English still wine used to be the poor relation but it’s fast catching up its sparkling sister. In recent years British sparkling wine has taken off so impressively that French vineyards are now investing in the productive Sussex countryside. Yet English still wines have remained at the Cinderella end of the market, dowdy and overlooked.
In all fairness the quality of English still wine has until recently been variable. In the early, pioneer years (our first modern vineyards were only planted in the late 60s and early 70s) there was an over-reliance on hardy Muller Thurgau and Bacchus, German grapes which grew well in English soils and could cope with the English climate, but produced still wines with a rather sour taste.
Over the last ten years, however, the quality of English wines has generally improved, with French sparkling wine grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier proving that they can thrive in southern England. Still wines have followed where their sparkling siblings led with blended wine a particular success.
Climate change allied with the work of Plumpton College’s new Wine Research Facility in Sussex has meant that southern England is beginning to challenge even its French neighbours for both still and sparkling wines.
Currently there are over 500 vineyards in England but the output is still not huge. Many vineyards and wineries sell by internet and many have their own restaurants and hotels to supply so English wines do not have a major supermarket presence as yet. But that’s a very good reason to go and visit the vineyards. Here are six still wine producers who will make you welcome.
1. RATHFINNY, Alfriston, Sussex
In 2010 Mark and Sarah Driver bought Rathfinny Farm with the specific intention of growing grapes for sparkling wine. Currently the couple have 380,000 vines growing on 227 acres of land and by 2025 they are aiming for 350 acres. If all goes to plan, Rathfinny will soon be producing 80,000 cases of sparkling wine a year, making it one of England’s most significant wine producers. Mark’s ambition is that “In twenty years’ time you will walk into a bar or restaurant in New York or Beijing and you’ll be asked, ‘would you like a glass of Champagne or a delicious glass of Sussex? I can recommend the Rathfinny, sir.’”
However Rathfinny also produces still wines, using the same three grapes: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. These are marketed under the Cradle Valley label. There is a blended Cradle Valley White and a Cradle Valley Rosé which is made solely from Pinot Noir grapes. Both still wines are made to the same high standard. The soil at Rathfinny helps. The vineyard lies on a band of well-drained chalk that forms the Paris Basin, running up through northern France, crossing through the Champagne region and into southern England, forming the South Downs. According to Cameron Roucher, estate manager at Rathfinny (who moved from New Zealand to be part of the project), “You couldn’t really ask for a better location than this for growing grapes.” www.rathfinnyestate.com
Where to stay: Ockenden Manor
Ockenden Manor is a very much a wine-lovers hotel. It was built in several stages from Tudor times to the present day. The hotel offers a number of Wine Safari packages. Visits to six local vineyards can be arranged by the concierge, including to nearby Rathfinny and Bolney.
You might also enjoy…The Bolney Estate just four miles west of Ockenden Manor produces a Pinot Noir that is currently the best-selling English red. Its Pinot Gris is also excellent. In 2020 the vineyard is opening a new restaurant in its south-facing vineyard. bolneywineestate.com
We love: The Cradle Valley
The Cradle Valley White is a light and crispy blend of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc (and just occasionally Chardonnay) and sells for £21.
2. THREE CHOIRS, Newent, Gloucestershire
First planted in 1973, the Three Choirs vineyard is one of the oldest in England. This venture was begun by a Gloucestershire wine merchant who bought a few acres known as Fairfield Fruit Farm. Record summer temperatures in 1976 provided a boost to the fledgling vineyard and in 1984 it was sold as a going concern to the Oldacre family. They expanded the vineyard to 75 acres and renamed it Three Choirs after England’s oldest choral festival that visits Gloucester Cathedral every three years. In 2014 the Oldacre family expanded into Hampshire, purchasing a picturesque 40 acre vineyard in Wickham whose outbuildings are so attractive it also doubles as a popular wedding venue.
Current vintages under chief wine maker Martin Fowke include a whole series with local geographical names: May Hill, a medium sweet wine, Ravens Hill, a deep ruby-coloured red and two dry whites, Willowbrook and Coleridge Hill. There is also a blended English Rosé plus the single varietals, Siegerrebe and Bacchus. Three Choirs also produces one sparkling white wine. www.three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk
Where to stay: Luxury Vineyard Lodges
Since 2000 the vineyard has its own hotel and restaurant. Guests can also stay in glass-walled, wooden-framed, lodges with floor to ceiling windows overlooking ponds surrounded by vines.
We love: Three Choirs Siegerrebe 2017
Three Choirs Siegerrebe 2017 is a vegan-friendly white wine retailing at £14.95 with subtle hints of lychee and grapefruit on the palate.
3. NEW HALL BOXTED, Essex
The CM3 postcode in Essex has more vineyards than any other postcode in Britain. Indeed 80% of all grapes grown in Essex are sourced here in the Crouch Valley. With south-facing slopes, low rainfall and coastal breezes, the area is protected from frost and produces some of the best wines in England. Wine has been cultivated on the rolling hillsides of Essex since soon after the Norman Conquest. Indeed it is believed that wicked King John had his wine supplied from a site in the Crouch Valley. In 1969 Bill and Sheila Greenwood planted Crouch Valley’s first modern vines at New Hall Farm.
Mr Greenwood was a farmer and realised that the valley’s microclimate offered great potential for viticulture. 850 Reichensteiner vines were purchased at auction for just 23p each and hundreds of old railway sleepers were cut up to create the trellises. In 1971 Mrs Greenwood made the first wines in her kitchen from German Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe and Muller Thurgau grapes. Today under wine-maker Piers Greenwood, New Hall produces a number of single varietal wines, Bacchus, Ortega, Huxelrebe, Muller Thurgau and Chardonnay, as well as an English rosé blended from Pinot Noir and two minor grapes. www.newhallwines.co.uk
Where to stay: Stately Wivenhoe House
Wivenhoe House is 20 miles east of New Hall Wines. In 1816, owner Major-General Francis Slater Rebow commissioned John Constable to commemorate the house on a canvas that is now displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.The hotel is surrounded by the campus of Essex University www.wivenhoehouse.co.uk
We love: White Hart 2017
Created for their 50th anniversary, this post-ferment blend of Schonburg and Chardonnay results in a dry wine with flavours of pineapple and a soft citrus finish.
4. LOVELLS WELLAND, Worcestershire
Cathie and John Rolinson moved to the village of Welland below the Malvern Hills in 2008 having made the bold decision to establish a vineyard from scratch. Their first 900 vines were planted in 2010 and since then they have added thousands more and taken management of Tiltridge Vineyard in Upton on Severn. Now working four vineyards over 15 acres – all sheltered by the Malvern Hills, Lovells produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes which are marketed in a series of wines named after local composer, Sir Edward Elgar.
“Ours is a story of a hobby that became more serious,” says Cathie. “It started with an ambition to prove to friends and family that we could produce a decent English wine. We were ably helped along the way by the expertise of the well-established Three Choirs Vineyard as well as several other knowledgeable and kind souls” Operating out of a delightful farmhouse and visitor centre, Lovells now grows Orion, Pinot Noir, Siegerebbe, Madeleine Angevine and Seyval Blanc as well as red Rondo grapes. Today this charming vineyard produces over 12,000 bottles of wine a year, from sparkling whites and rosés to dry whites and single varietals. The Elgar range includes an Elgar Medium Dry, Sonatina Rosé and two sparklings – Ysobel Rosé and Elgar Sparkling White.
Where to stay: The Cottage in The Woods
The Cottage in The Woods is on the Malvern Hills just above Lovells and serves the Elgar wines. It was originally the dower house for a massive Victorian estate, Blackmore Park in the Severn Valley that burned down in 1921. www.cottageinthewood.co.uk
We love: Elgar Medium Dry
Made from a blend of Huxelrebe and Schonburger from the vineyard’s oldest vines. It retails for around £12.50.
5. DENBIES, Dorking, Surrey
The hugely productive Denbies operation almost didn’t happen. In 1984 Adrian White bought this Surrey estate as his home but was unsure what to do with the land so he asked a friend, Professor Richard Selly (who normally advised on drilling for oil) to survey the site. Selly worked out that its chalk soil and well-protected location were ideal for wine production. Thirteen varietals were planted as an experiment in 1986 to see which would take, and 34 years later, in 2010 Denbies medium dry Surrey Gold became the best-selling English white wine.
These days the vineyard produces 10% of all English wines. Other Denbies’ blends are geographically named: Flint Valley, Ranmore Hill and Redlands. Single varietals include Bacchus and Pinot Gris. Despite a lot of success with its sparkling wines, 40% of Denbies’ output remains still and it also makes wine for other companies, like the Albury Vineyard near Guildford.
Good entry-level wines under £10 helped establish the brand, but the new Denbies’ Vineyard Select range is exciting critical attention. The visitor centre with its great central tower and Disneyfied wine train attracts 350,000 visitors a year. The site is very accessible and friendly, with locals walking their dogs. There is also a modern 18 bed hotel created out of an old farmhouse on the estate. www.denbies.co.uk
Where to stay: Denbies Vineyard Hotel
Denbies Vineyard Hotel has a very attractive view of the vines from its dining room. This building was originally a farmhouse on the original estate but has been completely repurposed for visitors.
We love Ranmore Hill 2017
Ranmore Hill 2017 is a white wine that was a Gold award-winner at WineGB 2019 in the category of ‘Best Blended Wine’. At £14.95 it is also very good value.
6. CHAPEL DOWN, Tenterden, Kent
England’s largest winemaker operates out of Tenterden in Kent, making use of the same chalk landscape that created the white cliffs of Dover. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Bacchus thrive in this gentle climate, but Chapel Down augment their own grapes with fruit grown by 13 suppliers from Essex to Hampshire. This wide range of locations minimises the risks of crop failure due to frost.
The company was established in 1992 and moved to Tenterden three years later taking over Rock Lodge Vineyard. Today winemaker Josh Donaghay-Spire supplies pillars of the British establishment like 10 Downing Street, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Barbican and the Royal Crescent Hotel Bath. The Chapel Down bottles with their simple black red and gold labelling are attractive and easily recognised. The company is known for its championing of the Bacchus grape, which they describe as England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc. They also produce an English Rosé as well as a single varietal Pinot Blanc and a Chardonnay. There is an attractive modern visitor centre at Tenterden built to resemble a clapboard Kentish barn. The field next door is planted with all the major grape varieties so visitors can see them in situ. The centre currently attracts over 50,000 visitors a year.
Where to stay: Chilston Park Hotel
Chilston Park Hotel is 16 miles north of Chapel Down. The hotel still has the feel of a friend’s country house at which you’re staying for the weekend. It also has the world’s smallest bar tucked under the old oak staircase.
We love: 2018 Bacchus
The 2018 Bacchus is currently available for as little as at £10 a bottle. It’s a crisp, refreshing highly aromatic white wine characterised by hints of melon and peach
Words | Adrian Mourby