Oz Clarke: Forget Champagne, English wine should gun for Burgundy

The veteran wine writer says rivalling Champagne is now a given, and English producers should be setting their sights on the still wines of Burgundy and Provence

Words by Oz Clarke

Bolney’s vineyard in Sussex, photographed by Chris Orange

I remember the moment when I first thought English wine had a future on the global stage. It was 1998, and I was tasting Nyetimber’s 1992 Blanc de Blancs and 1993 Classic Cuvée. It was like tasting Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for the first time – a moment where you think, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this before – and I’m not sure anything has ever tasted like this before.’

It was the acidity that struck me – not searing, but scything – and the scythe was made of the finest silver, slicing through the wine but glittering as it went, wrapping itself around it with an amazing flavour of unpasteurised, French crème fraiche, hazelnuts just off the fire, and croissant – yes, croissant rather than brioche – fresh from the oven.

That was the moment when I thought, “Hang on, we might just have a new category of wine here.” Then I came across people like Ridgeview, who were also making some good stuff, but didn’t have the same scale and ambition at the time. I remember [Ridgeview founder] Mike Roberts launching his wines a lot younger, and I said to him, ‘Mike, this is only a couple of years old,’ and he said, ‘Cashflow, old boy.’ Nyetimber kept its wine on the lees for five years to develop all those flavours, but he wasn’t able to.

It was the 1993 vintage of Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée that first convinced Clarke of English wine’s long-term merits

Thankfully, these days, English winemaking is a sufficiently attractive proposition that large numbers of people have now come into it with sufficient finance to do it properly. And they’re doing it for the right reasons – so if it takes 10 years or so (to turn a profit), they’ll be here for 10 years. And the volumes are now such that Tamara Roberts [Mike’s daughter, now at the helm of Ridgeview] tells me they can’t sell everything they’ve made in vintages like 2018, for example, and they’re almost obliged to hold more of it back. It’s the same at Bolney, Hattingley Valley and others.

Doubtless England’s reputation will continue to be led by sparkling wines made from Champagne varieties – that’s the thing that the whole world is now aware of. We can do that at the top level, and it must lead the way. We’ve been given a calling card on a golden platter and, luckily enough, it’s a wine that’s the most expensive type of wine in the world, which is important – with 6 million extra vines coming on stream, there’s going to be a lot of wine to sell. And there’s plenty of potential for more planting too.

Researching my new book on English wine, I drove for miles around the countryside. I was struck by how much potential there is. In Essex, Kent and Sussex, there are still plenty of spots that haven’t been planted. But even in Yorkshire, there’s huge potential. And if Professor Selley at Imperial College is correct, in that by 2080 it’ll be too hot in the south of the UK, well the chalk and Jurassic limestone soil goes right up to Scarborough and the Tees.

Dr Alistair Nesbitt from the university of East Anglia said he thought there was up to 35,000ha of prime vineyard land still unplanted – huge parts of Essex and Suffolk, some in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, south-east Yorkshire, to say nothing of the Chilterns. Even Kent. You’d think Kent would be the first to be fully planted, but it’s not (though I’m still convinced LVMH has bought up 1,000ha somewhere there and is going to suddenly reveal it’s started planting).

I don’t necessarily think that Champagne makers who come over here make better wine – in fact, until they cast off their Champagne mindset, I think they probably make worse wine. English wine doesn’t need a Champagne taste profile – we need an English taste profile, and it’s genuinely different. If it wasn’t for the fact that Champagne had been world-famous for 150 years and was the benchmark for celebration, extravagance and excessive price, we wouldn’t be talking about it, from a stylistic perspective. But it suits us to do so, because we also use the Méthode Anglaise (sorry, I mean Méthode Champenoise, silly me).

oz clarke
Oz Clarke’s latest book plots the outlook for English wine. Image credit: Keith Barnes Photography

In 20 years, many more of the Champagne houses will have fully-blown operations over here. By then, I think we’ll have a considerable reputation for still wines too. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of [still] Côteaux Champenois I’ve enjoyed. And they can’t carbonate, or make charmat-method wines in Champagne – whereas we can do whatever we want. And we should.

Rosé will be the big thing. English wineries should be making some of best still rosé in Europe. We’ve got tons of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and won’t be able to sell it all at £30+ a bottle in a sparkling format. Instead we should make 9-month old rosé. Look how fashionable it is  – all those celebrity Provence rosés. We can do it at a higher quality and a lower price, even with a little bit of Dornfelder, or Rondo.

I think eventually England will become a leading area for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – Kent, Essex and Sussex is capable, in time, of producing the kind of delicate, elegant, refreshing Pinot that will become increasingly difficult in Burgundy, and the kind of Chardonnay they’re not even making in Chablis any more. These days, I find most Chablis too ripe and soft – I haven’t bought a grand cru for donkey’s years. I buy Petit Chablis instead, because it’s closer in style to what I thought Chablis was meant to be. It’s the same with Meursault, Puligny et al – I find them too rich and broad and round – all glycerin and fat. And then you get that reductive savouriness that has been put on it and has been a curse in places in Australia – a manufactured winemaker’s reductiveness which I find as intrusive as new oak.

English winemakers won’t have to worry about any of that. I’m not saying we’re going to be making wines to rival grand cru Burgundy in 20 years’ time. But the potential is there to expand our reputation beyond sparkling wines into still rosés, Pinots and Chardonnays – and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

Oz Clarke’s English Wine: From Still to Sparkling. The NEWEST New World Wine Country is published by Pavilion Books on 3rd September.

Club Oenologique columnist Joe Fattorini will be interviewing Ridgeview CEO Tamara Roberts on Instagram Live at 6.30pm on Tuesday June 23. Follow @cluboenologique on Instagram to tune in.