a lead indicator of what is to come in international blind tastings. After all, our sparkling wines were hailed at home long before they started winning prizes in international competitions. Or, perish the thought, wine tasting is a much more random operation that its participants like to admit.

Either way, there are lessons here. Maybe the new vineyards being planted here which are overwhelmingly of the three varieties that make up classic Champagne wines – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – should look to plant more for still wines. Of course, if the market changes, it is easy to produce still white from Chardonnay vines and still red from Pinot Noir, which is gradually improving in quality in this country. But Bacchus, which is a cross between hardy Germanic varieties Mullar-Thurgau and Sylvaner x Riesling, is clearly emerging as the cheer leader for UK wines with a name to conjure with.

Bacchus wines are not cheap being mainly priced around the £14 mark though at the time of writing you could get a Brightwell Bacchus at £9.99 from Waitrose and a 2014 from Chapel Down for £11.50 from the Wine Society. Waitrose is the best place to look for English and Welsh wines if you are not buying from a vineyard, not least because they occasionally have special offers with cuts of 25% or more and they have over a 100 English and Welsh wines on offer. The choosey Wine Society (lifetime membership £40) has a much more limited but high quality list including a couple (non Bacchus) at under £8. Both organisations have free delivery if you buy by the case.

So it looks as though Bacchus will be a premium priced wine like our sparkling wines. If you haven’t got the economies of scale of overseas producers it makes sense to sell on quality. The name Bacchus can be used by anyone but the way things are going it could establish itself as a distinctively branded English still wine. That would be something worth waiting for.

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The only wine is Essex . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 22, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

THE biggest surprise from meeting vineyard owners in East Anglia yesterday is that I have been drinking Essex wines for years without realising it. It turns out that East Anglia – and Essex in particular – is a huge exporter of grapes to familiar vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley. Some estimates suggest that the multi-prize winning New Hall Vineyards alone accounts for around 25% of bottles sold in the UK. Whether this is a slight exaggeration or not, it is clear that East Anglia is a hidden hero of the UK wine revival.

So, it is no great shock to learn that East Anglia walked off with more gold medals and trophies than any other region in the English Vineyard awards this year. Thus far the region has been happy to hide its success behind a barrel as its two dozen or so vineyards have been able to selll pretty well all they make either locally or to the big boys down south. Now this is changing. Yesterday’s tasting for trade press prior to a very tasty dinner at the delightful West Street Vineyard at Coggeshall, Essex vineyard was the start of a move to project its image to the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances I was impressed with the standard of the wines we tasted especially the Bacchus based whites from New Hall, Giffords Hall and Lavenham Brook. The 2012s – stocks of which, surprise, surprise, are already running out – are inevitably less mature than the 2011s but most of the visitors were well pleased. There were some very nice sparkling wines as well such as New Hall’s English Rosé 2010 which may have helped its owner Piers Greenwood to be voted English Wine maker of the year. East Anglia is hoping to get the region designated as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) under EU rules based on how well the Bacchus vine grows in a region which claims to have a very low rainful. This could be very important in selling abroad particularly in the Far East.
West Street is one of the few vineyards in the country to sell other English wines as well as its own so I took the opportunity to buy a sparkling white from Leeds based Leventhorpe in Yotkshire and a Renushaw Hall Madeleine from Derbyshire – the first time I will have tasted wines from either county.
Meanwhile, one has to take one’s hat off to the vineyards of East Anglia which have been hiding their qualities for far too long.
Victor Keegan @BritishWino @vickeegan

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