England - Bacchus to Fizz -  Tasting Report 2019 

England is a new world wine country in the old world, and even though the Champagne bottle was invented in England over 300 years ago, only a recent resurgence has put it squarely back on the wine map. Now, England lies on the Paris Basin, so a similar soil structure can be found as of that in Champagne. The soil is made up of chalk, sand and clay, which is a perfect base to grow grapes. However, up until recently, the summers did not allow adequate sunshine or a long enough growing season to really take advantage of this soil. Though with climate change in full force, and whilst other regions are struggling to keep acidities in check, Southern England sees this as a welcome 'problem'. 

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The grapes grown in England are mainly focused on producing sparkling wines, this is due to the cool maritime climate. This is different from the more continental climate which exists in Champagne. The difference in climate was always an Achilles heel for England, however with global warming in recent years, England's climate is more suitable to sparkling wine than ever before. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier and Bacchus are where the quality lies and as such, I wanted to go in search of wineries which produced excellent wines based on these varietals. 

WineGB is a fantastic resource for the growing wine market in England and for those interested I have a few facts:

  • Currently, there are 164 wineries producing 5.9M bottles of wine in 2017 and 15.6M bottles of wine in 2018. They see an increase to 40M bottles by 2040. 

  • Pinot Noir(30%), Chardonnay(29%), Pinot Meunier(11%) and Bacchus(6.9%) are the most planted

  • 76% of the wineries are located in the South-East

  • 72% of the wine produced is sparkling

  • The USA is the biggest export market, however, only 8% of the wine produced is exported. 

 

Gusbourne, Charles Palmer and Chapel Down were the three estates which I focused my report on. Gusbourne and Charles Palmer were focused more on sparkling wine, whereas Chapel Down had both sparkling along with Bacchus. Bacchus is a native to Germany, however, found its home in England where it has really excelled in recent years. 

But what everyone wants to know, is it any good? Champagne has been producing sparkling wine for 100s of years. England has been producing wine for not even 20-30 years. So we have to take that into account. That being said, I came away highly impressed by the wines tasted. Most sparkling wines produced are vintage, and so when you compare to vintage champagne you will be paying 30% less, yet this is not 30% less in quality. Every time I tried to compare Champagne to English Sparkling wine with the producers, I was quickly told they are learning from Champagne, but they are not trying to copy Champagne. English producers are focusing on the English style of sparkling wine. England has a lot of similarities, but walking through the vineyards you would not mistake yourself for being in Champagne. The climate, greenness and the soil. This is England not Champagne.  So the wines tend to have a slightly higher acidity, and in my opinion easier to pair with food. There are lots of exceptions though.

Gusbourne

Gusbourne Estate really started coming to life in 2004 and their focus is on estate grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier to produce sparkling wines. There is no buying of fruit at Gusbourne, and they practice both sustainability and Organic viticulture (if not certified). The vineyard sits in a position whereby the wind which flows up from the coast, channels around the vineyards ensuring that their temperatures are slightly warmer. I was taken around the vineyard by Jonathan White (Marketing Manager), who emphasized how Gusbourne was focused on quality and not quantity. The 2018 vintage was a large harvest in England after a disappointing 2017, yet for Gusbourne, only slightly more bottles were produced to ensure the quality was kept at a high level. So whilst other wineries did not hold back, Gusbourne continued to drop fruit to ensure quality was in the final product. Gusbourne is very much a premium product, I found their wines priced quite high compared to their competitors for similar quality. 

Highlights from Gusbourne included the Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013 (93 points), this had aromas of Meyer lemons, peaches and yellow pear on the notes along with soft and silky palate with a delicate mousse. Along with a surprise Chardonnay Guinevere 2016 (92 points), which is not made every year and depends on the growing season. This showed attractive warm stone fruits, yellow apple, hazelnuts, sweet spices and felt quite buttery. Gusbourne has a fantastic range, if not a little expensive, which really show how serious England is in producing wine. 

Charles Palmer Vineyard

Charles Palmer started off his career as a farmer and leased the land back in 2006 to grow vines. Charles had his sites set on producing the best terroir, quality-focused English wines he could. His approach really is quite unique. After he selected his land, he made the choice of growing Burgundy clones and no Meunier and very little Champagne clones. He explained this was a stylist approach and was based on the soil and climate. He questioned the reason to grow Meunier, which is always a challenging vine to work with. Why grow Meunier when Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produce better wines? For Charles, everything is about the quality and terroir on which the vines grow, and letting the grapes and not the winery do the talking, all of the fruit is estate grown. The winery is not certified organic, yet is more than sustainable and Charles along with his son Robert are both now working together as the winemakers. Charles feels English wine is where Champagne was 50 years ago, whilst the growing season is not perfect, the vineyard is located around 2km from the sea, which allows for a more consistent growing season than other English wineries which struggle with variable conditions. When I walked around the vineyard with Charles and listening to him and the choices he made, I just kept smiling to myself since he was so dialled in to what was required to make world-class sparkling wine. I am happy to hear that even though his focus is on sparkling wines, he has started producing a little Pinot Noir(Still), and the initial results are very encouraging. 

Highlights include the Charles Palmer Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs 2014 (94 points), which showed a wave of delicate and yet persistent mousse which first hit the palate, this then evolved into a delicate and soft palate of yellow apple, Asian pear a little brioche along with a silky, rich and elegant finish. I was also impressed by the quality of Charles Palmer Brut Rosé 2015 (94 points), which was very impressive and very fruit-driven with aromas of freshly picked strawberries and blackcurrants followed by richness and well-balanced acidity with a long, silky elegance. Finally, the 'experiment' Pinot Noir 2018 (93 points), had no oak ageing and showed bright red and black fruit, a little earth finishing with a  delicate and silky finish, this really shows fantastic purity of fruit and is by far the best Pinot Noir I have tried from England. 

Charles Palmer produces some fantastically priced sparkling wine which can easily compete with some of the best sparkling wine on the market today. Charles is both hands-on and passionate about the future of both his wines as well as the English wine scene, and for those who are sceptical about English wine, one try of his wines will change your mind. 

Chapel Down

Chapel Down winery is one of the bigger wineries in England, with 2M bottles expected to be produced in 2018. Their focus is on Sparkling along with the Germany variety Bacchus. Chapel Down is famous for its Kit's Coty premium range which is based on a vineyard located in the Northern Downs in Northen Kent. This vineyard has a micro-climate which is planted on lime-rich chalk soil. This soil produces some very unique and more concentrated wines which along with careful oak ageing produces some of the best wines in England. Along with these premium wines, Chapel Down also produces some excellent entry-mid priced sparkling and still wines. Six different sparkling wines are produced which are able to capture a range of different styles, I did find some overlap between the different sparkling wines, and would maybe have focused on three to four. Also, I found the Pinot Blanc did not really add anything to the blend of sparkling and so, would probably not include this in future blends. As for the Bacchus, I believe Chapel Down really showcases this grape perfectly, and apart from the Orange Bacchus, I enjoyed all of their other bottlings of this variety. I hope as they produce more wines in the future, they do not lose sight of their Bacchus. 

 

The Chapel Down Bacchus Kit's Coty Estate Kit's Coty 2017 (94 points), was a real standout and a benchmark for the Bacchus grape, With aromas of very ripe peaches, gooseberry and elderflower, the palate was a lot more delicate and refined compared to other Bacchus along with a pure expression of perfectly ripe stonefruit and a touch of vanilla, this was a superstar. The Chapel Down Chardonnay Kit's Coty Estate Blanc de blanc 2014 (93 points), had freshly picked yellow apple, a little fresh wild grass, biscuits along with wet stone and a long elegant finish. Finally, the Tenterden Estate Bacchus 2018 (92 points) with a more concentrated yet fresh palate of gooseberry, elderflower, peaches along with a streak of minerality, love the lively yet refreshing finish. For those who do not know Bacchus or the Kit's Coty from Chapel Down are really missing out. These wines are unique and really showcase the quality of wine coming out of England. For those who have never tried Bacchus, I would easily compare it to a Sauvignon Blanc Sancerre vs NZ style. 

Bottom Line

I arrived in England not knowing if I would be discouraged by the quality or lack of advancement in English wine. Yet I left refreshed, knowing that English wine along with the change in climate is producing some very good new world/old world wine. Within only a couple of years I have already seen improvements, and even if the wine is playing catch up, certain wines are already competing at a very high level. The future is looking bright in England, and I am excited about the advancements in the coming years.  

Top English Wines Tasted

Charles Palmer Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs 2014

94 points

A nose full of citrus peel, spring flowers, stone fruit and a little wild grass, a wave of delicate and yet persistent mousse first hit the palate, this then evolved into a delicate and soft palate of yellow apple, Asian pear a little brioche along with a silky, rich and elegant finish. Has to be one of the top Vintage sparkling wines in England. Really enjoyed the finish on this. 3 years on lees.

Charles Palmer Brut Rosé 2015

94 points

Very impressive Rosé, very fruit-driven with aromas of freshly picked strawberries, ripe cherries and blackcurrants, redcurrant, the palate was really like a fresh summer pudding with a soft mousse, richness and great well-balanced acidity finishing with a long, silky elegance. Made from Burgundy clones and from the Saignee method, 2 years aged on lees. I love the finish on this, so delicate. Wow!

Chapel Down Bacchus Kit's Coty Estate Kit's Coty 2017

94 points

This really shows what the Bacchus grape can deliver. Aromas of very ripe peaches, gooseberry and elderflower, the palate was a lot more delicate and refined compared to other Bacchus along with a pure expression of perfectly ripe stonefruit, little crushed stones, sweet spices and a touch of vanilla. The length was elegant and long. Fantastic!

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013

93 points

Delicate, silky and elegant Blanc de Blanc and my favourite of the Gusbourne wines tasted today. Aromas of Meyer lemons, peaches and yellow pear on the notes along with soft and silky palate with a delicate mousse, light brioche, dried fruits and sweet spices filled the palate. The finish was round and very elegant and this can stand up to Vintage Champagne. Unlike a lot of English Chardonnays, there is little in the way of greenness either on the nose or the palate. Aged for 42 months. Very good!

Chapel Down Chardonnay Kit's Coty Estate Blanc de blanc 2014