Denbies Wine Estate, Dorking. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The best of English reds

With English Wine Week taking place on 19-27 June, why not explore the brave new world of Pinot Noir from Kent, Sussex, Essex and beyond?

There’s a character called Tim Cranmer in John le Carré’s Our Game who grows Pinot Noir in Devon in an attempt to make a Burgundy-style wine with notably lack of success. I can’t remember much about the novel — something about Chechen separatists, not one of his best — but I do recall how accurately this pursuit summed up the quixotic nature of Cranmer’s character.

Making wine in England was long the preserve of the romantic, the misguided, and the sheer bloody minded — but things have changed drastically in the last ten years. Now, most of us are comfortable drinking an English sparkling wine instead of Champagne, or having a glass of Bacchus in the garden — but Pinot Noir, made into a red wine? Surely, you’d have to be more than a little eccentric to attempt such a thing.

Well, in the last six months I’ve had at least five delicious Pinot Noirs from England. Not one of them had that tell-tale pinched taste, with the acidity closing in, and green note suggesting that Pinot magic was not quite happening.

So, what is going on? It’s not just climate change — according to Fergus Elias, who makes wine at the Hush Heath estate in Kent with his father under the Balfour label, “the climate isn’t drastically different from 20 years ago.” Instead, English winemakers are fast learning how to make the most of the warmth and sunshine we already get.

Not all Pinot Noir is the same. There are different clones; some offer high yields, which is good for sparkling wine. At Gusbourne in Kent, winemaker Charlie Holland uses 50 per cent Champagne clones and 50 per cent Burgundian, which have lower yields but ripen more fully. At Hush Heath, each row of vines is labelled with the clone type, and grapes are picked and fermented separately so they know exactly how each plot is performing.

Elias said his ambition is to make “Burgundy-style wines in England”. But the Burgundians have had centuries to find the best sites; Hush Heath was planted in 2002 and, according to Elias, “we only found our best sites in the last three years.” It has been a process of trial and error.

I’ve tried English Pinots for under £20 and have yet to find something worth drinking

Gusbourne’s Charlie Holland says that the received wisdom would be to plant Pinot Noir in lighter soil, but he’s found the heavier clay works better: “We are new world, so we have to throw out the rule book a bit.” He described how clay takes longer to warm up but once it does it retains the heat through the growing season. It’s a similar story up in Essex. John Atkinson, a master of wine who consults for Danbury Ridge, described the soil as like Petrus in Bordeaux: clay with sand and gravel.

Then there is training the vines to maximise ripeness. Sam Lintner, who has been making quality reds at Bolney in Sussex since 2003, told me that the biggest change came from “better canopy management”. In plain English: how the vines are trained to keep the buds away from the ground to protect from frosts, control yields and maximise sun exposure. Holland restricts the yield drastically by removing excess bunches of grapes.

According to Holland, you need at least 12 per cent of natural alcohol to make a proper red wine. That’s when you get “flavour intensity and colour, and the acidity drop”. It is drier in Essex, and in some years they get a scarcely believable 13.5 per cent alcohol. Atkinson said they are warmer than New Zealand’s Pinot hotspot, Central Otago.

Once picked, grapes need careful handling so that you don’t get any harsh tannins. Any berry which is not perfectly ripe is discarded. Oak ageing needs to be done with a light touch. You don’t want to overwhelm the fruit. 

All this care and attention requires a lot of money. Danbury Ridge is funded by Mike Bunker who, according to Atkinson, was once “the biggest earner in the City” — the equipment is state of the art. Gusbourne is backed by Lord Ashcroft; Hush Heath is owned by Richard Balfour-Lynn, former owner of the Hotel-du-Vin chain. 

It won’t surprise you, then, that none of these wines are cheap. I’ve tried English Pinots for under £20 and have yet to find something worth drinking; but the wines below are all worth splashing out on. Don’t just take my word for it: my wife is from California and a very fussy drinker — all these wines sailed through the Mrs Jeffreys’ second glass test.

Balfour Pinot Noir The Suitcase 2018 (Hush Heath, £35)

This is lush with very ripe raspberries. It reminds me of something from one of the warmer parts of Germany. Initially it’s quite simple but I drank it over three days and every day it gained a bit more, which makes me think it’s worth keeping for a couple of years. Lovely label, too. 

Litmus Wines Pinot Noir 2018 (Grape Britannia, £24.99) 

All about soft strawberry fruit and some forest floor notes. It fades quite quickly but there’s no green notes or excess acidity. It’s a very enjoyable wine; if I had tried this five years ago and you told me it was English, I would have been amazed.

Gusbourne Pinot Noir Boot Hill Vineyard 2019 (Peckham Wines, £33) 

Shows how good English Pinot can be even in an off year like 2019. Gorgeously floral with fresh raspberries and vanilla and spice from the barrel. Only a little fading on the finish lets you know that the vintage wasn’t top notch.

Bolney Pinot Noir 2020 (Bolney, £19.99)

From an estate that’s been making decent Pinot for nearly 20 years, this is probably the best thing I’ve had from them. Deliciously crunchy and floral; light in body and alcohol but not in flavour. This would appeal to Fleurie lovers. Good value, too. 

Danbury Essex Pinot Noir 2018 (Grape Britannia, £34)

There’s more hype about this estate than anywhere else in England. I doubt the 2018 will hang about long. This is dark, spicy and intense. Probably wouldn’t guess this was English if I had tried it blind. It needs a few years to unwind — but this is seriously impressive.

Henry Jeffreys is currently writing a book about English wine.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover