Is Ortega Britain’s Great White Hope or Just Another White Elephant?

By | 27 May 2024

‘If there is one varietal that cannot be accused of a lack of flavour, it is the German vine crossing Ortega, but when it comes to this bodybuilding grape, less is most definitely more’, 

English wine – far from a joke now

Jancis Robinson May 26, 2007.

A critic I know was almost cancelled for using the term ‘vine racism’ during a stateside live in defence of certain vine crossings and PIWIS. I see his point. To many drinkers, Germanic crossings and PIWIs are verboten.

Lisse Garnett engaged winemakers Salvatore Leone, Adrian Pike and Jose Quintana in a discussion about their passion for Ortega.

With the consumer’s growing preference for organic, natural choices, it seems only logical that attention would turn towards fungus-resistant hybrid vines. This shift aligns perfectly with a move towards sustainable choices. However, the question arises – can a variety like Ortega that ripens early and has aromatic qualities stand up to the UK’s climate and requirements?

Ortega, while ideal for the warming climate of Germany, is often deemed too difficult to cultivate and even worse to harvest. Yet more and more English winemakers are voicing their belief in Ortega’s potential to produce high-quality, age-worthy, terroir-true white wines in the UK.

Hybrid and cross varieties bred for disease resistance in Germany have been the subject of much debate and controversy, including criticisms of their naturalness and allegations linking their creation to Nazi reign.

On June 12, 2016, The Ithaca Voice featured an obituary for food scientist Gilbert Stoewsand, originally published in the Cornwell Chronicle. The obituary recounted Stoewsand’s efforts in the 70s to defend New York’s emerging wine industry from severely flawed science that ascribed physiological irregularities in animals to wines produced from hybrid grapes. These allegations were disseminated in The Washington Post, resulting in withdrawal of hybrid wines from the market.

Meanwhile, Germanic crosses have been subjected to less absurd prejudices but seemingly repel marketers as bad breath would. Interestingly, there is a marginal group of radical British winemakers advocating Ortega; they express reverence towards it in muted tones. These winemakers potentially view Ortega as the white knight of winemaking.

In the context of this writeup, I managed to mingle with this intriguing group. We convened in the unconventional Sussex region at the onset of the Bonfire season amidst carving wicker representations of Boris in oak woods. We had extended nocturnal discussions and sampled some of the oldest existent bottles of English Ortega. Here are their insights…


The rumored origins of Ortega wine were as a tribute to the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). These types of origin stories often circulate amongst journalists. I previously looked into the legitimacy of claims that the wine enjoyed during the signing of the Magna Carta was from New Hall Vineyard at Purleigh, Essex. After tracking down the historian who supposedly started this rumor, I found the claims completely unsubstantiated.

In an effort to better understand Ortega, I reached out to the Bavarian State Institute for Viticulture for information. I received no response. However, Wines of Germany were extremely helpful by connecting me with viticulturist and vine specialist Josef Engelhart who gave me the real facts.

Ortega was named after the Spanish philosopher by its creator Dr Hans Breider, who was working at the Bavarian State Institute for Viticulture and Horticulture in Würzburg in 1948 (Breed no. B48-21-4) and became officially registered in 1971. Its genetic makeup comprises Müller-Thurgau (Riesling x Madeleine Royal) x Siegerrebe (Madeleine Angevine x Gewürztraminer). This variety offers red shoot tips, light green leaves, and firm, thick grapes that mature quickly into a yellow color. However, Ortega is more susceptible to wasps and yields less than Siegerrebe, necessitating wasp repellent. It can still produce high yields without quality compromise.

Regrettably, according to Engelhart, Ortega is becoming less common in Bavaria. Global warming has lessened its appeal due to traits like high sugar content, low acidity, and early ripening. These vines produce ripe fruit by August 20th. The fruit, wine, and taste are still pleasant, but it is better suited for cooler climates like those in Sweden, Norway, Canada, and the UK. Yet, issues like susceptibility to frost in spring and botrytis can pose problems. Because of these complications, most vineyards prefer to use Solaris, which ripens early but requires less plant protection due to it containing hybrid DNA.

Crosses are born from the union of two Vitis vinifera varieties. On the other hand, hybrids are the product of interspecies crosses; these could occur by accident or be intentionally bred. Disease and rot resistance can be immensely beneficial because before the advent of phylloxera, downy and powdery mildew wrought havoc on European vineyards. Often, hybrids demonstrate resistance to fungus, but they nonetheless require grafting onto American rootstock.


Despite an EU ruling designed to cut down on spraying and permitting the use of hybrids in PDOs, France’s AOC system remains unimpressed. Generally regarded as inferior, hybrids weren’t well accepted, although certain trailblazing producers such as Vignobles Foncalieu in Pays Doc have been crafting PIWI wines. Their future hinges on market acceptance. Tainting high-quality European vines with common Yankee stock was how French wine rule-makers once scorned PIWIs.

In reality, prior to the 1934 clampdown to curb overproduction, vast tracts of France were planted with hybrids. Pierre Galet even praised the ‘rich, flavorful’ hybrid wines of hybrid stronghold Cévennes in his 1998 tome, Grape Varieties and Rootstock Varieties.

Then came the EU vine pull edict, complete with cash bribes and propaganda. Yet it was cash-strapped farmers, particularly in inhospitable poor regions where vines struggled to ripen and needed a lot of expensive chemical input, who understood the advantages of hybrids in the first place. 


Henry Jeffries calls Westwell Ortega the ‘English Vinho Verde’

Alison Nightingale owner of Albourne thinks ‘we should grub the bloody stuff up’

England’s Ortega family tree began with Will Davenport, an individual as English as they come, albeit with the stature reminiscent of a Norman knight. His vine roots, however, are thoroughly international. He has been growing Bacchus, Huxelrebe, Siegerrebe, and Ortega in his Kent and Sussex vineyards since 1991, and has been doing so organically since 2000.

Both an organic pioneer and a visionary, Davenport’s influence has reached far. Two people who credit him for their focus on Ortega are Adrian Pike of Westwell and Jose Quintana at Vagabond. Both also credit his skilled and friendly viticulturist, Marcus Goodwin, who is now the vineyard manager at Westwell.

Italian-born Salvatore Leone has firmly rooted himself in England. With over ten years of experience handling England’s vines, Leone also recognizes the potential of British Ortega. He has carved out a reputation as one of England’s most knowledgeable consultant winemakers, creating wines for Albourne, Oxney, Tillingham, and Trevibbam in Cornwall.

The respected and award-winning winemaker Jose Quintana trained at Plumpton, Davenport, and Westwell. Currently, he is at the helm of winemaking at Vagabond, one of the few urban wineries in London.

Adrian Pike is the renowned winemaker at Westwell, teaming up with his talented artist wife, Galia, they cultivate 40 acres of chalk on Kent’s North Downs. His training background is from Plumpton and Davenport, where he also tutored Jose.

The trio are ardent fans of Ortega. They were asked about their affinity for it…?

Salvo: I appreciate the texture and balance; I perceive it as a comprehensive wine; a wine that stands strong individually without the need for mixing. Its texture is full; it possesses a velvety touch and smoothness in the UK climate. The aroma is quite distinct and changes with the year.

Jose: At Vagabond, we produce two separate styles of Ortega; one is oak-infused, while the other utilises skin contact and is created in a solera system, similar to sherry. We have even matured it under flor, which results in an outstanding salty umami taste, accompanied by richness and salinity on the aftertaste. It has a delightful hint of orange and apricot. 

Adrian: Ortega is one of my favourite grapes here in England, one of the great advantages is yield, you can get a pretty decent yield without compromising on ripeness. It also has some wonderful flavours, slightly tropical with an orangey mid palate and a moreish salinity.

Lisse: But not everyone is a fan, are they Salvo? Alison Nightingale, the owner of Albourne dislikes the variety and wants you to reconsider its cultivation!

Salvo: Hahahaha no, one of the wineries I advise is Albourne and yes she detests it. The grape is challenging to harvest, and the yields are not that high due to its susceptibility to rot, it rots quite quickly there. That makes it extremely costly to harvest. We have a batch of Ortega wine that’s remain unsold, Alison just does not appreciate its taste.

The creation of an Ortega wine variety at Albourne happened by chance when the press bladder malfunctioned with a sudden burst late at night. It exploded. We left the juice in contact with the skins for ten days, whole bunch. The evolution of the tannin has been fascinating, there was some volatile acidity, but then it harmoniously blended, and we could taste flavours such as apricot, peach, dried fruit, it’s incredible…

Adrian: She is welcome to chat with our in-house vineyard manager, Marcus. Having spent 20 years with Davenport and an additional six with us, his cultivation techniques have produced consistently high yields. Despite Ortega’s susceptibility to botrytis and somewhat challenging harvest due to tendrils that tend to twine around objects, our yield is abundant and a joy to harvest.

I question why Bacchus is gaining popularity over Ortega. Ortega offers versatility and a subtle complexity while Bacchus presents volatile, overpowering aromas. Moreover, Ortega has a distinctive sense of place, something that Bacchus fails to embody significantly with respect to vintage or terroir. The diversity and engaging nature of Ortega prevents monotony; we three winemakers have experimented with skin contact, though each with slightly different techniques.

Lisse: Adrian’s aversion to Bacchus is clearly apparent.

Jose: My personal journey with Ortega began somewhat later than Adrian’s. Our paths crossed at Plumpton; eventually, I joined him at Davenport. One needs to be vigilant with Ortega due to its tendency for fast acidity drop. Adrian and Will Davenport guided me on harnessing the fast ripening of Ortega while maintaining optimal acidity levels for a balanced taste. Indeed, Ortega is a wonderful conduit for the expression of the soil’s characteristics.

I find the stems create a savoury note that frames the fruit nicely.  Coming from Riesling, it has this incredible ability to work on all kinds of levels thanks to the incredible range of compounds in the skin and juice. When we try the 2016 Vagabond, you get rose petals, orange, ginger and a mineralic salty, savoury note. 

Adrian: Ortega is very expressive of the soil on which it grows. In the Ortega we grow at Westwell on chalk, there is definitely a signature. We’ve played around with different styles but we always get this lightly savoury, saline minerality on the finish, which comes from the chalk. Our sparkling and our Pet Nat are more linear and direct, but they all have this savoury salinity.

José Ortega y Gasset was a liberal and a philosopher who railed against the collective mediocrity of the masses’ threat to free thought, most apt when applied to Ortega the grape. Here are the notes on the wines we tasted.


Westwell Ortega 2016

Pike took over Westwell in 2016.

After a few days open, a distinctive Riesling petrol note came through. The salty freshness remained. It is silky yet pithy and textural, with sweet almond blossom, apricot, citrus, orange, grapefruit pith, and vanilla. Tangy and elegant, it has a dry, pithy burnt orange finish. Ortega can age.

Tillingham, Qvevri Artego 2017

For this wine Ortega grapes were destemmed and lightly crushed into open vats. They were macerated by foot twice daily for 5 days. The juice and skins were decanted into a Georgian Qvevri, nestling in the earth under an oast house. The oak lid of the qvevri was sealed with clay, and the wine left to age under flor until being racked and bottled in the spring’ Wild ferment, no filtration and no added sulphur.

Grapefruit and rose petal – ‘There is definitely Bacchus in this blend,’ says one of the winemakers. The nose is sweet and on the palate, there is a pithy bitterness and rose petal, saline, bitter citrus, grapefruit, demerara sugar and mandarin. The texture is silky with a note of sweet pink rose and bitter lemon.

Vagabond Solena Batch 002 (18-2022) – skin contact – solera blend of 2018, 2021, 2022 tasted in samples.

Bitter orange marmalade and doughy notes on the nose with honeyed chamomile aromas – the wine is savory, salty and textural with a pithy dryness – noticeable on the palate. It finishes with an endive-like bitterness, and is bone dry. Fresh, tart and sublimely textural; super silky yet tannic on the finish, superbly mouth filling but not overwhelming. The texture is gossamer-like and silky. It’s enticingly fresh, tannic, salty and supple. Simply superb.

Albourne Estate Orange Wine 2019, 100% Ortega

Candied orange and grapefruit on the nose, sweet blossom, dough and grapefruit pith, bitter saline and endive. Sour lemon. Super dry. 

Tillingham End Grain 2021

Grapefruit, orange liqueur, sour and candied lemon, dry pith, dough, and saline. I like this, though no one else does, finishes on a distinctive scrumpy note.

Gutter & Stars, Fight the Power Ortega 2022

This white wine made from Ortega, with a total of 12% alcohol content, is carefully cultivated in Yew Tree Vineyard Oxfordshire. It is characterized by a beautiful, fragrant floral essence and a bright citrus flavor. Its aromatic profile is further adorned with hints of mandarin, peach tea and honeysuckle.

Jose’s 22 Barrel sample

Evoking a unique sensory experience, this barrel sample presents a doughy nose, an oxidized apple characteristic with a hint of cider, and a tangible presence of mandarin. Its textural and pithy variations add another layer of complexity to its identity.

Jose’s 18 Barrel sample

Darker orange, more tangy, richer and textural with grapefruit mandarin and grapefruit pith and saline.

Westwell Ortega Amphora 2017

12.5% This finishes fermentation on skins in a 500l amphora. Sublime copper orange colour, complex with notes of fennel, pear, apricot, grapefruit – on the nose, there is marmalade, honey, mimosa and on the palate, briny sour lemon pith. A wonderful bitter orange and a floral camomile hint with walnut skin and an endive bitterness and a hint of liquorice. The wine is supple, sapid, beguiling moreish, tender, salty and divine. It has the same effect on me as a gorgeous Manzanilla but lighter. This would be insane with seafood tempura.

Westwell Ortega 2022

11.5%. Fresh, flinty, zesty, bright and dry with honeyed peach and mandarin, orange, grapefruit and mimosa. There is a stunning mineral fresh quality, a clear delicacy as if made of gossamer – silky, textured, a hint of tannic, and utterly dry with a savory finish of peach skin.

Vagabond 2021

12%. Imagine spiced orange, peach, pear, candied lemon, honeysuckle, and pink grapefruit. It presents a fresh, nutty, and refined flavor. It’s incredibly dry and silky that it practically melts in your mouth. There’s a creamy texture heightened by pink grapefruit and mandarin, lending a supple, juicy quality that begs for more. Finishes with a mouthwatering, dry, saltiness.

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