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Friday Read: English harvest delivers cheer in Covid year

Published:  23 October, 2020

A smaller crop of high quality grapes is the story that has emerged from English vineyards this year, delivering good fruit for both sparkling and still wines.

For many it was an early harvest, following warm and dry spells throughout May and June, with early flowering and veraison bringing forward ripeness and picking dates, while delivering a good balance of acidity and phenolic ripeness.

A visit to Ridgeview in Sussex as early as 25 September set the tone, as pickers worked their way along the rows, bringing the estate-grown grapes in across a seasonally compressed window of time.

“The fruit looks awesome, I’m really excited about it,” said Matt Strugnell, with the satisfaction of a vineyard manager that had seen all his hard work pay off for the year.

Head winemaker Simon Roberts added: “There’s some beautiful fruit, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and we’ve kept the acidity, which is amazing.”

“Yields are a little bit lighter than historically, but not a great deal, so we are pretty pleased,” he added.

Given the grim backdrop of a pandemic year, with on-trade sales seriously hit and cellar door visits and sales much diminished for many, a good 2020 vintage is the least that fate could offer up to UK winemakers.

And, fortuitously, the year appears to have delivered, with other estates in the southern English winemaking heartlands telling a similar tale. Moreover, 2020 looks like being a good year for still wines, coming at a favourable time to build on the successes of the 2018 vintage, when many producers delivered some outstanding examples.

Describing the ripeness this year as “amazing”, and with harvest done and dusted ahead of mid-October, Richard Goring of Wiston Estate let on that 2020 “looks to be a really good year”, encouraging the winemaking team to consider making a still wine for the first time ever.

“We said we’d only ever make sparkling wine, but there may be a Wiston still this year, probably just a couple of barrels of Pinot – we’ve got 10.6 to 10.8 degrees of alcohol, which is encouraging,” said Goring.

The West Sussex-based Gorings may be tentatively going for a first with still, but for Ruth and Charles Simpson at Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent, still is very much a focus. And the winemaking duo are clearly excited about the potential for 2020 to significantly boost recognition of the quality achievable.

“We started looking to only make sparkling wine, but realised that we are warmer in East Kent than the rest of the UK, surrounded by sea on three sides, which is a great radiator of heat, keeping things warm,” said Charles Simpson.

“We have around ¼ still and the rest sparkling, but from this harvest we will be about a 50-50 split, and that is because we have convinced ourselves that is possible, not a fluke that we can’t repeat.”

With the harvest coming in around them, the Simpsons are adamant that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the future in terms of growing quality recognition of English still wines, with Burgundian clones initially planted to give diversity for sparkling wines increasingly making their mark sans bubbles.

“What we realised is that we have Burgundian still wine clones, the same geology as Burgundy and Champagne, and that if we crop correctly we get the acidity and sugars to make world class still wines,” Simpson added.

“There’s no reason we can’t work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, internationally recognised varieties that can sell around the world, and a reference point that the trade can compare to the best in the world.”

A cellar door tasting of past vintages, including the superb 2018 Roman Road Chardonnay and Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir, underlined just what can be achieved in England’s warming climate.

Back in the South Downs in East Sussex, a final mid-October visit to Rathfinny Estate – also in the heat of the vintage – brings the focus back to sparkling wine, with fully ripened Pinots Meunier and Noir and Chardonnay berries plucked from the vines tasting rich and generous, but with a good fresh zing of English acidity.

Owner Mark Driver says that the vintage hasn’t been without its challenges, with “plenty of warm dry weather, but not always at the right time”, but can’t conceal his excitement, not least with the quality of the Pinot Noir.

“We’ve perfect grapes for sparkling wine, the Pinot Noir is really excellent this year, the pH and ripeness is good, and we are able to pick late, we rarely chaptalize and don’t need to this year,” he said.

Amid such excitement over the potential for the 2020-based sparkling (and still) wines, it seemed a little churlish to ask Driver about the prospects for the wider English industry, both domestically and export-wise, given that plantings and production keep ramping up, but with a global crisis weighing down on sales.

Driver, though, is optimistic that that 2020 will deliver a silver lining, despite a “hard year”, with on-trade sales crushed and the looming prospect of harsher lockdowns impacting again on cellar door visits and sales.

He explains that despite the cancellation of this year’s Prowein, which Rathfinny intended to use as a platform for building export contacts and sales, the team went ahead with virtual tastings for international buyers, with resulting strong uptake in the Nordic countries where export volumes doubled over the previous year.

A big push into the States had to be put on hold, with established sales in Hong Kong also suffering, but Driver identifies both the US and Japan as markets that he is “very hopeful for”, with all indications that English sparkling has a bright overseas future.

However, it is on home turf where Driver predicts the most significant change in attitudes, with the on-trade only just beginning to embrace the potential.

“I think the oversupply thing is completely overplayed. There are huge venues in this country that still predominantly sell Champagne, and that will change over time,” he predicts.

“We’ve yet to see one of the big five star hotels in London kick out Champagne and replace it with English sparkling wines, but watch this space, because its not going to be long before that will happen.

“And suddenly – Champagne sells an awful lot of wine through major hotels and function spaces – once people realise we’ve got a world class wine here, what would they prefer, a lovely glass of English sparkling wine or a glass of mediocre Champagne? There’s no contest, we have some amazing wines that blow the socks off most non-vintage champagne.”

It’s fighting talk, certainly, at a tough time for the industry. But with good recent vintages underpinning the future, and Covid accelerating the trend to seek out local produce with discernable provenance and quality, 2020 could prove a springboard to a very bright future for England’s sparkling and still wines.

Pictured: Pinot Noir at Ridgeview cellar door