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How English winemakers are embracing their freedom

21.06.24

4 min read

By Abbie Moulton

The strength and popularity of winemaking in England have enjoyed such phenomenal growth that, in just a few short decades, it's fast-become a credible region on the world stage. Recognition proven through awards and tastings time and again, English wines have repeatedly knocked well-known names from Champagne off the top spot during competitions. Vineyards are spreading and expanding, making winemaking the fastest-growing agricultural sector in England, and exports are pouring into new markets overseas, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, the USA, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. In short, English wine is no longer the quirky addition to a wine list by a particularly adventurous sommelier, but rather, something that's being sought out worldwide.

The industry's rise began with the discovery that the rolling hills of the south of England share climate and grape-growing conditions that near-mirror those of the famous Champagne region, right down to the chalk soils that burrow beneath the Channel.

The movement has been led by fine quality sparkling, particularly the finty, mineral wines from Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire made the traditional method - a method one that's been practised, revised, perfected, and protected over centuries by generations-old Champagne houses.

TILLINGHAM VINEYARD, RYE

From behind this, are glimmers of the new and the unknown. With the way firmly paved thanks to the dedication of England’s sparkling winemakers, producers are experimenting, and as yet unseen before bottles are arriving on shelves. Some are working with the grapes that we know and love; the tried-and-true ‘Champagne varieties’ Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier are being bottled - with delicious results - as still wines. Elsewhere, producers are breaking all boundaries by creating entirely new-wave experimental wines from lesser-known or unheard-of varieties, using innovative methods or revived ancient practices.

The reasons for these new-found experimental styles are a collision of factors. One is a good dose of English eccentricity. While other regions and cultures might value older, protected traditions, Brits have always had a rebellious streak and a desire to do things differently.


Coupled with this is the fact that, as a new and emerging region, we’ve yet to establish the rules and regulations around what can and can’t be planted, and what may and may not be made. France’s Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux regions, Spain’s Rioja, and Italy’s Chianti all have long-revered rules regarding permitted grape varieties and ageing requirements in vessels and bottles.

OXNEY ESTATE, SUSSEX

This too shall come to England, hopefully not too soon, as we’re still finding our own unique style, and to batten down the hatches now could do us a disservice. For now, producers—brave, bold growers and makers—are free to do as they wish, and they are grabbing this freedom by the barrel, pushing boundaries and doing things differently.


Sustainability is another reason. As an emerging region, we are happy to forgo previously known but labour-intensive varieties and methods for more environmentally friendly grapes and practices. This has led to new styles of wines. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier continue, of course, but now they’re joined by varieties like Ortega and Bacchus, and hybrids that can handle our cool climate, such as Seyval Blanc, Rondo, and Cabernet Noir. Some of these are controversial hybrids and crossings, but radical winemakers care not for bureaucracy. Reviving long-forgotten varieties, and blending modern and ancient traditions, is all part of what makes the UK such an exciting region, producing some of the most innovative and interesting wines on the landscape, with inspiring results that are forging the way and blazing the trail for the future of the wine industry.

Abbie's English wine picks

White: Oxney Organic Chardonnay

From the heart of England’s wine country, Oxney Estate based in Rye, Sussex, are the UK’s largest single estate, organic vineyard, proving not only that excellent quality grapes can be grown organically, but that it can be done at commercial scale. The newest addition to their portfolio, a crisp, mineral still Chardonnay, has sea salt and lemon zest in equal measures.

Rose: Walgate Rose

Walgate Wines focuses on gentle, low-intervention methods, sourcing from considered growers across the south east of England. Walgate Rosé is a standout: clean, mouthwatering freshness meets textural Turkish delight, English countryside stone fruit, and just the right amount of depth.

Red: Heartenoak Cabernet Noir

An unusual grape variety well suited to the UK's uncompromising climate, Heartenoak Vineyard's Cabernet Noir produces velvety soft red wines, from Kent. This wine offers rich tasting notes of dark cherry, plum, and subtle spice, with a smooth, elegant finish. Perfectly balanced, it showcases the potential of this unique varietal in English winemaking.

About Abbie Moulton

She is a drinks writer, broadcaster, and presenter, renowned for her lively exploration of wine and whisky. Her work, featured in the Evening Standard, The Times, and Suitcase magazine, uncovers the stories behind the drinks and their makers.

Abbie's book, New British Wine, explores the remarkable transformation of British wine. Historically synonymous with low-quality fortified wines, British wine has undergone a renaissance, driven by rising temperatures and a spirit of experimentation. Abbie’s book, created with photographer Maria Bell, takes readers on a journey through the UK's burgeoning wine scene, highlighting innovative makers from a biodynamic vineyard in Wales to an urban winery in south London.

Abbie’s passion for flavors and her commitment to making wine approachable are evident. Her book not only celebrates the diversity and quality of modern British wine but also invites readers to appreciate the artisanal dedication behind each bottle.

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