During the past two years, I’ve visited dozens of vineyards around the country researching a book about English wine. The final question I asked every winemaker was: “Which other producer do you admire?” One name came up more than any other. Gusbourne.

Ever since it released its first wines in 2010, this producer – based on the edge of Romney Marsh in Kent – has consistently made some of England’s finest wines. I can still vividly remember my own first experience with Gusbourne: it was ten years ago at an event put on by a merchant. One of the wines I tasted turned my view of what English wine was capable of on its head.

Looking back at my notes, I enthused about its appley fruit and nutty elegant oak, and compared it to something lean and sophisticated from Margaret River in Australia. The wine in question was the Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay from 2011 made from grapes grown in Kent.

Around this time, English sparkling wine was becoming well-established. Three years previously, a Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs had won the Decanter Award for best sparkling wine in the world ahead of Piper Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck. And it was 16 years since the first vintage at Nyetimber had amazed critics by beating Champagne in various blind tastings. So, as a budding wine writer, sparkling wine from England was if not quite old hat, certainly not the latest thing.

But a wine like that Gusbourne Guinevere? I didn’t know anyone was trying to make still Chardonnay in England but had assumed that it wouldn’t be possible to get the grapes ripe enough. There were more surprises that day.

The wine next door was also from Gusbourne, and it was a Pinot Noir. Again, it was a revelation – light and fruity, not green and raw like you might expect. I’d had English reds before and found them somewhat unloveable, but this could have come from Germany or Alsace. Gusbourne’s main business was (and still is) sparkling wine. Those early still wines were made in tiny quantities and functioned a bit like concept cars, a pointer of what might be possible in the future.

Since then, I have followed these two wines as they have got better and better. Some good vintages such as 2014, 2016 and 2018 helped. But what’s even more impressive is what Gusbourne’s winemaker Charlie Holland can do with lesser vintages such as 2019. This was a tough year with a wet autumn ruining things for many, yet he crafted a Pinot Noir with bright red fruit, delicate floral notes and not a trace of under ripeness.

Today, the future is here, or very nearly. English still wines made from Burgundian grapes are no longer a surprise. There are fine Chardonnays produced all over southern England from producers ranging from the giants such as Chapel Down, with its Kit’s Coty range, to tiny operations like Blackbook wines in London.

We are now seeing increasingly delicious rosés too. The climate is just right to make pale wines with lots of flavour from red grapes. Proper red wines, however, are still rare and likely to remain exclusive for some time, except in the hands of a few – at Danbury Ridge in Essex they clearly have a bright future.

That rarity means that the best reds are beginning to attract the interest of collectors. Tom Harrow from wine merchant Honest Grapes recommended buying Gusbourne’s Boot Hill Pinot Noir in vintage like 2018 to people starting a cellar alongside the more obvious choices from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont. The same wine also had the honour of being the first non-sparkling English wine to be traded by brokerage firm Liv-Ex.

The key to getting these noble grapes to ripen fully in England’s marginal climate is to find the right places to plant them. Certain vineyards or even plots within vineyards are more suitable for making still wines, and it’s important to not only plant the right grapes, but the right clones of grapes.

This is something that is only just beginning to be discovered, mainly by a process of trial and error. In Burgundy and wine-growing parts of Germany, winemakers have been mapping their vineyards for centuries. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, back in 1880, about how Californian vine growers were still at the “experimental stage” but at some point would find “their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire... The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Swap the word “Californian” for “English” and you have some idea where we are now.

It’s not just in still wines where England is beginning to find its terroir. Producers making sparkling wine are thinking seriously about which bits of land taste different and why. Gusbourne’s single vineyard sparkling wines highlight its main soil types: Kentish clay and Sussex chalk. The heavier clay soils take time to warm up but when they do, they ripen grapes much faster according to Charlie Holland, whereas vines grown in chalk ripen more slowly.

 

And lo, the Blanc de Blancs from Commanders vineyard in Kent was noticeably fuller than its elegant cousin from Selhurst Park in Sussex – though I couldn’t say which I preferred. This is the exciting thing about English wine. There’s still everything to be discovered.

 

The industry may look well-established but it’s still tiny: England produces at most 15 million bottles a year in an unusually good vintage like 2018. Compare that with Champagne which churns out around 300 million bottles.

 

And the roots of quality wine making are so young: Gusbourne was only planted in 2004, but England’s best producers are now making wines which can be compared with historic regions. That this has been achieved so quickly is, frankly, astonishing. It’s only a decade since English wine first turned my  head – and both as a wine lover and a writer,  I am full of anticipation about what the next  10 years will bring.

 

Vines in a Cold Climate: The People Behind the English Wine Revolution by Henry Jeffreys is published 3 August 2023 by Allen & Unwin

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