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The ultimate guide to English wine

English wines are going from strength to strength with sparkling wines often coming out ahead of Champagnes in prestigious tastings. In recent years, warmer summers have seen the still wines coming on too.

Ridgeview in Sussex, home of The Society’s Exhibition Sparkling wine
Ridgeview in Sussex, home of The Society’s Exhibition Sparkling wine

A brief history of English wine

Viticulture in the UK dates back to Roman times, with a history of wine drinking likely to go back even further. The Domesday Book records 42 vineyards across England and Wales, as well as mentioning ‘Nitimbreha' from which Sussex producer, Nyetimber, takes its name. Despite a history of viticulture going back thousands of years, the UK wine industry is still in its infancy but is growing at a rapid pace. Today there are over 700 vineyards across Great Britain, with more and more vines being planted every year. 2019 saw an astonishing three million vines planted bringing Britain's total area under vine to just over 3,800 hectares. Annual production is a rollercoaster due to our marginal climate and can be anything between 5.9 million bottles in the frost-ravaged 2017 vintage, and 15.6 million in the bountiful 2018 vintage. A stark reminder that grapes, although destined for something far greater, are still an agricultural crop and at the whim of Mother Nature like any other.

English wines

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English wine – the basics

Production

As of 2020 the total UK Vineyard Area was approximately 3,800 hectares, an increase of more than double in the last ten years alone. 98% of this hectarage is within England, with 1.5% in Wales. In total there are roughly 770 vineyards and 165 wineries across the UK.

Principal grapes

The traditional Champagne grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) now make up over 70% of the UKs total area under vine. While the majority of these go towards the production of Classic Method sparkling (see below), a growing number are being used to produce outstanding still wines.

The next most popular grape is bacchus, accounting for roughly 5% of plantings, with seyval blanc, pinot gris and rondo next in line.

Sparkling wines, made by the Classic Method, are the jewels in England’s winemaking crown
Sparkling wines, made by the Classic Method, are the jewels in England’s winemaking crown

Five things to know about English wine

1. Sparkling wine

The jewel in England's winemaking crown. England, especially the south coast, is famous for the production of world-class Classic Method (where the all-important second fermentation takes place in the bottle) sparkling wines. With its patchwork of different soils, from granite in Cornwall, greensand in Sussex and chalk in Hampshire and much of Kent, and temperatures increasing to resemble those of Champagne in its heyday, things are looking bright for the UK’s sparkling scene.

Read more on how sparkling wine is made

2. Dry whites

English white wines tend to lean on the dry side and show a natural acidity and crispness while young. English chardonnays show this racy acidity and pure peach and citrus fruit, with the best examples benefiting from time in oak and a few years in bottle before broaching. Bacchus is arguably England’s signature grape – offering aromas of gooseberry, nettle and lime leaf – a great alternative to sauvignon blanc. Pinot blanc and pinot gris also show great potential and are naturally adapted to cooler climates.

3. English rosés

An exciting category for England with our cool climate giving wines of real freshness and purity. The finest examples are typically pinot noir or meunier, with the majority a blend of numerous red (and white) grapes. Expect crisp cherry and strawberry-led wines, pale colours and plenty of freshness. A few producers are experimenting with deeper-coloured, oak-aged rosé with impressive results.

4. English reds

English red wines have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, with a few warm vintages (2020 and 2018 in particular) offering ideal temperatures for ripening black grapes. Pinot noir stills shows the greatest potential for quality, with the best offering crunchy cranberry and crushed strawberry notes and a smoky, savoury character. Rondo is another alternative thanks to its deep colour, crisp acid and soft, strawberry and plum fruit.

5. Sustainability

The UK wine industry are world leaders when it comes to sustainability, offering constant innovation and, most importantly, a desire to make a difference. Wine GB (the national association for the English and Welsh wine industry) unveiled their ‘Sustainable GB’ accreditation in 2021, an in-depth look into vineyard and winery practices that provides a brilliant structure for vineyards and wineries, both old and new, to follow to make their work more sustainable. We’re delighted that almost all of the producers we work with are fully accredited (both vineyards and winery), including Ridgeview, Nyetimber, Three Choirs and Chapel Down.

Harvesting at Chapel Down with the help of the archetypal Englishman’s friend!
Harvesting at Chapel Down with the help of the archetypal Englishman’s friend!

 

Where to start?

Buyer for England, Matthew Horsley, picks his favourites at all budgets

Anyday Favourite - The Society’s English White

A lovely crisp and refreshing wine with a gooseberry-tinged finish. I blend this every year with head winemaker at Three Choirs, Martin Fowke, looking to capture the style of each vintage whilst maintaining consistency for members.

The Society's English White 2021

England
0 star rating 0 Reviews
Our flagship English white comes from Three Choirs in Gloucestershire, from t...
Price:£9.50 Bottle
Price:£114.00 Case of 12

Introduction to Classic Method sparkling - The Society's Exhibition English Sparkling Wine NV

A fine sparkler made by Ridgeview Estate in Sussex, produced from the classic Champagne mix of chardonnay together with pinot noir and pinot meunier, to create a light, elegant and utterly delicious wine. In 2022, starting with the wine based on the 2019 vintage, we gave the wine more time on the yeast lees in bottle than previously in order to give extra complexity and weight on the palate. We’re delighted with the results.

The Society's Exhibition English Sparkling Wine NV

England Pinot Noir Meunier Chardonnay
0 star rating 0 Reviews
Produced exclusively for us by Ridgeview in Sussex this classic method sparkl...
Price:£24.00 Bottle
Price:£144.00 Case of 6

A touch of class - Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2014

Blanc de blancs (a sparkling wine made using only chardonnay) is arguably England’s most exciting sparkling sub-genre and this from the 2014 vintage shows intense citrus and peach notes, impressive linear palate and intriguing complexity.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs Brut 2014

England Chardonnay
0 star rating 0 Reviews
Nyetimber’s second Wine Champion of 2022 is a well-aged blanc de blancs that ...
Price:£40.00 Bottle
Price:£240.00 Case of 6
Albourne Estate in the heart of the South Downs, Sussex
Albourne Estate in the heart of the South Downs, Sussex

 

English wine – the definitive guide

Climate

Marginal with relatively high rainfall and threats from spring frosts and mildew. The long growing season offers great opportunities

As I’m sure we’re all aware the UK has a marginal climate, with relatively high rainfall, warm (we like to think) summers and mild autumns. We have a long growing season, lasting from April/May all the way to October in many cases which allows grapes to achieve ripeness and complexity. Warm days and cold nights also help maintain freshness and acidity.

The main threat for many is spring frosts, with warm weather in April/May accelerating growth and promoting budburst leaving the vines vulnerable to frosts towards the end of May. Whilst the quality and quantity of wine in 2020, for example, was outstanding, many across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire were hit by a devastating frost towards the end of May with some losing up to 90% of their entire harvest. Even though grapes such as chardonnay and pinot noir do grow secondary buds, these are never as good or plentiful as the primary ones.

Another major threat is mildew and botrytis later in the year. September in the UK is normally warm and relatively dry, however if summer temperatures are moderate enough to delay harvest into October it can lead to the risk of rot in the vines if the weather turns sour. Increased rainfall and cool or humid weather is a breeding ground for downy mildew or botrytis which can severely impact not only quantity but also quality of the crop. These conditions make organic and/or biodynamic viticulture difficult in the UK with preventative spraying necessary for the majority of growers.

average temperatures are approaching those of Champagne in its heyday

There are opportunities, however. The long growing season can help provide wines of outstanding complexity and concentration, whilst always maintaining impressive acidity – ideal for sparkling wines. With the effects of global warming impossible to ignore our average temperatures are approaching those of Champagne in its heyday. However, global warming is more than just rising temperatures – it’s leading to an increase in freak events such as off-season frosts, hail, extreme rainfall or wind. How growers and producers adapt to these challenges will be the difference between sink or swim over the years to come.

Soils

Diverse patchwork of soils offering many different terroirs

The UK is a geologically diverse island, with a patchwork of soils making for an exciting mix of terroirs and aspects across England and Wales. Most famous, arguably, are the chalky soils of Hampshire and parts of Kent, and Sussex greensand.

Chalk – the chalk that runs through much of the south of England is the same as that found in Champagne, further reinforcing our sparkling wine production credentials. The key thing with chalk is its water-holding capacity, one cubic metre of chalk can hold approximately 400 litres of water – essential in a country with high annual rainfall. But most importantly the chalk refuses to relinquish the water it holds. So rather than flooding the roots (vines hate getting their feet wet) the vines must fight to get the water and nutrients needed, leading to fitter vines and more concentrated and complex flavours in the grapes. Although hard to generalise, chalk suits chardonnay wonderfully and the resulting wines are taut, citrus driven, with great freshness and elegance.

Greensand – made up of marine sediment from the Cretaceous period, greensand surfaces once chalk has eroded. A reminder that much of the south of England was once at the bottom of the ocean. Greensand is rich in minerals, drains easily whilst also retaining water, and suits all three of the main Champagne varieties well, in particular pinot noir, and typically produces wines with a bit more weight and richness.

Black Chalk vineyards, Hampshire
Black Chalk vineyards, Hampshire

Styles of wine

English wine producers as a whole continue to make major improvements to their wines, but it is the producers of premium sparkling wines which have received the most accolades in recent years, blazing a trail for the industry as a whole to be given the serious attention it deserves.

English sparkling wine

Traditional or ’Classic’ Method sparkling wines have been the base for England’s reputation as outstanding wine producers. Production follows the same basis as that of Champagne, with the second fermentation (the one that creates the bubbles) taking place in the bottle, followed by a minimum time ageing on the yeast lees.

The ‘Classic Cuvée’ blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier is the most commonly seen style, with the majority focusing on a Non-Vintage blend where the base wine is mainly from a single vintage and blended with reserve wine from other (typically) older vintages. This allows a producer to create a consistent ‘house style’ year on year. However, some producers, such as Black Chalk in Hampshire, embrace the unpredictability of each vintage and focus on wines from a particular year/harvest. English Classic Cuvées are typically quite rich (depending on the % of reserve wine/time on lees/time under cork) with flavours and aromas of citrus, redcurrants/bramble, toast and brioche while maintaining fresh acidity. Our Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine is a great entry-level introduction to this style, with Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée showcasing the richness and savoury characters associated with the addition of reserve wine.

Blanc de Blancs is an exciting style emerging across much of England and Wales, with most major producers offering at least one. Blanc de Blancs is a Traditional Method sparkling wine produced using exclusively white grapes (typically chardonnay). These are often vintage wines and usually spend an extended time on the lees in bottle (normally three years plus). Often taut, citrus led (lemon pith and grapefruit), toasty and structured, the best generallly benefit from extended ageing in bottle.

Blanc de Noirs is the opposite of Blanc de Blancs in that the wines are made using exclusively black grapes, mainly pinots noir and meunier. It’s a growing category in the UK with more and more seeing the benefit of its naturally richer, darker-fruited style.

Brut Rosé is one of England’s most instantly appealing styles, offering up crisp cherry and strawberry fruit and mouthwatering freshness. They’re the perfect summer sippers but many have the clout to go with food as well. Look out for examples from Camel Valley, The Grange, Ridgeview or Rathfinny.

Demi-Sec is still a minority sport in the England but there are a few delicious examples which temper the naturally bracing acidity well. Produced in the same way as a Classic Cuvée but with a higher dosage (an addition of sugar before release) and typically shorter on the lees to maintain fruity character.

Still wine

English white wines

Reflecting changing tastes, English wines are increasingly made on the drier side, helped along by warmer summers and improved techniques in vineyard and winery. Still dry white wines show a natural acidity and crispness in their youth. They tend to have a certain nettley, hedgerow freshness about them that is peculiarly English and most attractive. For many years we have followed the wines of Three Choirs in Newent Gloucester, one of England's most significant and well-established producers. From the other side of the country, Chapel Down in Tenterden Kent, have supplied us for some years with beautifully crafted, single-variety wines carefully blended from hand-picked grapes from a number of vineyards.

At the more premium end I recommend looking out for the chardonnays of Simpsons in Kent as well as Blackbook in London who manage the naturally high acidity brilliantly giving rounder, creamier chardonnay that could be our answer to Chablis.

Pinot noir grapes at Ridgeview, Sussex
Pinot noir grapes at Ridgeview, Sussex

English rosé & red wines

A style that is also increasing in popularity and one at which the UK can excel, rosé again shows well in its youth, often with attractive strawberry aromas and just a hint of sweetness to balance out the acidity. Three Choirs Rosé has long been popular with members. Its ability to partner a wide variety of foods from summer picnics to mild curries is a bonus. Reds are a minority as they tend to sometimes lack the necessary ripeness to allow them to show at their best, but advances are being made here too as producers experiment with different varieties and vineyard sites to find which ripen best here. Pinot noir shows the most promise with wonderful examples again from Blackbook and Simpsons, with many looking east to Essex and Kent for the extra sun and ripeness found there.

Regions & producers

Grapes for wine production are now grown across most of England and Wales, with vineyards as far west as the Isle of Scilly and as far north as Harrogate, Yorkshire. For ease here’s a quick run-down of some of the most quantitively important regions.

Hampshire

Based on chalk (see benefits above) I believe Hampshire to be one of the most exciting regions for sparkling wine. Typically chardonnay-dominant, the wines have an incredible elegance and precision to them. One of the most important producers in this region is Hattingley Valley who, alongside their own range of wines, also produce wines for a number of local growers including Wine Society regulars, Raimes and The Grange. Other producers to look out for are Black Chalk, a very talented young duo of Jacob Leadley and Zoë Driver, Exton Park and Hambledon. Also keep an eye out for Pommery, the famous Champagne house who’ve crossed the channel to produce their own Hampshire-based fizz.

‘Sussex is the UK’s first regional PDO’

Sussex

In June 2022 Sussex was granted the UK’s first regional PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). Encompassing both West and East Sussex, the combination of terroir, climate and winemaking experience and history has enabled the region to receive its own protection of origin. Legislation stipulates that in order to have ‘Sussex’ on the label all grapes, viticulture, vinification, lees ageing and bottling must take place within the bounds of the demarcated Sussex region. On top of this there are rules on varieties used, minimum lees ageing for sparkling wines, minimum alcohol, maximum yields and requirement for hand harvesting amongst numerous others. ‘Champagne? No thank you. I’ll have a glass of Sussex, please.’

West Sussex

Home to some of the UK’s most famous and respected wineries, West Sussex is a true all-rounder, producing both outstanding sparkling and still wines. The increased sunshine hours, lower annual rainfall and unique greensand soils combine to make truly wonderful wines. Particular highlights are Ridgeview (split between East and West Sussex just north of Brighton), Nyetimber, Stopham Estate and Albourne.

Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom, East Sussex, one of the stalwarts of English production
Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom, East Sussex, one of the stalwarts of English production

East Sussex

Stretching east from Brighton, East Sussex has a mixture of youth and experience when it comes to growers and producers. Some of the newest, most exciting producers have set up shop here, alongside some of the true originals of the UK wine scene. Ridgeview are located just inside the border and are responsible for our Exhibition English Sparkling as well as a number of outstanding wines under their own label. They also produce a number of wines for vineyards in the area. Further south towards the coast you can find Peter Hall of Breaky Bottom, one of the stalwarts of English wine production, and Rathfinny, a new and impressive venture with a bright future.

Kent

Known as the ‘Garden of England’, Kent boasts some of England’s highest sunshine hours and lowest rainfall making it an ideal climate for both sparkling and outstanding still wines. Pinot noir and chardonnay have excelled here with producers such as Simpsons, Chapel Down and Gusbourne producing some of England’s finest still wines.

Essex & East Anglia

The east of England is a bubbling cauldron of excitement with major investment ongoing to purchase land and plant vines over the last few years. Whilst sparkling is produced here the real buzz is around the still wines, especially from vineyards around the Crouch Valley. Producers to look out for are Blackbook (who buy much of their grapes from Essex and vinify them in London) and Danbury Ridge.

Chardonnay grapes in the press at Ridgeview. Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in UK vineyards
Chardonnay grapes in the press at Ridgeview. Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in UK vineyards

Grape guide

Faced with a blank canvas, what should a grower of English wine plant? Many of the varieties planted have German origins, partly because it was originally German-trained winemakers who helped UK growers with advice and expertise. It was also felt that these varieties would have better success in such a northerly latitude and, in the 1970s, when there was a resurgence of wine growing in this country, German wines were in their heyday. It is vital to choose early-ripening varieties with good resistance to fungal disease; many of those that have had success are in fact hybrids, again developed in Germany.

The following are the main grape varieties grown in England and Wales:

 

White grapes

Auxerrois – With low acidity, this grape can add body to blended wines. Used as a base wine for many cheaper sparkling wines.

Bacchus is one of the UK’s better varieties with real personality

Bacchus – This is one of the UK's better varieties, capable of producing wines with real personality. It is the fourth most widely planted variety in UK and produces wines that show strong and distinctive aromatic flavours. Some develop characteristics similar to good sauvignon blanc such as nettles, lime-leaf, gooseberry and greengage.

Chardonnay – UK’s most planted grape variety by a distance, grown primarily as an important part of the blend for the finest sparkling wines. Also used in still wines with a growing number of single-varietal wines.

Huxelrebe – Has a style rather reminiscent of the muscat grape, crops well with good sugar levels. Often used in blends for dessert wines.

Madeleine Angevine – Light and fruity, with a pronounced muscat bouquet and palate. Low in acidity and therefore usually blended with higher acidity grapes.

Müller-thurgau – Was among the most widely grown varieties in the 1980s now slightly out of favour. Early ripener but can be a poor cropper. Medium acidity.

Optima – First registered in the early 1970s this early-ripening variety is capable of reaching high natural sugars and is therefore most suitable for dessert wines.

Orion – Introduced to England in 1984, one of a new generation of hybrid varieties bred for wine quality and disease resistance. It is particularly fruity and aromatic and slowly increasing in usage.

Ortega – Particularly suits the English climate; planted quite widely. Produces full-flavoured wines with high natural sugar, often used in 'late harvest' dessert wines.

Phoenix – Again a recent hybrid bred for quality and disease resistance. Rather bacchus-like in style, can lean towards a sauvignon blanc in character.

Pinot blanc – Often likened to chardonnay, ripens well and can produce particularly full fruit flavours. Good cropper.

Reichensteiner – A popular variety in England, ripens early, usually used in a blend in both still and sparkling wines having good sugar levels. Provides great aromatics and an earthy note.

Schönburger – Produces wines with low acidity but with high sugar levels similar to gewürztraminer. When fully ripe has a pink tinge, works well as a table grape.

Seyval blanc – Fifth in volume production in English vineyards. Reliable variety with crisp acidity, takes to oak ageing well, also ideal for sparkling wines.

Siegerrebe – Early ripening, small berried and aromatic with elements of muscat and gewürztraminer. Generally used to bolster less distinctive grapes in a blend.

Solaris – Only released for planting in England in 2005, this is an early ripener with a high potential alcohol level.

 

Red grapes

Dornfelder – First appeared in England in the late 1980s. Can produce fresh wines more in the style of gamay than cabernet sauvignon.

Pinot noir – A noble grape variety that is of course the classic grape for red Burgundy. In England it is an important element in a blend for the best sparkling wines, it is the second most widely planted and is particularly suited to oak ageing. Some impressive still pinot noirs have started hitting the shelves from producers such as Blackbook, Simpsons and Danbury Ridge.

Pinot meunier – The other red grape element of top sparkling wines. Can provide a wonderful floral character to classic cuvées and is growing in popularity for still wines, in particular rosé.

Regent – New generation of hybrid variety that is starting to show real promise in England. Low acidity.

Rondo – Has adapted to English conditions well. Produces wines with good colour and style, blends well, sometimes likened to a cross between tempranillo and syrah.

Triomphe – Originally known as Triomphe d'Alsace. Yields well and ripens early. Has low acidity and high sugar levels, probably best blended.

Browse our range of English wines

Read about grape varieties

Matthew Horsley

Society Buyer

Matthew Horsley

Matthew joined the Buying Department, from our Tastings and Events team  in December 2017 and took over England, Greece and Hungary in 2020.

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