English sparkling wines have exploded in popularity over the last decade — scooping up awards, beating off competition from France, and fast becoming the pour du jour for garden parties, fashion shows and weddings galore (all in the halcyon pre-lockdown days of course). Rumour has it, English fizz had corks popping at both Royal weddings.
It’s no surprise, as our climate and grape growing conditions near-mirror those of the famous fizz region of Champagne, right down to the same chalk soils that burrow beneath the Channel. Wine makers are cropping up in the south of England to produce flinty, mineral wines in the quality hotspots of Hampshire, Kent and Sussex.
The champagne houses know it — Taittinger and Bollinger are among the many names to have put some investment into English soil. Sales are booming, and with English wine predicted to be a mega £1 billion industry by 2040, it’s safe to say that British bubbles have hit the big time.
But beneath the mainstream movement, and the big spenders behind it, is an undercurrent of winemakers doing things differently, eschewing the fizz-formula to experiment with still wines, alternative winemaking methods and lesser-known varieties outside of the ‘Champagne 3’ (that’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier), like Ortega, Bacchus, and the majestic sounding Madeleine Angevine.
Sustainability is key, not to mention ‘natural’ juice made from organic grapes, without additives, and via low-intervention, meaning that ancient traditions are a common denominator of the new wave of English wines.
From amphora-aged ‘orange’ wines in Sussex, to rare Cabernet Noir bottled in Battersea, and tingly, sparkling reds in Wales, the UK is quickly developing a boundary-pushing scene. It’s all making waves among young somms and wine folk in-the-know, and now you’re in on it too.
In Kent’s ‘garden of England’, winemaker Adrian Pike works with the Ortega grape — a little known secret that’s blossoming on English soil, producing bright, mouth-watering flavours in Blighty’s cool climate. Zingy, fresh peach-and-grapefruit whites join an Ortega Rosé and a rich, amber-hued ‘skin contact’ bottling, where the crushed grapes are fermented on their skins and then aged in old Burgundy barrels. Bottled without being filtered for a slightly cloudy, soft and drinkable style.
These sit alongside a ‘pétillant naturel’ — sparkling wine made lightly and bubbly through natural methods, currently enjoying roaring popularity — and more experimental bottlings and unusual blends that spill out over the ‘norm’ of classic winemaking.
“Field blends, skin contact and pet nat wines are all made elsewhere in the world, just not very much in England, and there doesn’t really seem to be a reason for it as the fruit works perfectly for those styles with Ortega in particular lending itself to all,” says Pike.
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Further south in Peasmarsh, Sussex, Ben Walgate of Tillingham Wines is an advocate of regenerative farming, focussing on soil health in the vineyard while blending ancient methods with modern techniques in the winery.
Walgate makes diverse, progressive wines without added sulphur or chemical interference and with little technological input. Look out for ‘Qvevri White 2019’: a blend of Bacchus and Pinot Blanc, aged in traditional Georgian Qvevri clay pots; annual small-batch releases of cloudy red wines brimming with flavours of freshly crushed raspberries and cherries; and the brand new ‘Athingmill’, playful pink spritz made up of no fewer than nine grapes and, curiously, a smattering of apples — the Tillingham range is full of rule-bending, hard-to-categorise releases.
Catch them while you can — thanks to small numbers, no-fear winemaking and attention grabbing, print-worthy labels, these bottles sell out fast.
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Wales’ Wye Valley might not be the first place that springs to mind as the vanguard of modern winemaking, but family owned-and-run Ancre Hill Estate has a radical approach to sustainability and two mould-smashing bottles to prove otherwise.
One, released under an eye-catching, kitschy, Anthony Burgess-Clockwork Orange style label and named simply ‘Orange’, is made skin-contact style from Albarino — a grape usually found basking in the vineyards of Spain, rather than the valleys of Wales — and is cloudy and lip-smackingly dry with aromatic citrus and thyme notes.
The second is a juicy red wine with a slight bubble, from the obscure Triomphe grape, made gluggable via carbonic maceration — a winemaking technique famously used in France’s Beaujolais region to soften red wines and make the flavours ‘pop’, and not used nearly enough in other regions, if you ask me.
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The Urban Wineries
Classic wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux belong to strict governing bodies and must adhere to precise rules and regulations on which grapes may be planted where, and how the resulting wines can be made. Unbound by these rules, winemakers in England are free to experiment.
Renegade Urban Winery grabs this freedom by the barrel, proudly “breaking the rules – one bottle at a time” with hybrid creations like the Bethnal Bubbles, an unfiltered English sparkling wine made from the zesty Seyval Blanc grape, fermented under hops for an end result that’s part wine, part cloudy, citrusy, craft beer, all made under the arches off a graffitied alleyway in Bethnal Green.
Another London winery unafraid to play with boundaries is Blackbook, in Battersea, where ex-sommelier Sergio Verrillo applies his expert palate to making wines from blends and hybrids the everyday wine lover might not have heard of before, proving that, “You don’t necessarily need vineyards to make striking wine, you can be on a grungy estate in South London”.
Try the aptly named ‘Controversy’ Pinot Meunier and look out for the last few bottles of ‘Little Wonder’ Cabernet Noir, a rare hybrid grape variety developed on the borders of Switzerland, with aromas of aromas of blackberry leaf, herbs and tobacco. All Blackbook Winery wines are vegan, made following a minimalist approach, and low-to-no sulphur, for wines with their own identity and nuance.
The Natural Way
Why are we seeing a shift towards low-intervention, low-chemical winemaking again and again, among these new wave wines? It’s really no surprise — after more than 50 years of heavy industrialisation and processing, both producers and consumers are more aware of the effect on the planet, the importance of soil health and regeneration, and the options of less heavy-handed methods.
We can’t talk about the rising success of English wine without also noting climate change and the factor it plays. Forward-thinking winemakers are united in their return to pre-industrial methods, ‘looking back to look forward’.
In Somerset’s Yeo Valley, grower Ingrid Bates uses sustainable agricultural practices to produce grapes for her award-winning Dunleavy wine label. “I believe that modern, technical winemaking methods evolved for a reason,” explains Bates. “Most likely to make sure wines have a long shelf life and don’t take on an unpredictable nature of their own after bottling, but it’s all about striking a happy medium — you don’t want to filter and strip something back so much it’s lost its soul. With the uncertain nature of the UK climate, I’ve learnt that it’s much easier to work with nature, rather than battling to try and control it.”
The new wave of English wines are perhaps more in tune with the slow food movement, with less impact on the environment, and thanks to our cool climate they tend to be naturally lower in alcohol — handy when millennial and Gen Z drinking trends are all pointing this direction.
The burgeoning style, with its embrace of the obscure and easier drinking styles, are being picked up in trend-leading corners of the globe -—progressive wine bars in New York, Copenhagen and Tokyo are all hotspots for exports of English wine. It looks like there’s an exciting future ahead.