Why is English wine on the rise?
Barbury Hill recently caught up with Ben Smith, Head winemaker at Itasca Wines and Penn Croft Vineyard, to hear his take on why English Wine is on the rise and what we should be drinking this autumn.
What drew you to winemaking, Ben?
I worked on the trade side of the industry for a number of years, suppling wines to restaurants and retails in the UK. I was drawn back into winemaking following a trip to New Zealand in 2012, it connected with my creative side immediately and I knew I wanted to work with great vineyards to make world class wines. To be honest England wasn’t really on my radar at that time, however returning to the UK in 2014 I was amazed at the pace of change. I was due to go and study a Masters in France but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to start making English wines.
What’s your proudest moment as a winemaker?
It came earlier this year, the 2018 Chardonnay I made at Oxney Estate was rated by wine critic Matthew Jukes as England’s first 20/20 or ‘Perfect’ wine. It has become a watershed moment for the industry and just goes to show the potential we have here.
Why is English wine on the rise?
I believe it’s a combination of factors; growing expertise has a huge part to play, we can only make great wine with great grapes. We need talented winemakers but also skilled grape growers. Much of this expertise is now coming from the UK, but it’s also good to see we’re attracting passionate people from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Of course it also requires some brave souls to invest and plant! Lastly climate change also has an influence. 2018 was an incredible growing season that we wouldn’t typically see in the UK historically. However is it very much a double edged sword as a great harvest was book ended by a frost in 2017 and one of the wettest vintages on record in 2019.
Does English Wine now (genuinely) rival our neighbours in Europe and further afield?
We can definitely compete toe to toe with Champagne and the other leading fizz from the likes of California, New Zealand and South Africa. Our still wines are improving at a remarkable rate and are showing a huge amount of potential. English wine is on the boutique end of the scale and as our vineyards mature and expertise grows the future is looking bright – let’s hope the same can be said for the weather!
Are there any key characteristics that make English wine distinctive?
England (and Wales) has a diverse range of soils and microclimates. Essex and Kent are emerging as areas well suited to still wine production, whilst on the chalk slopes of the South Downs much of the focus tends to be on sparkling. All English wines share a bright acid backbone, which in the right hands can make them crisp, fresh and (in the case of our fizz) really age worthy. As with many things the key is balance.
Barbury Hill is all about discovering the best of British. Where do we start with English wine?
Rightly much of the excitement around English wine has been around our sparkling, principally bottle fermented wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, however we are now starting to produce some world class still wines as well. Look out for still Chardonnays, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. On the more aromatic side Bacchus has found a natural home in England, making some punchy wines in a similar style to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. There are even a handful of producers who are having some real success with red wines from Pinot Noir.
What would you be recommending with your next roast?
Sparkling wine is often used solely for an aperitif or starter but give it a go with other courses. Certain styles hold up really well; Blanc de Noirs for example can bring a richness that pairs really well with more robust food like roast chicken. For dessert also try a Demi Sec, this is a fairly new style for the UK but can offer some fascinating pairings. A few years ago when working in the Alsace I was amazed to see a huge selection of English cheeses on the table of a famous local winemaker, I think there could be some great wine matches out there. Lastly my advice is to ditch the narrow flutes, enjoy sparkling wines in a glass that allows you to capture all the complex flavours.
How do I learn more about English wine?
Get out there and taste! Visiting a vineyard and winery is the best way to learn more and meet the people behind the wines. I’d really encourage people to taste from the wide array of producers across the country, these are many different styles out there and so much to explore.
by Tor Saner, Product & Marketing
Tor ensures our platform and product selection is as good as it can be and is always on the lookout for delicious hidden gems. Tor has eaten her way around the globe and loves nothing more than a glass of chilled Rosé in the sunshine with friends.