The resurgence of Germanic grapes in English wine

French grape varieties may have brought success to England's wine industry but winemakers are quietly discovering how to get the best from their unfashionable German counterparts. Henry Jeffreys talks to the English producers excited by the potential of Germanic grapes

Words by Henry Jeffreys

Will Davenport
Will Davenport is responsible for 'perhaps the most influential blend of Germanic grapes' in England

In recent years, all the big noise in English wine has been about the growth of the classic French grape varieties to make sparkling wine and still wines of increasing quality. And with good reason: there’s a certain thrill in not only successfully ripening Chardonnay in England but making something from it that is genuinely world class, as producers like Chapel Down, Danbury Ridge and Gutter & Stars have done.

But all this excitement hides another story: around the country, growers are continuing to work with the crosses created at the German wine institute at Geisenheim that were once the lifeblood of English wine. In fact, they’re learning how to get the most out of varieties like Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Ortega and even the dreaded Müller-Thurgau to create dry, sophisticated wines that are a world away from the Liebfraumilch copies of old. Furthermore, with erratic vintages like 2021 and 2023, Germanic grapes might be the future of English wine.

Philip Harris
Philip Harris owns a vineyard in Hastings, East Sussex, that contains Germanic grapes such as Ortega and Bacchus

Matthew Horsley, buyer at The Wine Society, described them as ‘more reliable grapes in soggy climes, more resistant to downy and powdery mildew and botrytis.’ Perhaps the most influential blend of Germanic grapes in the country is Horsmonden, made by Will Davenport, an organic wine pioneer who has been working on the Kent/Sussex border since the 1990s. It contains various unsexy varieties including Ortega, Bacchus, Siegerrebe, Faber and Huxelrebe. ‘I’m in danger of being an English wine dinosaur,’ he said ‘but I still think that the potential quality of the Germanic varieties exceeds what can be achieved with Chardonnay in an average year,’ he said. He thinks it’s impossible to make good Chardonnay in England every year as the acidity is too high.

The potential quality of the Germanic varieties exceeds what can be achieved with Chardonnay in an average year

Pretty much anyone who is trying to work organically in England has spent some time at Davenport, such as Philip Harris who planted a vineyard near Hastings in 2019 with Ortega and Bacchus, plus some French varieties. He told me: ‘Bacchus and Ortega tend to ripen two to three weeks before Chardonnay. It’s always a relief to have a variety picked as weather tends to get worse and risk of rot increases as you go through October.’

Vines on the Limney Estate, belonging to the Davenport winery

Perhaps the most maligned of the Germanic grapes is Müller-Thurgau – a Riesling-Sylvaner cross created in 1882 that was once widely planted but is now in decline – and yet Sergio Verillio from Blackbook Winery in London is a fan: ‘it can develop amazing stone fruit characteristics and make lovely wine particularly in the Alto Adige in Italy.’ In Germany’s warmer climate it can ripen too fast but ‘if you control the yield in England’s cooler climate it can work magic,’ he explained.

Many of those unloved German varieties planted in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now in the prime of their lives and producing excellent fruit

In his Mix-Up 2021, Verillo blended in some Reichensteiner with his Müller-Thurgau to bring up sugar levels. Harris explained: ‘I don’t believe any of them are good enough on their own, like Power Rangers, but blended together they are always more than the sum of their parts.’

It’s not all about blends, however. Davenport said: ‘It’s always baffled me that Bacchus has been the “star” of the Germanic varieties, while I think Ortega makes far more interesting wines if bottled without blending.’ Biddenden in Kent has been making a fine Ortega in an off-dry style since the 1970s but today many other growers are working with this versatile variety. Adrian Pike at Westwell, another Davenport protégé, has recently planted a new vineyard with Ortega and other varieties near Maidstone. He makes a range of wines from this cross between Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, including a skin contact wine, a flor white, sweet wines, and a creamy, lemony white that has more in common with Muscadet than anything from Germany.

Westwell, a winery that has recently started using Ortega to make a variety of styles

Despite the popularity of Ortega in Kent, there’s no doubt that for the rest of the English wine industry, it’s Bacchus that has the pull. According to Horsley at The Wine Society, ‘it’s the one people recognise’ because of its ‘Sauvignon Blanc-like pungency’. Bacchus, first planted at New Hall in Essex, has become the most planted grape in the country after the Champagne trio. Not everyone loves it, as Harris explained: ‘Bacchus is seen as a one trick pony and it’s very mention can upset a wine buff.’

Ben Witchell at Flint, who is 'a master' with Bacchus (Photo: Simon Buck Photography)

But winemakers are learning how to get the best out of this awkward variety. The master is Ben Witchell at Flint in Norfolk, who wrote his research paper at Plumpton on Bacchus. He said that using a Sauvignon yeast as many producers do can be a problem, producing ‘sweaty’ wines. He continued: ‘it’s difficult to work with. It can do funny things in the winery.’ He uses grapes of different ripeness and a range of yeast strains that he blends together. Clare Holton at Brissenden in Kent thinks that the problem with Bacchus is that it is usually sold too young, when all you get is that grassy aggressive character. She still has some of the 2018 and it has developed an almost aged Hunter Valley Semillon character.

The harvest of Ortega takes place at Westwell

Bacchus may not get the kudos from wine bores but it does resonate with customers. Verillo admitted that it is not easy selling Germanic blends compared with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Davenport has developed a reputation for Horsmonden and it sells on its reputation not on its varietal make-up. It’s a similar story at The Wine Society, with members happy to buy a long-established blend like Society’s English White made by Three Choirs in Gloucestershire.

John Mobbs from the Great British Wine website thinks that such wines are a brilliant way to get people into English wine who don’t want to pay north of £20 for a Chardonnay. He added that we’re likely to see many more blends from the large but inconsistent 2023 vintage. But more than making entry-level wine, many of those unloved German varieties planted in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now in the prime of their lives and producing excellent fruit. Blends offer a chance to make something uniquely English, whereas a Chardonnay or sparkling wine is always going to be compared to the French classics. As Fergus Elias from Balfour put it, ‘we are an idiosyncratic nation, we should be making idiosyncratic wines.’

Germanic grapes in English wine: five to try


Davenport, Horsmonden 2022

This is always worth tasting, especially when you look at the price. It’s made from a cocktail of Germanic grapes, fermented with wild yeasts with a part in oak foudres to create a complex wine that’s bursting with hedgerow flavours.

£16.70, Davenport Vineyards

Blackbook, The Mix-Up

Blackbook Winery, The Mix-Up 2021

You’ve probably never had Müller-Thurgau this good. It’s made under a railway arch in Battersea from 60% Müller-Thurgau and 40% Reichensteiner grown near Mersea Island in Essex. The result is a wine that’s floral, bone dry with a crisp refreshing green-apple edge and creamy, leesy finish.

£19.50, Blackbook Winery

New Hall, Baron's Lane Red

New Hall, Baron’s Lane Red 2021

This contains a rare Germanic variety, Acolon, a cross between Blaufrankisch and Dornfelder, blended with Pinot Noir Precoce, Zweigelt and a couple of hybrids to create a vibrant juicy red that tastes great sipped chilled out of a Duralex tumbler.

£18.50, Noble Green Wines


Wraxall, Bacchus Reserve 2022

This Somerset wine shows how well Bacchus responds to oak. It’s fermented in used Burgundy barrels with six months lees ageing. There’s a real Sancerre-esque quality here with grapefruit, blackcurrant and a weighty finish. It should be even better with a year or two in bottle.

£18, Wraxall

Bacchus Ortega

Natalia Harris, Bacchus Ortega 2022

This is made by Davenport protégé Philip Harris and while it is expensive, it’s up there with the best still wines in England. Harris ferments the grapes in concrete with natural yeasts and some lees ageing to produce a richly textured peachy wine that has something of a good Soave about it.

£24, Natalia Harris