English still wine: Tasting the stellar 2018 vintage

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

23 July 2019

We all know how good Britain’s sparklers are, but what about our still wines? With bottles from the extraordinary 2018 vintage emerging from cellars across the country, Jacopo Mazzeo joins a team of sommeliers to try out the freshest of the fresh


The British winegrowing industry isn’t exactly renowned for its still wines. Greyer skies and lower temperatures than across the Channel generally mean grapes with high acidity and low sugar levels, which are better suited to sparkling than they are to still.

But most of the country’s growers bristle at the suggestion that all they can make is bubbles – and last year gave them the chance to prove their range.

Memorably warm and dry, 2018 was described as the ‘vintage of a generation’, with a long growing season providing the perfect opportunity to make still wines as well as fizz. And not just whites, either. Even red grapes managed to reach optimal phenolic ripeness.

Panel

  • Nick Bethell, Snobby’s
  • Daniel Davies, Whatley Manor
  • Tom Lakin, Casamia Restaurant
  • Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe
  • Danny Nuttall, Adam’s Birmingham
  • Lionel Periner, LP Sommelier
  • Jean-Sebastien Toulouse, Murrays of Clevedon

This, in short, seemed to us to be the perfect vintage to put the potential of the UK’s still wines to the test.

After all, if the country’s growers can’t get their grapes ripe and balanced in a year like 2018, they never will.

So we called in a selection of wines picked last autumn – mostly whites, but also a few rosés and (young) red wines – and invited a panel of somms along to try out this stellar domestic vintage for themselves.

How it works

We asked UK winegrowers and merchants to submit samples of 2018 British still wines. All had to be available exclusively to the UK on-trade and independents.

These were blind tasted and scored by a panel of sommeliers unaware of style or price; scores were then averaged out to give the final results.

Some winegrowers submitted tank samples. These were marked on the tasting sheets.

Results

Whites

87 Balfour Hush Heath, Liberty’s Bacchus, Kent
‘Led by aromas of exotic fruit, complemented by green apple, peach and elderflower. On the palate it has zippy acidity, balancing its overall fruity character. Well rounded, with surprising savoury aromas,’ DD.
‘Intense nose of ripe fruit and some herbs. Impressive palate, with tropical and orchard fruit and lemongrass. It’s well balanced, with a gentle acidity and a rich texture,’ JT.
£14.75, Liberty Wines

84 Chapel Down, Flint Dry, Kent
‘Mineral nose, a bit austere but with good concentration on the palate. The aromas are of apple and pear, cream and butter. It will benefit from bottle maturation and will show well in a few months,’ JM.
‘On the nose I find lots of green and mineral elements. It’s characterised by great minerality and citrus flavours with a strong acidity. Fresh, tangy, great structure,’ JT.
£8.57, Chapel Down

84 Bolney, Foxhole Pinot Gris, West Sussex
‘The nose displays complex aromas of ripe yellow fruit and citrus. The palate is dry with nice creaminess and flavours of ripe, yellow stone fruit. Great finish with zingy acidity,’ LP.
‘The nose is rich and inviting, with elderflower, citrus and fl oral aromas. On the palate, there’s a fruity character, with crisp apple flavours and a touch of cream,’ DN.
£11.75, Bibendum 

83 Three Choirs, Willow Brook, Hampshire
‘Elegant, aromatic nose, with a good balance of citrus, ripe green apple and lemon zest. Dry style, lovely fruit on the palate and beautiful acidity,’ DN.
‘Green apple and pear on the nose, with a bit of elderflower. On the palate there are blossom flavours and the fruit gets riper, with bruised red apple and some honey,’ DD.
POA, Three Choirs Vineyards

81 Aldwick, Bacchus, Somerset (tank)
‘Rich nose of melon, peach and tropical fruit. It’s rich on the palate too, beautifully textured and balanced by firm acidity,’ NB.
‘Aromas are of orchard fruit, gooseberry and some tropical fruit. Full, creamy palate, with ripe apple balanced by a citric, limey acidity. Long finish, refreshing, elegant,’ JT.
£7.98, Aldwick Estate

81 Sixteen Ridges, Bacchus, Herefordshire (tank)
‘Nicely perfumed and intense. Ripe with lychee and pineapple and a funky character. It’s creamy, with peach and nectarine on the midpalate, plus melon and marzipan,’ JM.
‘A mix of exotic aromas of grapefruit and pineapple and savoury barnyard notes, with a bit of elderflower, hay and lavender. It shows floral and fruit flavours, medium acidity and a rounded
palate. Intriguing texture,’ DD.
POA, Sixteen Ridges

80 Bolney, Lychgate Bacchus, West Sussex
‘Good range of aromas here: herbs, hay, flint, baked apple and tropical fruit. It’s fruity on the palate, with pear and candied fruit and a good acidic structure to back it up. A very complex and
surprising wine,’ DD.
‘Beautiful nose of greengages, passion fruit, candied green apple, papaya, garrigue, sage and mint. The palate shows optimal concentration and flavour intensity,’ JM.
£8.80, Bolney Wine Estate

79 Sharpham, New Release, Devon
‘Tropical fruit, cream and wet stones on the nose. Creamy, refined palate, with a bit of marzipan and candied apple,’ JM.
‘The nose is led by stone fruit and green berries. On the palate it shows more fruity notes, with acidity in balance. Big and bold, a very fine wine,’ DD.
£7.71, Sharpham

78 Three Choirs, Payford Bridge, Hampshire
‘The nose is floral and spicy, with some nectarine and peach. Beautiful round texture on the palate and soft acidity. Love it,’ JT.
‘Crisp green apple, lemon, lime peel and pear are the leading aromas. High acidity, with a crunchy palate that supports a good amount of orchard fruit flavour. A well-made wine that shows all the scents of the English countryside,’ DD.
POA, Three Choirs Vineyards

77 Greyfriars, Sauvignon Blanc, Surrey
‘There’s a vibrant acidity and a bright, green-fruit flavour, but also an elderflowery, more floral note. It’s pleasant and will improve with a bit of bottle maturation,’ DN.
‘Imagine an orchard at harvest time: apple, apple peel, pear and hints of citrus. Marked gooseberry on the palate. Intense,’ TL.
£8.50, Greyfriars Vineyard

77 Davenport, Horsmonden Dry White, East Sussex (tank)
‘This has an attractive complexity: pomaceous fruit, quince, a saline, mineral note and a touch of lemon peel and candied apple. Impressive, considering it’s just out of the tank,’ JM.
‘Smells of crisp apple, white flowers, lemon and elderflower. It has a refreshing acidity and a pleasant bone-dry palate,’ DN.
£12.40, Les Caves de Pyrene

77 Greyfriars, Pinot Gris, Surrey
‘Pear drop aromas with hints of freshly squeezed lemon and gooseberry. Nice tartness on the palate, mouth-watering, with good length,’ TL.
‘There’s a fruit character of apple and peach, with lemon acidity and a beautiful waxy texture. I would be curious to try this in a few years,’ JM.
£8.50, Greyfriars Vineyard

70 Giffords Hall, Madeleine Angevine, Suffolk
‘Pale in colour, with lemon and lime on the nose, as well as some green herbaceousness: nettles and mint,’ TL.
‘This has gentle aromas, mostly lemon and citrus in character. On the palate there is confit lemon, delicate acidity and a refreshing mineral note,’ JT.
£7.95, Laytons

Rosé

88 Balfour Hush Heath, Nannette’s English Rosé, Kent
‘Salmon-pink colour, aromas of strawberries, a hint of rose petal, cherries. Aromatic style showing good balance, great acidity and a perfect, long finish,’ LP.
‘Attractive nose of dark berries and a fruity, cherry-led palate. Long finish, with the fruit character lingering, and a nice acidity too. Beautiful,’ JT.
£13.32, Liberty Wines

84 Chapel Down, English Rosé, Kent
‘Crunchy red berries and ripe fruit character. On the palate it’s rounded, well balanced yet bold. Well made,’ DD.
‘Plenty of strawberry and crushed raspberry here. Lovely palate, good fruit character and acidity, with a hint of spice. Well balanced,’ JT.
£8.57, Chapel Down

82 Dunleavy, Pinot Noir Rosé, Somerset (tank)
‘Pale and delicate, wonderful fruit. A rosé that manages to be generous without losing balance,’ NB.
‘Attractive pale colour, elegant. Aromas are of fresh berries. Palate is dry with good acidity and hints of spices. A tank sample? I’m really impressed. Now I just need some sunshine and a terrace,’ LP.
£9.60-£10, Billings & Briggs, Dunleavy Vineyards

75 Giffords Hall, Rosé, Suffolk
‘Light, delicate, poised rosé. Peach, nectarine and raspberry aromas. On the palate it’s delicate too, with a floral note, a hint of nuts and some orange blossom,’ JM.
‘Classic Provence style, delicate yet impressively long, with an acidity that is not too overpowering. We’ve got our alternative if Brexit does go ahead…’ NB.
£7.95, Laytons

72 Greyfriars, Rosé, Surrey
‘Ripe pear, wild berries and redcurrant lead to a freshly acidic palate. Would work really well with food,’ TL.
‘Lots of fruit on the nose, wonderful mouthfeel, refined. Each sip calls for another one,’ NB.
£8.50, Greyfriars Vineyard

Reds

81 Bolney, Foxhole Pinot Noir, West Sussex
‘Appealing light colour, led by notes of fresh berries. Great palate with balance between fruit, acidity and alcohol. Top-quality wine. Great with food but I wouldn’t be afraid of laying it down for a few years,’ LP.
‘Amazingly complex, a little herbaceous, with plenty of bright fruit character. Ripe, round tannins on the palate,’ NB.
£12.37, Bibendum

80 Biddenden, Gamay, Kent (tank)
‘Vivid purple, like biting a cherry, with some leafy vegetable tones. Juicy palate and good length,’ TL.
‘This is about fun. Fresh fruit character with impressive concentration on the palate. Satisfyingly savoury, with red cherries, damsons and red plums. A pint of this is the bare minimum one should have,’ JM.
£9.80, Biddenden

Conclusions

  • Our tasters were impressed by the overall quality of the wines. This was reflected in the scores, with only two wines rated below 75 and none below 70. Given the high quality of the vintage, all sommeliers said they are now more inclined to give British still wines more room on their lists.
  • Among the whites, Bacchus was the real winner. The variety took first place within the flight, and all the other Bacchus samples were rated 80 or above. The wines demonstrated Bacchus’ full aromatic potential, and were balanced out by the necessary degree of acidity.
  • Red grapes benefited significantly from the warm 2018 vintage, reaching good phenolic ripeness while retaining good acidity levels. This was mirrored in the quality of both rosé and red wines, and in the scores given by our tasters, with the top-scoring rosé also taking the top spot overall in the tasting. All rosé wines were praised for their clean, defined fruit character and balance, while the reds were particularly appreciated for their ripe tannins.

Panel comments

Nick Bethell, Snobby’s
Nick Bethell, Snobby’s

I found the whites to be very diverse but all good in quality, with a nice texture, minerality and a long finish.

I was very impressed by the rosés, which were delicate and gave me what I was after: good fruit intensity and texture. This is the sign of a great vintage.

Daniel Davies, Whatley Manor
Daniel Davies, Whatley Manor

I particularly liked the whites, but I was surprised by the overall quality. The rosés showed that it was a hot vintage, a good year, and even the whites had more flavour than I’ve ever seen before.

I didn’t find anything too ripe and I think that Britain’s characteristic acidity really helps in this sense. There’s room for these wines to go on wine lists, I already have one that I do by the glass.

Tom Lakin, Casamia Restaurant
Tom Lakin, Casamia Restaurant

The tannins on the reds were present yet ripe, unlike any other British red I’ve tasted before.

Most whites had enough fruit character to balance the acidity. Some, though, showed very high acidity, but this will smooth out after a bit of maturation in the bottle.

Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe
Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe

The wines I tasted exceeded my expectations considerably. I found white wines with great concentration of flavours, body and balance – wines that I wouldn’t be afraid to pair with food.

The rosés, though, impressed me the most. A characterful rosé isn’t something you come across every day, but these all had remarkable fruit intensity and wonderful texture.

Daniel Nuttall, Adam's Birmingham
Daniel Nuttall, Adam's Birmingham

Overall, we found very good quality across the board: nice juicy fruit, a rounded finish and good aromatics. My feeling for this vintage is a positive one. I think the wines are going to age well.

There is great potential in the UK beyond international varieties. Even if grapes such as Bacchus aren’t very well known, the style they’re made in represent what people like drinking at the moment.

Lionel Periner, LP Sommelier
Lionel Periner, LP Sommelier

It’s clear the 2018 vintage is really good, especially if you see the quality of rosés and reds.

We tried good expressions of Pinot Noir and even Gamay, which can be a bit rustic sometimes. Some of these wines will mature very well with a few months in bottle.

Jean-Sebastien Toulouse, Murrays of Clevedon
Jean-Sebastien Toulouse, Murrays of Clevedon

I quite liked the quality of the aromatic grapes – they retained good acidity but still showed brilliant fruit expression. Definitely a sign of a favourable ripening season… maybe global warming is doing something good?

The warmer weather is showing well in the wines. In particular, I scored the rosés really high because they all have that lovely, charming red-berry character and well-balanced acidity.

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