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Friday read: English Chardonnay hits its stride

Published:  19 June, 2020

With a raft of new releases in the run-up to English Wine Week, producers are championing the potential of cool-climate Chardonnay, writes Barnaby Eales.

“Our Chardonnay is pouring out of the vineyard,” says Kristin Syltevik, owner of Oxney Organic Estate in Sussex, as she grapples with a wave of orders for her newly released and acclaimed 2018 still Chardonnay.

Made with the use of wild yeasts, the barrel-fermented wine has been applauded by producers and industry pundits alike, some of whom have described it as Chablis-esque. Last week, wine critic Matthew Jukes said it “was the most resonant and beautiful English wine I have tasted”.

The miracle 2018 UK vintage, dubbed ‘vintage of a generation,’ allowed several English wine producers, including Oxney Wine Estate, to make their first still Chardonnay wines. Optimal sugar levels in grapes from the 2018 vintage allowed them to divert Chardonnay grapes usually used for sparkling wines, without the use of chaptalisation (or addition of sugar).

In the run-up to English Wine Week, producers including Westwell Wines in Kent, Langham Wine Estate in Dorset, and Lyme Bay in Devon have all released their first 2018 Chardonnays, revealing the potential of the grape variety in still wine production in Britain.

Meanwhile, during English Wine Week, Gusbourne Estate will release an unusual 2018 Chardonnay made from plantings of the 809 Musque clone from Burgundy, which is known for making highly aromatic Chardonnay wines.

“We planted a small block of 809 in 2015, so the 2018 vintage was our first crop. We didn’t set out to make a single vineyard bottling from these grapes but were so struck by the aromatic profile of the wine we chose to keep it separate - we feel it gives a unique expression of cool climate chardonnay,” said Charlie Holland, winemaker at Gusbourne.

Ruth Simpson, from the Simpsons Wine Estate, a champion of still Chardonnay production, says clonal selection together with site selection, climate and terroir are key to English still Chardonnay, which has a “massive potential” to challenge Chablis.

Delicate, often fresh and light in style, but structured and balanced some English Chardonnays even have subtle tropical flavours including melon and pineapple.

“While Chablis is obviously a good reference point (in terms of acid line), I think English wines do have their own discernible characteristics – generally speaking lighter and fresher in style,” said Holland.

Many English producers were unable to make still Chardonnays in the 2019 vintage, but some have continued like the urban Blackbook Winery (pictured) and Simpsons Estate, which has released its Chablis-like Gravel Castel 2019.

Meanwhile, Hidden Spring in East Sussex this week released its round and textured 2019 Chardonnay, made using a mix of Bordeaux and US used and new barrels.

“We have clone 95, which is one of the most common Burgundian Chardonnay clones and can produce full-bodied, intensely flavoured wine, but in our cooler climate it retains plenty of freshness and grip,” said David McNally, owner of Hidden Spring.

Sergio Verrillo, winemaker at Blackbook Winery in London, said he would be releasing two new comparable still Chardonnays in September this year, one made from grapes grown on sandy soils in 2019 and the other made from 2018 grapes on chalk hills on the South Downs.

Still Chardonnay production is now a key long-term strategy for Lyme Bay winery in Devon. It is forging ahead with plans to make a range of still Chardonnays from entry level to super premium single plot wines, believing that Chardonnay has wider appeal to consumers than Bacchus, which is UK’s current leading still wine in terms of production volumes.

“Consumers are drawn to grape varieties they know such as Chardonnay, many don’t know Bacchus,” one English wine producer said. “’Bacchus? Isn’t Bacchus the god of wine?’ one customer told me,” he said.