England has a long association with the world of wine, and for centuries sailing ships have plied the Channel bringing barrels of Claret and Burgundy to the stately homes of the Home Counties. But England as a serious player in the world of fine wine production? C’est impossible!
Perhaps surprisingly, vineyards began popping up across England as early as the 1950s, but it’s only in the past 20 years that British cellars have begun to be taken seriously by both critics and consumers.
That’s partly thanks to growing expertise in working with the unique terroir of the country’s specific wine-growing regions, but also due to the impact of climate change. As Bordeaux grapples with managing ever-more-intense heatwaves, English vines are basking in welcome sunshine.
Most English vineyards are concentrated in the warmer southern parts of the country — counties such as Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Dorset — but can extend as far north as Norfolk and Yorkshire. Since 2000 the number of hectares under vineyard has ballooned to more than 3,800. There’s a particular focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but English cellars are also one of the few places you’ll find a cultivar called Bacchus, an aromatic white wine often dubbed as England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc.
In West Sussex the Bacchus vines of Dillions Vineyard are a standout, surrounded by ancient woodland with loamy soils producing an aromatic expression of this niche cultivar. Another Bacchus worth a try comes from Gutter & Stars, the first urban winery in the hallowed university town of Cambridge. Their ‘Strange News From Another Star//Bacchus 2021’ was billed as the 'Bacchus of the Year' in the England 2022 Special Report released by respected wine critic Tim Atkin.
The sandstone and chalk soils of southern England are especially well suited for planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the traditional components of champagne. Of course, the French would never allow the English — or South Africans, for that matter — to use their hallowed term, but the English are proving a dab hand at champagne-style sparkling wines, made with a second fermentation in the bottle. That’s the same method as our excellent South African Cap Classique, of course.
You’ll find stunning sparkling examples at Balfour Winery in Kent, where the tasting room and restaurant are filled with works from the owner’s private art collection and wine-tasting tours can also include a walk through apple orchards and ancient woodland. Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Estate is another one to watch. This vast estate shares an owner — and a winemaker — with Benguela Cove outside Hermanus and has bold plans to make a mark on the English wine lands. On this sprawling West Sussex estate 100,000 vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay have been planted across 15 hectares of vineyard, with winemaker Johann Fourie due to produce his first English sparkling wine in 2024.
Or head north to the curious vista of vineyards stretching out across the hills of northern England. The county of Yorkshire is more famous for its fish and chips than fine wine, but at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds the family-owned Ryedale Vineyards offers a fascinating insight into English winemaking, with the chance to taste a compact range of wines, alongside the farm’s apple cider.
And if you don’t have time to tour the counties in search of English wines? No matter. In the heart of London, beneath the arches of a Victorian-era railway bridge, Blackbook Winery crafts micro-batches of still wines working with selected vineyards across southern England. Winery tours and tastings are offered on Saturday afternoons.
Even more interesting are the vineyards at Enfield on the outskirts of London, where Forty Hall Vineyard produces certified-organic still and sparkling wines. It’s the only commercial small-scale vineyard in the English capital, and the standout is their award-winning London Brut sparkling wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. What’s more, this is more than a vineyard. Rather, it’s a social enterprise run largely by local volunteers, with proceeds ploughed back into mental health and wellbeing projects. A sip of a sparkling for a good cause? I’ll drink to that.