Understanding the Current Status of English Wine Industry

By | 19 April 2024

Once a skeptic, Tom Stevenson has come to love his home country’s dramatically improved wines.

By Tom Stevenson

Tom Stevenson tells the story of his conversion to English wine, and picks some of the best bottles he has tasted over the past 12 months.

There was a time when I certainly considered all English wine to be a joke—and a pretty poor one at that. I used to be embarrassed, but thanks to the viticultural revolution sparked off by Stuart and Sandy Moss, I am now very proud of what this country can produce. The Mosses were, of course, Nyetimber’s original American owners. Not original owners in a historical sense; that would have been long before Henry VIII gifted this ancient manor to Anne of Cleves as part of her annulment settlement. Before even its earliest mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. No, I refer to the Mosses as the original owners in a viticultural sense—the first owners to plant a vineyard on the estate and, in doing so, ignoring all local warnings that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would rot before they ripened. And look where we are now.

Kit Lindlar cannot be forgotten, as he crafted the first-ever Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1992 in his High Wealds vineyard. Unexpectedly, the wine garnered overwhelming accolades from critics, sealing its place at the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Anniversary Lunch in 1997. Kit’s extraordinary journey from winemaking to priesthood has indeed made him the literal patriarch of English sparkling wine.

The initial version of Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine in 1998 included an entry concerning Nyetimber. Regardless, it was impossible to overlook the embarrassing gap in quality between Nyetimber and nearly every other domestic wine. These wines were crafted from either crosses, such as Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, and Huxelrebe or hybrids. These grape types are presently so outmoded that they are barely cultivated in their lands of origin.

By 2003, in the second edition of the Encyclopedia, a significant leap occurred. English sparkling wine had achieved “world-class potential,” a development that seemed almost rapid in its manifestation. During this time, Ridgeview was presenting a considerable challenge to Nyetimber. Owned by Mike Roberts, who once participated in one of Nyetimber’s earliest harvests, Ridgeview was matching Nyetimber at every juncture. Inspired by his experiences with Nyetimber, Mike decided to invest in a vineyard that grew Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier—the second-largest such vineyard at that time.

Nyetimber and Ridgeview’s offerings were met with much acclaim, appreciated in a broad range of contexts from Michelin-starred restaurants to regular supermarkets. This didn’t go unnoticed by entrepreneurs and investors as they started to purchase land for the sole purpose of planting the three classical Champagne grape varieties, which not long ago were considered unsuitable for cultivation in this country. The process took time, with a wait of three years for the first harvest and another three for the initial batch of sparkling wines. This slow progression did not always yield the anticipated high-quality results but as new labels made their way into the marketplace, it became apparent the most exciting and premium wines came from these new ventures, not the older pre-Nyetimber brands, unless they too embraced the Champagne varieties.

By the year 2014, English sparkling wine had secured an enviable reputation, leaving other sparkling wine regions mystified as English wine journeyed from an industry joke to a success story. Prices were at an all-time high, surpassing even some Champagnes. I had the pleasure of hosting a tasting session for Maurizio Zanella of Ca’ del Bosco’s fellow producers who was eager to understand the phenomenal success of English sparkling wine, a feat Franciacorta had aspired to for many years. My introduction was memorable, using The Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as an opener and describing the forthcoming tasting as an ‘acid trip’.

The inherent acidity of English sparkling wine is a vital part of its character and despite efforts to taper it through careful vineyard and winery practices, I strongly believe that this bright natural acidity should be celebrated, not subdued, to maintain the unique flavour and success of English fizz.

In more recent editions of Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (2019) and Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (2020), I initially urged English wine producers to concentrate solely on traditional method sparkling wine, even going as far as to suggest that all hybrids and crossings should be removed. However, I have since realized that the situation may not be that straightforward.

Recent developments have shown a promising potential for still wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The journey has not been easy. At first, the climate did not seem conducive enough to ripen vinifera grapes well for non-sparkling red and white wines. However, this perception existed earlier for classic sparkling wine grapes as well, until the Mosses proved otherwise. There’s consensus about the high variability of English vintages’ quality and quantity. It’s clear that the learning curve for producing traditional still wines has been steeper and lengthier than that for sparkling wines.

There have been occasional disappointments even for leading English still-wine producers like Gusbourne. For instance, the Boot Hill Pinot Noir 2019 shows more oak than fruit now, with the remaining fruit being thin and astringent, having little more than sour cherries. Despite this hiccup, Gusbourne remains one of UK’s most consistently performing wine producers. Other wineries’ still wines have been so disappointing and flawed that it’s best not to name them. Most of the still English wines are unexciting and unimpressive, leading to my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia mantra. Yet, top-notch still wines are becoming more common, while the uninteresting majority are slowly showing signs of improvement. Maybe I should be encouraging producers who wish to create high-quality reds and whites.

Here are the best English wines I have tasted, both sparkling and still, over the past year.


All Angels 2015 Classic Cuvée
(Berkshire; 58% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir, 13% Meunier, 10% Pinot Gris; 12% ABV; 7.6g/l RS)
Evolved yet remarkably well preserved, with lovely, yeast-complexed fruit. A full wine, but its pincushion mousse gives finesse. | 90

Ambriel 2018 Blanc de Blancs
(West Sussex; 100% Chardonnay; 11% ABV; 7g/l RS)
Fresh orchard-fruit aroma, with citrus highlights and toasted-quince complexity. Bracing attack. Precision mousse. | 90

Balfour 2018 Blanc de Blancs (magnum)

(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 0g/l RS)

Elegantly toasty nose leading to fresh and feisty fruit on the palate. Good intensity, crunchy freshness, and a fine mousse. | 90

Balfour 2018 Blanc de Noirs

(Kent; 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Meunier; 12% ABV; 8g/l RS)

Clean and inviting nose leading to a fresh, invigorating palate with a perky mousse. Bright, juicy fruit. An early-drinking wine. | 90

Camel Valley Vineyard 2015 Special Reserve (Cornwall; 44% Chardonnay, 37% Seyval Blanc, 12% Pinot Blanc, 7% Reichensteiner; 12.5% ABV; 11.9g/l RS)

This is a refreshingly crisp blend with fleeting toasty hues, standard lean structure and a delightful fruit attack. It is enhanced by a refined creamy texture and has a prolonged, lingering finish. The Special Reserve was submitted to the CSWWC 2023 as a 30% Pinot Noir and 70% Chardonnay mix. It bagged a gold medal effortlessly and in a conversation with its winemaker, Sam Lindo, after the competition, he revealed its Seyval Blanc content. This prompted me to ask for the exact encépagement and I was truly surprised to find out that it also included Pinot Blanc and Reichensteiner. However, the wine hasn’t lost its charm and Sam’s blending prowess has left me even more astounded. He is indeed a magician! | 96

Camel Valley Vineyard 2020 Pinot Noir Rosé Brut (Cornwall; 100% Pinot Noir; 12.5% ABV; 12g/l RS)

Consistently one of the best-performing English sparkling wines in the market. It is marked by its extraordinary intensity of fruit, razor-sharp structure, tidy acid line, delicate yet sharp-cut peach fruit and a refreshing-juicy finish. | 95

Camel Valley Vineyard 2016 Chardonnay Brut
(Cornwall; 100% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV; 11g/l RS)

This Chardonnay presents a youthful, orchard-fruit nose with a beautiful, soft, and delicious fruit on the palate, complemented by a lovely, silky mousse. It is juicy and delightful to drink. | 94

Chapel Down 2017 Grand Reserve (magnum)
(Kent; 63% Chardonnay, 31% Pinot Noir, 6% Meunier; 12% ABV; 8.7g/l RS)

This Grand Reserve offers fresh, zesty aromas with a trace of exotic fruit. The creamy-rounded fruit on the palate is complemented with yeast-complexed characteristics and underpinned by a sturdy mousse of fine bubbles. With its faintly toasty undertones, the wine is well-structured. | 91

Everflyht NV Brut
(East Sussex; 47% Chardonnay, 47% Pinot Noir, 6% Meunier; 12% ABV; 7g/l RS)

Initially, the deep color and developing nose of this wine, which features exotic notes, may cause some dismay. However, the intensely flavored fruit, weight, and creamy ripeness quickly overcome this first impression. A fine mousse aids in lightening the load. | 90

Furleigh Estate 2013 Classic Cuvée (magnum)
(Dorset; 46% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 14% Meunier; 12% ABV; 8.3g/l RS)

The softly evolved nose of this wine stands out with its toast and yeast-complexed fruit aromas. A remarkably well-preserved melange of orchard fruit characterizes the palate, complemented by lovely ripeness and a soft, silky mousse. This leads to a long, focused, high-acid finish. | 91

Furleigh Estate 2018 Classic Cuvée
(Dorset; 40% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Meunier; 12% ABV; 6.2g/l RS)

Yeasty aromas and toasty elements combine to create a unique fragrance. A fresh, lively, and crunchy palate is complemented by bright fruits, a well-measured dosage, superior mousse, and commendable persistence. | 90

Gusbourne 2018 Rosé (magnum)
(Kent; 59% Chardonnay, 23% Pinot Noir, 18% Meunier; 12% ABV; 10g/l RS)

This is a refined wine that surpasses most standards. Fresh and restrained orchard fruit scents precede a juicy orchard fruit heart on the palate. This is all supported by delightful, soft mousse. This wine won both Best English Rosé and Best English Sparkling Wine, as well as the World Champion Classic Rosé trophy at the CSWWC 2023. | 98

Gusbourne 2019 Blanc de Noirs
(Kent; 75% Pinot Noir, 14% Chardonnay, 11% Meunier; 12% ABV; 9g/l RS)

This blend offers gorgeously rich, yeast-complexed fruit with a lovely, long acid-line finish. With its juicy-ripe and refreshing fruit, pincushion mousse, creamy attack and classic English Pinot profile, it was ranked as the Best English Blanc de Noirs at the CSWWC 2023. | 97

Gusbourne 2018 Blanc de Blancs Selhurst Park Vineyard
(Sussex; 100% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 9g/l RS)

This vintage delivers youthful orchard-fruit aromas, accented with toasty and grilled rind notes. The beautifully balanced orchard flavors continue on the palate, with citrus notes beginning to emerge. The lovely, creamy mousse gives a lightweight and airy feel, and the wine carries an eternal length. It emerged as the Winner of the Best English Blanc de Blancs at CSWWC 2023. | 97

Gusbourne 2018 Brut Reserve (magnum)
(Kent; 46% Meunier, 35% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir; 12% ABV; 8.9g/l RS)

This wine is a thirst-quenching delight with its freshly juicy fruit and revitalizing, sap-like finish. On exploring deeper, one can detect a pleasant toast-like smell, however, the fruit still maintains its youthful freshness. | 96

Gusbourne 2018 Blanc de Noirs Heartbreak Vineyard
(Kent; 100% Pinot Noir; 12% ABV; 9g/l RS)

This wine strikes a perfect balance with its fresh, comprehensive constitution exhibiting a modest zingy-fruitiness on the palate. It’s firm yet balanced constitution with crunchy fruit, hints of toast flavor, and vigorous energy contributes to an all-round good palate. | 95

Hattingley Valley Wines NV Classic Reserve
(Hampshire; 47% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Noir, 19% Meunier, 2% Pinot Noir Précoce; 12% ABV; 6.4g/l RS)

A seductive, toasty nose, with full, rich, deeply flavored, yeast-complexed fruit on the palate. It’s fresh and vibrant, with a firm mousse. Although it’s drinking well now, it still has plenty of life left. | 94

Mereworth Wines 2018 (Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 6g/l RS)

This wine opens with a fruit-forward, vanilla-laden aroma that leads into elegantly lightweight and beautifully balanced precision fruit on the palate. It’s accompanied with a fine mousse and ends with a vibrant, classic finish. | 96

Nyetimber 2014 Blanc de Blancs (magnum)
(Sussex; 100% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 9.5g/l RS)

This masterpiece, exuding great elegance and exceptional finesse, is a classically built-up treasure. Every Nyetimber in magnum I’ve tasted has been exceptional, including this. Its complexity is not just multi-layered but it could also potentially evolve towards greater intricacy. The fresh, ripe fruit is plentiful, and the focus of the finish is long and lingering. This makes it a joy to sip on. When you pause to dissect these characteristics, you discover a maze of details under these apparent features. Traces of toast and warm spices are starting to make their way through the orchard fruit, stone fruit, and yellow flowers’ flavors. The texture is creamy, the taste, juicy. For a wine in its tenth year, it’s remarkably youthful – no doubt a potential winner for the Library Sparkling Wine trophy at CSWWC in a decade. | 97

Plumpton Estate NV Brut Classic
(Sussex; 41% Pinot Noir, 34% Meunier, 25% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV; 10.4g/l RS)

This wine is delicately colored with a hint of peach, radiating the glow of a blanc de noirs instead of a rosé. Aromas are drenched in fruits, with a dominance of berries and peach. A taste reveals an intensely fruity, fresh, and elegant palate that seems to glide on a soft, airy mousse. The flavor profile is very Pinot, exemplifying smart and stylish characteristics. This wine is a testament to the talent residing at the Plumpton College of Viticulture & Oenology. It took home the title of Best English Brut NV at the CSWWC 2023. | 96

Louis Pommery England NV Brut
(Hampshire; 50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 15% Meunier; 12% ABV; 8g/l RS)

Though it may need some time to unlock more tertiary aromas, it’s still enjoyable in its current state which boasts refreshing, effervescent and mouthwatering fruitiness. An accurate and sweet fruit attack is complemented by a gentle effervescence. | 90

Ridgeview NV Cavendish
(Sussex; 36% Pinot Noir, 32% Meunier, 32% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 3.9g/l RS)

The soft, well-integrated and proportional aspects are accentuated by an elegant, lace-like effervescence. It’s refreshingly delicate and has a creamy character. There’s a good sense of vigour, showing clever craftsmanship. | 94

Simpsons Wine Estate 2018 White Cliffs Blanc de Blancs
(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV; 6g/l RS)

This wine instantly exhibits a remarkable finesse. A toasty complexity graces the nose, complemented with the vivacity of fresh Chardonnay fruit on the palate. The finish is focused and pleasing, leaving a creamy aftertaste. The mousse is firm yet light. | 93

Squerryes 2014 Brut (magnum)
(Kent; 35% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Noir, 31% Meunier; 12% ABV; 8g/l RS)

This is an incredibly fresh wine with a unique pencil-shaving complexity to the nose. The carefully matured wine boasts compact fruit on the palate that’s been enhanced by yeast complexity. The luxurious, cushiony mousse and long finish leave an unforgettable impression. The balance of this wine is exceptional, and the magnum format has effectively preserved its quality over the years. This is a seriously good wine, rightly earning the title of Best English Brut Vintage at the CSWWC 2023. | 96

Squerryes 2014 Blanc de Blancs (magnum)
(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12% ABV; 8g/l RS)

This wine presents a beautiful ensemble of gracefully aged fruit which emanates soft, vanilla hints on the nose, complimented by a creamy ripeness and gentle mousse on the palate. Remarkably fresh for a 10-year-old English sparkling wine. Rating | 93

Squerryes 2019 Brut
(Kent; 36% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir, 28% Meunier; 12% ABV; 5.7g/l RS)

An elegant wine exuding clean, fresh, and soft peachy aromas on the nose. It boasts bright, pristine fruit on a fresh and vibrant palate. Super-youthful with a lovely mousse, this wine is both bright and zesty. Rating | 91


Lyme Bay Winery 2020 Crow’s Lane Pinot Noir

(Crouch Valley, Essex; 100% Pinot Noir; 13% ABV; SC)

A deeper color than Martin’s Lane—not always a plus point for Pinot Noir, but in this case it is, and the extra 0.5% of ripeness makes all the difference to the structure, fruit, and tannins. The fruit is much softer and richer, with velvety, luscious notes of blackcurrant, blackberry, mulberry, and plump morello cherry. Gone is the menthol, to be replaced by complexing hints of vanilla and cinnamon, while the tannins are nicely soft and supple, yet have more than enough grip to sustain this Pinot Noir for many years to come. This might be the same price as the 2020 Martin’s Lane, but it is ten times the wine. Or certainly this vintage is. It is also the only English red wine I have purchased by the case—ever. It’s that good. | 95

Gusbourne 2019 Guinevere Boot Hill Chardonnay

(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV)

Classy, elegant Chardonnay nose. Finest, fleeting notes of baked apple and warm spice, flowing seamlessly onto the palate, where it is beautifully integrated with a light touch of creamy oak. | 93

Gusbourne 2022 English Rosé (Kent; 100% Pinot Noir; 12.5% ABV)

Glass stopper. Delightful pale peach colour with a lovely fresh aroma of orchard fruits and notes of raspberry and redcurrant leading to a core of crisp, quaffing fruit. Presented in an entirely different bottle from the rest of the range. Designed to catch the eye, but unfortunately its clear glass construction will also catch the light. | 90

Lyme Bay Winery 2021 Martin’s Lane Chardonnay (Crouch Valley, Essex; 100% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV; SC)

Lovely, toasty-oak aroma, with citrus notes, mostly ripe lime and fresh, and lime-rich fruit on the palate. A serious wine that is ready to drink. | 90

Lyme Bay Winery 2020 Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir
(Crouch Valley, Essex; 100% Pinot Noir; 12.5% ABV; SC)

Good color and depth. Nice core of cherry and damson fruit, with menthol aromas. Could be riper, with softer fruit and more supple tannins, but it has true varietal character. It is also very young and tight and should loosen up. | 88

New Hall 2021 Single Estate Pinot Noir Précoce
(Crouch Valley, Essex; 100% Pinot Noir Précoce; 11% ABV; SC)

Pale-red color. Lovely, soft, light, elegant, cru Beaujolais-type fruit. Could be a Fleurie! Although I would like this style to continue, I would also like to see what these vines could produce if harvested at 12.5–13% ABV. | 90

Sharpham 2022 Pinot Rosé(Devon; 74% Pinot Noir, 26% Meunier; 11% ABV; SC)

I like that this wine has a screwcap, but unfortunately it has been bottled in clear glass, though thankfully the sample I tasted had not yet been tainted by light strike. Very pale, pink color, very fresh on the nose, with crisp and zesty fruit on the palate, finishing with a tang of sherbety sweetness. | 84

Sharpham 2021 Pinot Noir(Devon; 100% Pinot Noir; 11.5% ABV)

Sealed with a cork, not screwcap, though I have seen other vintages under screwcap. Fresh, red-cherry varietal aroma on nose and palate. Simple, with fine, accentuated acidity. Probably needs another three to four years in bottle. | 84

Simpsons Wine Estate 2022 Roman Road Chardonnay
(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 13% ABV)

Sealed with cork. The first few vintages were too oak-dominant and suffered from too much lees stirring, as far as I was concerned. But by the 2022 vintage, these techniques had been well and truly mastered, revealing a lovely, light, and elegant touch of French oak, with just the barest hint of creaminess and no trace of distracting lactic aroma, though it went through a full malolactic, of course. The sweetness of ripe fruit abounds, with notes of citrus, pineapple, and red apple. Crisp and long. Costs half as much again as Gravel Castle but is worth it, as much as I love the entry-level wine. | 94

Simpsons Wine Estate 2022 Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir
(Kent; 100% Pinot Noir; 13% ABV)

Sealed with cork. Medium color. Very fruity. Soft cherry fruit, with coffee-oak notes on a light, supple tannin structure. Very nice, easy drinking. | 91

Simpsons Wine Estate 2022 Gravel Castle Chardonnay(Kent; 100% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV; SC)

I adore this entry-level, unoaked Chardonnay and often purchase it as my everyday drinking dry white, even to the point of pestering Charles Simpson to dig through his stock when a particular vintage has run out at all the online retailers I deal with. It consistently achieves what most Chablis producers should aspire to—and what they could easily achieve with their entry-level wines yet seldom manage: an uncomplicated, fresh, crisp, quaffable, dry white wine in a lean, mineral style, with a purity and elegance of fruit. Nothing lactic, nothing oaky; just an ideal aperitif that can easily lead into a meal. Perfect. | 90

Simpsons Wine Estate 2022 Derringstone Pinot Meunier(Kent; 100% Meunier; 13% ABV)

Sealed with cork. Gold color, with peach reflections, primary ferment odors melting into soft-fruit sorbet aromas. A delicately fruity quaffer. | 83

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