In England, Varied Soils Meet Cool-Climate Winemaking

Denbies wine estate
Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey Hills / Photo by Helen Dixon

Though not typically associated with wine, England has produced it since Roman times. Due to the country’s cool climate and rich soils, many vineyards planted in the middle of the 20th century are now paying dividends.

Climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream, and its chalk-based soils are amenable to sparkling wine production.

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As for what English wine is, stylistically, there’s still room for interpretation.

“I don’t think we can pin down a typical English wine just yet, and why would we?” says Sam Lindo, winemaker at Camel Valley in the country’s South West region. “Everyone has the right to be different.”

English winemaking is currently focused on three central regions: Sussex, Kent and Surrey. Three additional regions, Hampshire, East Anglia and South West England, are considered up and coming. The country’s organizational system is the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). This system unifies wine not by quality, but by style.

Biddenden harvest
Harvest at Biddenden Vineyards in Kent, England / Photo by Saltwick Media

Sussex

Sussex sits in the southeast of the country, and is divided into East and West. Considered one of England’s most important wine-producing regions due to its established sparkling wine estates, the cool-climate area is also known for its wine center. Housed at Plumpton College, the program offers master’s degrees in both viticulture and oenology. Despite these laurels, Sussex is yet to receive PDO status.

In Sussex, traditional-method sparkling wines use varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Still wines are produced with German varieties like Donfelder, Bacchus and Riesling, as well as French Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. All thrive in cooler climates, with white wine and limited amounts of rosé dominating.

“I don’t think we can pin down a typical English wine just yet, and why would we?” —Sam Lindo, Camel Valley

With more than 1,700 acres of vineyards, Sussex has the biggest concentration of vines in the United Kingdom. Soils are diverse, but perhaps most famed are its chalk soils, part of an ancient system that runs east from the region’s western border with Hampshire. It’s an extension of the same band of chalk that stretches through Paris and into the Champagne region.

Kent

Also in the country’s southeast, Kent is home to roughly 50 vineyards including Biddenden, established in 1969. Known as the so-called “Garden of England,” Kent’s orchards and other agricultural crops have long taken precedence over vineyards.

As a result of climate change, however, many Champagne producers are interested in Kent. In 2017, Domaine Evremond, a nascent project from the Taittinger house, began planting vines in Kent.

Cool-climate grape varieties thrive like Ortega, Bacchus and all the grapes used in Champagne. Soils vary in composition, from clay to sand to shale to chalk.

Hambledon Vineyard England
Hambledon Vineyard is England’s oldest commercial vineyard / Photo by Chris Dixon

Surrey

“Surrey is rich in limestone chalk, which provides excellent drainage for vines, and many of our geological features are similar to that of Champagne,” says Andy Kershaw, assistant winemaker at Denbies Estate, one of England’s largest producers.

It’s the sunniest region in the United Kingdom, with longer ripening days and picking that goes into October. Surrey also has subregions, like Surrey Hills. That area benefits from microclimates and hilly land, says Kershaw. It offers winemakers south-facing slopes for planting.

“I think that England is really one of the more interesting winemaking regions, from a working point of view.” —Tobias Tullberg, Hambledon Vineyard

The area is home to a Champagne import. Pommery partnered with English producer Hattingley Valley in 2016 to take advantage of the region’s terroir.

The climate is diverse enough to produce numerous grape varieties.

“We currently have 12 different varieties on the estate at Denbies,” says Kershaw. “They range from noble varieties to things a little lesser known, such as Reichensteiner and Ortega.”

Climate change has changed winemaking in Surrey, and throughout the country.

“The gradual increase in average temperatures has seen the English wine industry cement itself on the world stage—certainly from a consistent quality point of view,” says Kershaw. As warming temperatures have provided challenges for established regions, some cooler regions are becoming the face of the future.

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Hampshire

Located to the west of Sussex, Hampshire is home to Hambledon Vineyard, England’s oldest commercial vineyard. It dates to the 1950s, when Maj. Gen. Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones established it with hopes of producing acclaimed wine from Seyval Blanc.

In the intervening years, the vineyard has also been planted to Champagne varieties, since the region is hospitable to cool-climate and sparkling varieties.

The Upper Cretaceous fine white chalk, found in Hampshire, “[is] the exact same chalk as you have in the Côte des Blancs, in Champagne,” says Tobias Tullberg, operating winemaker at Hambledon Vineyard. “It’s not even that it’s similar. It’s exactly the same. It comes up on this side of the English Channel.”

Camel Valley England wine
Family-run Camel Valley lies in South West England / Photos by Camel Valley

The soil is great for Chardonnay and even Pinot Noir, says Tullberg. Hampshire’s south-facing slopes also produce nuanced Pinot Meunier, a variety often regarded as less noble than the other two primary Champagne grapes.

Tullberg believes that Hampshire, and the country as a whole, have both “capital” and “terroir.”

“That’s why I think that England is really one of the more interesting winemaking regions, from a working point of view,” he says.

East Anglia

East Anglia is actually a combination of two English counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, which fall to the north and east of London. Unlike many of England’s other winemaking regions, East Anglia has clay-based soils, which offer possibilities for different varieties. Rondo, Schonburger and Huxelrebe thrive there, though some winemakers also grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

South West England

South West England is relatively untapped for up-and-coming winemakers. But some established vintners have taken advantage of the region’s relative anonymity and its diverse soils, which include slate and loam.

“The cool climate means the grapes grow very slowly, and the hang time is 30–40 days longer than Champagne,” says Camel Valley’s Lindo of the region. “This means the grapes retain a lot more delicate characters of unripeness that happen to be really nice.”

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When Lindo’s parents founded Camel Valley in 1989, he said, vineyards were rare, “like swimming pools,” he says. “People struggled to sell the wine they made.” That’s no longer the case.

Camel Valley began its business in still wine, and it started to make traditional-method sparklers in 1995.

Winemaking here has also benefitted from the shifting climate. Yields are better now, says Lindo, and “things are a lot easier than they were. We are where Champagne was in the 1950s. We have a long way to go until we will experience the difficulties they are experiencing now.”

Published on April 27, 2021
Topics: Wine Basics