Writer Henry Jeffreys loves English wine. But - more than that - he adores the new wave of still English wine. Here, he argues that it’s high time these delectable reds, whites and rosés had their time in the spotlight. 

Gillian Pearkes is all but forgotten today, but her 1981 book Vinegrowing in Britain was remarkably prescient. While everyone else was looking to Germany for inspiration, she saw that France and specifically Champagne and Chablis could be a model for viticulture in England.

As well writing on the subject, she planted her own vineyard at Yearlstone in Devon, acted as mentor to Bob Lindo at Camel Valley and encouraged Stuart and Sandy Moss at Nyetimber: “Find the right site and you will grow Chardonnay in England,” she told them.

Sadly, Pearkes died in 1993 and never got to see Chardonnay and Pinot Noir becoming the most planted grapes in England. It turns out that she was right about the Champagne model: and now I think England’s Chablis moment has arrived.

The country has been producing high-quality still Chardonnays for just over ten years with wines like Gusbourne’s Chardonnay Guinevere. But, whereas English sparkling wine took off quickly with the success of first Nyetimber and then Ridgeview, still Chardonnay has proved a slower burn.

The challenge is acidity. Chris Foss who founded the wine school at Plumpton College in Sussex told me about trying to make Chardonnay in the 1980s. It had a tooth-worrying acidity of 25g per litre, about double that of Champagne.

The sparkling wine process, the action of sugar, yeast, time and bubbles, softens the acidity, but with a still wine there’s nowhere to hide. Everything must be geared up to getting maximum ripeness. This starts in the vineyard: there are different strains of Chardonnay. Some clones are better for sparkling wine, some for still - and they need to be planted in the right place. At Gusbourne, they use Burgundy clones for stills wines planted in clay soils which hold the heat. The vineyard team limits how many grapes the vines produce so that all its energy goes into ripening the fruit as fully ripe as possible.

You can see why many producers don’t bother: you can get a higher yield from sparkling wine grapes and charge more for the resulting wine. But although English Chardonnay has been slow to take off, momentum is building. According to Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier, the best counties are Kent and Essex where the warm dry climate enables growers to let the grapes linger longer on the vine to let the sugar build and acidity drop.

When I met with Gusbourne’s winemaker Mary Bridges earlier this year, the latest still wines were tasting ripe and harmonious with none of the jagged acidity that sometimes plagues English Chardonnays. A lot of thought goes into making such seemingly effortless wines, however, as Rhys explains: “We ferment our still Chardonnay juice in (mostly old) oak barrels and puncheons, which helps to soften the acidity, but leaving the wine on lees for a time after fermentation also helps to build more weight and a creamy texture in the palate, too.”

Gusbourne’s Chardonnays have proved a particular hit with restaurants. “Sommeliers get really excited about wines that allow them to introduce new regions to their guests,” says Rhys. They are particularly good with seafood, just like Chablis. But if you can resist them now, I can vouch that they only get better with time in the bottle.

Everything that applies to making Chardonnay goes double for Pinot Noir. Winemakers want the colour from the skin, which must be fully ripe – or they risk extracting harsh green tannins from it. Laura explains: “It can be tricky to get the ripeness levels and style of fruit needed to make a serious still Pinot Noir. Even with warmer summers over the last decade or so – and with the really special site we have in Kent – we still need to be really careful with site selection and in monitoring fruit to make sure we get the best fruit for our still wines.”

Laura thinks reds are likely to remain a minority pursuit. But with rosé, the potential is huge. Until recently, pinks were seen as a bit of a joke, often a repository for grapes that weren’t up to snuff. But the success of Provence has shown that people are prepared to pay good money for top-notch wines providing the packaging is up to it. Wines such as Gusbourne English Rosé show how suitable Kent is for rosé in a “fruit-forward, yet delicate, style,” as Rhys puts it.

It’s going down a storm with customers. We’re going to see a lot more still Chardonnay and Rosé coming out of England in the next five years. And if you think the wines are impressive now, don’t forget that the best is yet to come.


Henry’s pick of the cellar
Five stand-out still wines to enjoy this year

Gusbourne Pinot Noir 2020
Spicy and opulent in the nose, there’s a big waft of strawberries here. Take a sip and it's fresh, fragrant and perfectly ripe. This would be magnificent with duck.
Purchase now

Gusbourne Chardonnay Guinevere 2021
Three years after vintage, Gusbourne’s classic Guinevere is really getting into its stride. There’s green apples, zingy limes and a tangy saline quality with subtle shades of oak providing a creamy texture.
Purchase now

Gusbourne Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2022
This is a special cuvée fermented with wild yeasts. What knocked me out about this wine is the sheer intensity of it. It’s ripe and fresh with a creamy round texture and hazelnuts on the finish. Great now – but this could be absolutely sensational in five years' time.
Purchase now

Gusbourne English Rosé 2023
This shows why English rosé is so exciting at the moment. It’s made entirely from Pinot Noir grown in the Cherry Garden vineyard and brings to mind strawberries, oranges and, yes, red cherries with a delightfully round texture.
Purchase now

Gusbourne Pinot Meunier Single Vineyard Mill Hill East 2022
Pinot Meunier, the third Champagne grape, does extraordinary things in England as this wine demonstrates. With its vivid raspberry and orange peel fruit, I don't think I’ve tasted a more hands-in-the-air joyful wine this year.
Purchase now

Henry's wonderful (and award-winning) book about English wine, Vines in a Cold Climate, is out now.