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Long Read: English Pinot Noir comes of age

Published:  18 February, 2021

Pinot Noir has long had a place in UK winemaking, as part of the classic Champagne varieties and, to a lesser extent, still variants often from select vineyards or small parcels. Now, with an increasingly changing climate helping to ripen and tease out those darker fruits, it could be poised to strike out on its own, as Jacopo Mazzeo surmises.

With much of Britain’s sparkling wine being made with Champagne’s classic grape varieties, the UK’s growers and winemakers aren’t unfamiliar with Pinot Noir. In fact, according to trade body Wine GB’s latest Industry Report, Pinot Noir is now Britain’s most planted variety. It covers approximately 1,155ha – 33% of the total vineyard area – a significant increase from 2002’s mere 46.6ha. Although mainly driven by the growth of the UK’s sparkling wine production, the amount of Pinot Noir destined for still winemaking “is certainly increasing,” suggests Wine GB marketing manager, Julia Trustram Eve, with “some wine estates that were traditionally just sparkling also turning to still”. Indeed, still Pinot Noir has become a common sight within the UK wine landscape. Over the past year or so a number of inaugural launches, including new labels from Hattingley, Rathfinny and Litmus to name just a few, have complemented the latest releases from the likes of Gusbourne and Balfour.

For Gusbourne’s winemaker Charlie Holland, who began experimenting with still Pinot Noir in 2009, the real “watershed moment” arrived in 2018 after years of an increasingly warm climate.

“I remember tasting the wine out of the barrels and saying ‘Wow, this is not English, it tastes like something from Martinborough!’ The flavour profile moved away from the lighter red fruit to serious blue fruit and dark fruit. It was a big revelation,” he said.

Associating the proliferation of good-quality still Pinot Noirs to the warming climate alone however, paints a black and white picture that only the vineyard and the winery can add chromatic detail to.

For Lyme Bay MD James Lambert, this means targeted clonal selection. “The vast majority of growers in the UK, up until fairly recently, have been focusing on sparkling wine Pinot Noir clones, [whose] focus is always on yields, not on quality, because you don’t need to be as ripe for sparkling as you need to for still wine,” he said.

Lambert has been on the lookout for Pinot Noir grapes suited to still winemaking since his first release in 2016 and says his upcoming releases will be a mix of Burgundy and Spätburgunder clones: “Each suits a specific type of maturation…The Spätburgunder clone is very small-berried. It’s massively intense and gives us colour, flavour, ripeness and intensity and it’s the one that we mark for new-oak ageing.”

Gusbourne and Bolney’s still Pinot Noirs are made with Burgundy clones, too. “[Clones] 115, 777 and 667 ripen well here at Bolney. We find 115 to be the best,” explains Bolney’s MD and head winemaker Sam Lintner, a real Pinot pioneer who’s been producing still red wine since 2004.

Burgundy clones however, provide lower yields and high concentration so long as they’re planted on a suitable soil type. “A lot of people have migrated towards the chalk for obvious reasons,” says Gusbourne’s Holland. “But will they be able to turn their hands to making still wine on a regular basis? I’m not sure they will be...Unless you have an exceptional year you’re not gonna get the necessary levels of ripeness from those sites.”

Gusbourne’s Kent vineyards are instead on clayey soil, which helps the ripeness to “really rocket through the back end of the season. These sites are always the earliest Pinot Noirs to ripen, so that’s the fruit we use for our still wine”.

For Lyme Bay’s Lambert, it’s clay’s high water-retentive nature that makes it ideal to grow Pinot Noir for red winemaking.

“In the UK there’s a high risk of major rain events towards the end of the growing season,” he explains. “That’s a time when grapes are ripe or nearly ripe. If there hasn’t been rain in the period before that, then the roots suck up the water extremely quickly and you get berry burst, which can ruin crops. With clayey soil that phenomenon doesn’t take place, because clay retains water better throughout the whole year. You never see a dramatic uptake, which means the grapes can get through the rain events and remain healthy.”

In the winery, preventing the development of any greenness is the greatest challenge.

“Whole bunch fermentation is out of the question,” says Holland. “Then, we have special tanks that are able to collect the seeds and eject them before fermentation starts. Finally, we don’t leave it a long time on the skins because there is some greeness that comes from that as well. So we give the must a cold soak for maybe five days to extract the colour without any of the tannins, then pretty much as soon as the fermentation ends we take them off the skins.”

It’s such tailored work in the vineyard and in the winery, combined with increasingly favourable weather, that are gifting English wine with some exceptional still Pinot Noirs. And with a number of intriguing releases expected to hit the market over the next few months – including Balfour, multiple labels from Lyme Bay and a celebratory edition for Bolney’s 50th anniversary – 2021 might well be the year English still Pinot Noir comes of age.