Could Essex be Britain’s answer to Burgundy? Okay, it might seem a little far-fetched for a place that’s more synonymous with blingy bars, fast cars and reality TV stars, but the county’s cuvées are increasingly in a class of their own. Indeed, Essex has been regarded as the dark horse of Britain’s wine scene, delivering perfumed, juicy ripe fruit that has made its way into wines often produced elsewhere in the country – but it really warrants the status of a racehorse.
The story of England’s success with sparkling wine is already well told, but this is only the first chapter for its still wines. Courtesy of high costs for land and labour, and lacking the prestige of traditional method fizz, they look expensive even to the most curious of consumers. However, Essex is already making wines that deserve to command premium prices.
There’s a serious vinous revolution underway where tannin means more than just something that happens in a salon
There’s an old joke, ‘Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent’, but those golden oldies retired to Essex for a reason: it is the driest part of England, because the weather systems that come from the Atlantic have usually disgorged their rain before they cross the county. Though it is not as warm as the south of England, sunshine hours are still long and it scores highly for growing degree days (a measure of temperature conditions conducive to grape growing).
Treat yourself to an episode of ITV’s The Only Way is Essex, where you’re more likely to encounter a nail bar than a wine one, and you might find some of the lazy old stereotypes reinforced. People used to say that Essex boys only wore hairspray to stop things going over their heads, for example, and the jokes about girls don’t bear repeating. However, in pockets of the county, there’s a serious vinous revolution underway where tannin means more than just something that happens in a salon.
One such area is the Crouch Valley – a place about which I knew precious little until last year – where the benign conditions, supported by a beneficial microclimate and clay soils, are producing some of England’s finest Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bacchus. Clay? Yes, you heard correctly. This isn’t about the celebrated Champagne-suited chalk of southern England, it is all about London clay that stays relatively dry, rather than claggy, thanks to the lack of rainfall.
In his brilliant, some would say seminal, work, English Wine, Oz Clarke finds himself outside Chelmsford: ‘Just past the village of Danbury, the air changes, the sky changes… it seems broader, it seems bluer. It… well, it seems bigger.’ Clarke thinks Essex may be ‘the best area of all Britain for vineyards,’ and there are plenty who agree, even if they choose to make their wines elsewhere.
Armed with some Burgundy barrels and an egg fermenter, a friend and former journalist colleague, Chris Wilson, recently established Gutter & Stars, an urban winery in a disused windmill in the centre of Cambridge. When it came choosing his grapes, the only way was Essex.
Wilson has chosen the Crouch Valley – which he likens to the Napa Valley for its conditions – making wines with Bacchus, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Missing Gate Vineyard in Bicknacre, tended by a family who have farmed the land for three generations. The resulting wines, from his first vintage, 2020, won critical acclaim, selling out in days. So perhaps they can now afford to replace that gate.
Wilson is an evangelist for the grapes of Essex (as you can hear in this Friday’s edition of my weekly Food FM show, The Drinking Hour) and he talks teasingly of the quality and ageing opportunity of the wines, thanks to the bright, precise fruit and trademark English acidity.
Scandalously, the term ‘British wine’ can still be used for cheap plonk from imported grapes destined for the bottom shelves and to be enjoyed in bus shelters, but this country’s still wines are now in a perpetual state of evolution and reappraisal, so it is surely time to right that particular wrong, protect our progeny and champion the regions on the rise, like Essex.
What David has been drinking…
- Lyme Bay Winery Pinot Noir 2020 (£28). Though from an accomplished Devon winery, the fruit hails from the vineyards of Essex. Crunchy cherry, berries and gentle toasty oak combine to deliver a fresh, revitalising wine that’s mouthwatering and intensely fruity, with serious ageing potential.
- Akitu Pinot Noir Blanc 2021 (£30). A newly-released still white wine from Central Otago, made from red grapes, pressed cold for minimal extraction. It offers a beguiling nose of mandarin, pink grapefruit, rose petals and sourdough starter, leading into a textured feast of crunchy berries, clean citrus and flaky pastry. Just delicious.
- Mumm Millésimé 2015 Vintage Champagne (£46). Also newly-released, this was the first 2015 that I have tried. Majority Pinot Noir, a quarter Chardonnay, with enticing peach, honey and hazelnut on the nose, there’s a real sense of nougaty opulence already, though it offers the structure and definition to age a decade or more.