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Why is Everyone Talking About English Pinot Noir ?
Everyone’s talking about English Pinot Noir – and we don’t just mean everyone at Marasby. Take a look at the highest scoring English red wines on jancisrobinson.com, and you’ll find that 8 out of 10 of them are Pinot Noirs. Sam Linter, Chairperson at Bolney Estate and Director at WineGB believes the variety “has so much potential.” And Jane Anson asks in Decanter magazine whether, like the Champenois and English sparkling wine, “Burgundy should be worried” about English Pinot Noir.
So why is everyone talking about English Pinot Noir? And moreover, does it really have the potential to make world class wines? We’ll take an in-depth look at this most thrilling of grape varieties in this article. And reveal what it is that gives English Pinot Noir such an exciting future.
What is Pinot Noir?
Pinot Noir is a red wine grape variety that loves cooler climates. Whereas you might find Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese planted in the world’s warmer wine growing regions, you’ll find Pinot Noir planted almost exclusively in more temperate zones. That’s because the variety has thin skins with relatively light pigmentation. As a result, Pinot Noir ripens more quickly than its thicker-skinned cousins, and requires a longer, cooler growing season.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, you’ll find Pinot Noir planted more in the north of Europe than the south – in England of course. Also famously in Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits, in Champagne as one of the three ‘noble’ varieties, and in Germany. If it’s planted in the new world, you’ll typically find Pinot Noir in cooler mountain or coastal spots such as the Santa Rita Hills of California, or South Africa’s Elgin district.
In England, it’s the second most planted grape variety, just a few hectares behind Chardonnay. Currently, most Pinot Noir production continues to go into England’s world class sparkling wines. However, this is changing, and still Pinot Noir could well overtake sparkling in years to come.
So why is English Pinot Noir taking the UK wine scene by storm?
The potential for English Pinot Noir to become a serious rival to Burgundy is backed up by recent climate research. Accordingly, the report by Dr James Nesbitt of Vinescapes, working with scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), the London School of Economics, and Weatherquest suggests the warming English climate is good news for English wine. “The potential transition is immense – towards still red wine production and from a minor scale wine producer to a high-quality region that significantly alters the world wine map.”
The report finds “that significant areas within England and Wales are projected to become warmer by 2040 by up to a further 1.4°C during the growing season.” This will result in a climate in southern England and Wales very similar to that experienced in recent great vintages in Burgundy and Champagne.
Of course, having the right climate isn’t a sufficient condition for making great wine but it is a necessary one. This should at least give other Pinot Noir-specialising regions in the world notice that a new rival is likely to emerge in coming years.
The cold and wet English climate was one factor previously holding back production of great English Pinot Noir. But just as significant was lack of viticultural and winemaking experience. The English wine industry is still very new. However, English vineyards are undergoing rapid expansion, up to almost 900 in 2022, with a 70% increase in just the last five years.
Many vineyards only dipped their toes into making still wines for the first time in 2018. Significantly they were then harshly reminded about England’s potential for cool, wet summers the following year. Producers enjoyed another scorcher in 2020. When 2021 was again much wetter, experience gained in 2019 meant that this time many more good Pinot Noirs were made. This is a pattern we expect to continue. Vintages are getting more consistent as winemakers learn more about how to work most effectively in England.
Alongside this, many more vineyards are being planted by established experts like Ruth and Charles Simpson of Kent’s Simpson Estate. They have years of experience at their southern French vineyard Domaine Sainte Rose. Or Champagne House Louis Pommery, who recently expanded their operation into Hampshire. Alongside these heavyweights is a whole industry of now well-experienced consultant viticulturalists and winemakers. The team at Vinescapes, and independents like Owen Elias and Dermot Sugrue are leading the charge.
Unlike twenty years ago, when trailblazing vineyard owners had to start at the bottom, nowadays new English vineyard owners can learn their trade surrounded by some of the wine world’s best talent. This is good for English Pinot Noir and another factor in the excitement around the grape.
Shift towards fashion for cooler climate styles
If the 1980s and 90s were all about turbo charged colour, fruit and oakiness, then the 2020s are all about restraint. Almost every wine region around the world now has a ‘new wave’ of winemakers who seek to make fresher, juicier, lower alcohol, more cool-climate styles of wine.
There’s no other great grape variety that suits making a cool climate wine style better than Pinot Noir. Fresh, light, juicy, fragrant, and moreish? Yep! English Pinot Noir does it all.
The Emergence of Regional Style
England is on the first steps of its journey towards becoming a wine region of world renown. But we’re still miles away from the position of Burgundy, where the best areas for growing Pinot Noir are identified down to the individual vineyard.
However, it’s just possible that two parts of England are starting to emerge as being particularly suitable for growing still wines. Crouch Valley of Essex and lower-lying parts of central Sussex are areas to watch.
Look again at the 8 Pinot Noir included in the top 10 English reds rated on jancisrobinson.com as England’s best. You might notice that 4 of them are made from fruit grown in Crouch Valley. Two of these are made by Danbury Ridge – a winery within Crouch Valley itself. The other two by an urban winery in Cambridge, Gutter & Stars, which uses fruit sourced from Crouch Valley.
Add to these fantastic still wines made by urban wineries in London such as Vagabond and Black Book, and from wineries like Lyme Bay in Dorset – all of which buy fruit for their wines from growers in Crouch Valley – and it seems clear that there’s something special going on in this vinous corner of Essex.
As a wine growing region, central Sussex is less geographically contiguous. However, it’s noticeable that many of West and East Sussex’s best still wines are made from vineyards located on the clay soils of this area. This includes fabulous examples from Oxney, Oastbrook, Gusbourne and Artelium.
It is the received wisdom that English vineyards are better located on the chalky slopes that parts of southern England share with Champagne. However, it could be that for still wine production at least, clay is key. As this picture becomes clearer, better wines will be made.
The Future for English Pinot Noir
It’s clear then that English Pinot Noir has an exciting future. As the climate in England improves, as our wine industry gains more experience of English conditions, as the market continues to demand cool-climate styles, and as we identify the best spots for growing Pinot Noir.
Yet ultimately, there’s only one true way to understand why everyone’s talking about English Pinot Noir. And that’s to try it yourself.
That’s why Marasby is organising a horizontal tasting of 12 of the best 2020 English Pinots in January 2023. Our panel includes a top chef, a leading wine importer, a published wine writer and an urban winemaker, who will give their perspective on what makes English Pinot Noir distinctive and delicious.
To find out how the tasting goes and hear about future events, join our mailing list.
Six Great English Pinot Noir to Try Now
If you can’t wait to see how the tasting goes, here are six great English Pinot Noir that you can try for yourself right now. (All available to buy at time of publication):
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