Those with hypersensitive agency detection would be likely to assume that England’s best wines must come from its largest, most well-financed producers. After all, who else would have the resources needed to plant vineyards on England’s most favoured chalky soils, to grow the highest quality fruit, and to invest in the expensive wineries and equipment needed to turn this fruit into top-quality wine?
Yet if you look at the marks being handed down by Tamlyn Currin of JancisRobinson.com, you’ll notice that several of England’s best-rated still wines are being made by a very new winery located in the tiny, low-ceilinged basement of a decommissioned windmill in suburban Cambridge.
Gutter & Stars is this winery, and it’s the startup project of one person working all by themselves – an ex-music, sport and wine journalist named Chris Wilson. The winery hadn’t made wines before 2020, yet from this inaugural vintage came two that rank amongst England’s highest rated: 17 points for Gutter & Stars’ 2020 Hope Is A Good Swimmer Pinot Noir and 17.5 for Daylight Upon Magic Chardonnay.
Don’t mistake this for beginner’s luck. Chris followed up the acclaim for his 2020s with more 17+ point scores for his 2021s, including a Marasby favourite, the 17.5 point Rip it Up Orange Bacchus.
2022 looks set to continue the trend. After the hugely challenging 2021 vintage, 2022’s fruit was more like 2020, with clean, concentrated flavours, excellent ripeness and sugars, and balanced acid levels. As Chris puts it, “it’s just a case of not f**king up.”
If not owning a vineyard strikes you as a betrayal of the principle that the best wines have to come from wineries which own the whole process from vineyard to bottling, then that’s your hypersensitive agency detection showing. The urban winery phenomenon has been going strong in the US for twenty years now and includes many of the country’s best winemakers.
Instead Gutter & Stars buy fruit from a small number of specialist growers, allowing Chris to concentrate on winemaking. The grapes for Chris’ highly acclaimed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come from vineyards in the Crouch Valley in Essex.
You might recognise this area as the source of fruit for top quality Pinot Noirs from Danbury Ridge, Martin’s Lane and Lyme Bay. It’s also where the fruit for the Decanter Trophy-winning 2018 Chardonnay from London’s Vagabond urban winery came from.
We drop by to see Chris in his windmill basement winery, and I ask him why Essex has so evidently become England’s go-to place to buy fruit to make still wines. He talks about the warmth, the high number of sunshine hours during the growing season, and the relatively low rainfall.
Yet what he’s really interested in is the soil. If you still believe that only fruit from England’s Champagne-like chalky soils can create great wines, again, that’s your hypersensitive agency detection, for Essex’s vineyards are sited on London Clay.
“Lots of the growers in Essex call it ‘dirty old clay’”, Chris explains. “Before they got into grapes, these guys were growing wheat for centuries as families. They’ve been cursing the soil forever – it’s horrible, it’s difficult to work with, it sticks to everything – and suddenly it’s producing fantastic grapes.
“London Clay is great at absorbing water, so when it is dry, the plants can still have what they need. But also, as we saw in 2022, it cracks – huge cracks when it gets really hot, which allows the ground to cool down. So, in some senses, that soil’s more interesting than chalk, with properties for Pinot Noir certainly and other still wines.”
Chris’ own history is also one of great things coming from unexpected places. Once a music journalist (hence the song lyric-referencing names of his wines), he moved into sport when he joined The Mirror. An opportunity came along to cover food, drink and travel too, which gave him exposure to interesting restaurants. For the first time, he discovered wine as “something not only to enjoy in the glass, but something to learn more about.”
He followed this interest into a degree in winemaking at Plumpton, graduating ten years ago. “I started a family, moved to Cambridge and slipped back into writing – wine writing this time, but I was always looking to do something like Gutter & Stars. It was always in my mind that it could be done on a small scale without living in the countryside or owning a vineyard.”
It’s a different way of looking at things, but when it comes to wine, Chris is surprisingly mainstream.
“With Chardonnay and Pinot, I’m looking for textbook wines,” Chris says, ”barrel aged, not too much battonage, full malo. I want to make wines that people associate with Burgundy and northern Italy perhaps. With the Bacchus, I’m trying to tone down that ‘bingo hall perfume’ character and make a more elegant wine.”
So, if Chris is making classically-styled wines that wouldn’t taste out of place accompanying a lobster bisque or coq au vin, what’s going on with the beautiful, yet distinctly unusual labels?
“The bottle of wine has to be a product in itself, not just what’s inside. I’m not going to suddenly invent a totally new way of making wine, so for me the creativity is on the outside of the bottle – playing around with labels and names and wax.
“Top Chefs use tweezers for a reason. Nobody wants to eat in restaurant where the food tastes great but looks like s**t!”
With classically styled wines that generate widespread acclaim, beautifully designed bottles, and tiny production levels, there’s no risk that Chris’ wines won’t sell. In fact, the bigger risk is that Gutter & Stars will become a victim of its own success, with wines so sought after that they can’t get anywhere near to satisfying the demand. Production doubled from 2021 to 2022 but can’t double again – there just isn’t the room – and Chris isn’t inclined to move: “I love it here and it’s a great space. Without sounding too alternative, I think the wines love it here as well.”
Perhaps like Bowie or Radiohead, the solution is that Chris could just keep reinventing himself. As soon as one of Gutter & Stars wines becomes too popular, he’ll find a different overlooked grape or under loved wine style to get interested in.
After all, that’s the joy of the urban winery. If you own a vineyard, you have to make wines from what you have in the vineyard, year after year. If you have Pinot Noir grapes planted, you’ll be making Pinot Noir again.
Being an urban winery means you have to start every vintage afresh, tracking down growers who want to sell you their fruit. That can be time-consuming and nerve-wracking, but it does give urban winemakers the freedom to pursue their own interests.
For Gutter & Stars, this could mean continuing to make some of England’s best still wines in a classically Burgundian style, or it could mean something totally different. Whatever it is, we can’t wait to taste the results.
As Chris puts it, “it’s amazing what you can do in a small space.”
Chris made just 800 bottles of his Blur-referencing 2021 Bacchus, and there’s no hint that it came from a cool vintage. “This is the hardest I’ve worked on a wine”, Chris tells us. The Bacchus perfume is toned down in favour of elegant grapefruit and guava aromas. In the mouth it’s rounded and far weightier than would be expected of a wine that’s just 11% ABV. The oak character is there in the background, but beautifully balanced, and lends the wine texture rather than strong flavours.
If you love Bacchus, this was named ‘Bacchus of the Year’ by Tim Atkin and is amongst the best you will taste. If you haven’t quite made friends with Bacchus yet, this could well be the wine that will convert you.
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