Could Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc become the UK’s signature white wine?
Introducing the English White Pinot Pioneers
English White Pinot wines are super exciting right now. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the UK’s most planted grape varieties. Yet visiting many of our favourite English wineries recently, it isn’t always the tanks and barrels brimming with these two famous varieties that are most exciting the winemakers.
Instead, they’ve pointed us to the smaller vessels they have tucked away in the back of their wineries, out of view behind the main tanks. More often than not, these have turned out to contain white wines made from the English white Pinots. These are Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and also white cuvées made Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.
Why are they so excited about these small batch, experimental wines? Many of them tell us it is because they think that a white wine made from one of the English white Pinots might have the potential to become England’s signature still wine style.
But What About Chardonnay?
It’s true that Chardonnay is up there as one of the UK’s two most planted varieties. Yet with 70% of English wine production consisting of sparkling wine, and Chardonnay being one of the three traditional method varieties, most of it will be destined for the nation’s acclaimed fizz.
There are some notable exceptions of course. Simpsons estate in Kent planted Burgundian clones of Chardonnay specifically to make still wines. Oastbrook in East Sussex has become better known for its still wines including Chardonnay than its (equally delicious) sparkling wines from the same grape. Many growers in Essex’s Crouch Valley are principally or wholly growing Chardonnay for use in still wines. There are some fabulous still English Chardonnays from these and other growers, which are well worth seeking out.
The Challenge For Chardonnay
Yet in terms of creating a signature English white wine, Chardonnay suffers for two seemingly paradoxical reasons.
First, there’s the ABC factor. For many drinkers of a certain generation, Chardonnay still has a negative connotation associated with the heavily oaked, confected examples prevalent in 1980s and 90s wine shops. Never mind that many of these drinkers love Chablis – for them this is just the exception that proves the rule. These drinkers have a fixed idea that they don’t like Chardonnay, and it is hard to convince them that they’re wrong.
The opposing issue is that some drinkers love Chardonnay too much. Ask me for a rundown of my desert island wines, and a mature bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy will certainly be on my list. I also love top-quality, richly textured examples from California and elsewhere in the new world. It’s not that English Chardonnay can’t be as good – it’s that it won’t be the same as the existing style that drinkers like me already adore.
The Opportunity For English White Pinots
These preconceptions don’t exist for 99% of drinkers tasting an English white Pinot. Yes, Pinot Gris might technically be the same thing as Pinot Grigio, but most people don’t really associate the two. ABPG doesn’t have the same ring as Anything But Chardonnay and the Pinot grapes don’t suffer from the same stigma.
On the other hand, Alsace wines just aren’t popular enough for most drinkers to have strong pre-existing preferences for a particular style of Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc in the way they might have for white Burgundy. White wines made from Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are so rare that few drinkers will even have tried one before. An English example, for most drinkers, will be something entirely new and unique.
So… their main selling point is just that they’re not Chardonnay?
This is undoubtedly a component in the appeal of these wines to the public – but there’s actually a bit more to it.
The UK Cool Climate Is Good For English White Pinots
The English climate is cool, and in most vintages and in most English regions, our still wines will have naturally brisk levels of acidity compared to those from countries a little nearer the equator. That makes for thrillingly crisp, vibrant, intensely mineral whites, but can leave some Chardonnays feeling a little hollow.
Yet this naturally high acidity can produce wonderfully food friendly Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. In fact wines from these two grapes are probably the ideal pairings for classic English seasonal produce like asparagus, or dishes using combinations of sweetness and spice like stir-fries or honey-sriracha glazes. It’s not surprising that for producers like Freedom of the Press, Pinot Gris is their fastest seller.
When it comes to white wines made from Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, Oastbrook Estate’s Nick Brewer says that “these can be overly opulent and flabby when made from fruit grown in hotter climates. However, grown in England, the wines can offer thrilling balance between succulent texture and crisp minerality.” Some examples we’ve tasted are reminiscent of the style of volcanic wines from the Greek islands, Sicily, or the Canaries.
So yes, the potential is there, and we can see why many English winemakers are so excited about their pioneering efforts making white Pinots.
The English White Pinot Tasting
We’ve tasted many of the wines and we’re excited by them too, but we’ve never tasted so many side by side. So Marasby is organising a Pinot Pioneers Panel Tasting on May 23rd with a group of industry experts and professional buyers for a deep dive. We’ll be tasting a selection of the highest rated English white Pinots, to explore if a unique English style can be identified, and assess these wines’ potential. The line up includes wines from 10 producers from across the south east.
Freedom of the Press
Win A Place On the White Pinot Panel Tasting
We’re keeping one spot open specially for an interested reader to join us at the tasting, free of charge. If you’d like to bag this place, please contact us via Instagram @marasbygb – we’d love to hear from you!