Author: Liz Andersen
When I started to look into the background for this article regarding the types of wines we grow in this country, the first thing that struck me, despite English wine making only really becoming mainstream in the last 30 years or so, was that we’ve actually been making wine here in the UK for centuries!
I’d like to personally thank whichever Roman Centurion it was who introduced vine growing to England … a true philanthropist! But an optimistic one, as he tried growing grapes as far North as Lincolnshire.
Talking of the North, that brings me rather neatly round to the subject of latitude …. Here comes your geography lesson for the day. It is commonly agreed that vines grow successfully within the degrees of 30 and 50 either North or South of the Equator. Beyond either of those limits, it is either too cold or too hot.
So successful winemaking in English vineyards should come as no surprise when you think that London is on 51.506 N. Our most prolific vineyards are in Berkshire, Kent, Sussex in Southern England. Compare that to Alsace on 48.330 N and Mosel on 49.037 N. All much of a muchness really, and we know how great their wines are.
English vineyards climate is quite similar to Mosel or even Marlborough
So we share a very similar climate. The other thing we have in common is very similar soils, mainly chalky limestone, which lends itself particularly well to the grape varieties grown to produce sparkling wines.
So, let’s look at the most commonly grown grape varieties in England. Bear in mind that many of these names won't sound familiar to you. This is because we are used to hear famous French grape varieties that are grown in warmer climates, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but cooler climates require different grapes to succeed.
The grape varieties we grow in England, in fact, can be found in other cooler wine producing regions like Germany, Austria, Canada, Marlborough or even Washington Estate in the US. Areas that have cooler climatic conditions yes, but many of them are able to produce large quantities of very popular wines - we all like a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, don't we?
Most commonly found grapes in England
White grape varieties
White grapes are made to use, obviously, white wines - but don't forget to include sparkling wines! Did you know that the vast majority of Champagne in the world is made with Chardonnay? So stop saying you don't like Chardonnay - of course you do, you just didn't known it!
Below a list of the white grape varieties commonly grown in the UK:
- Seyval Blanc
- Sauvignon blanc
- Pinot Gris/Grigio
- Madeleine Angevine
From this list, at Stanlake Park we grow the majority of them - plus an increasingly popular grape variety in cool climates called "Solaris". Did you know, by the way, that wine is successfully made in Sweden and Denmark nowadays, with Solaris grape too?
A great introduction to English White Wines, if you haven't tried one yet, is Bacchus. This is a very popular grape among viticulturists in England because it's easy to grow and makes a great fruity and refreshing white, that tastes quite similar to Sauvignon Blanc - in fact, many people call Bacchus the 'English Sauvigon Blanc'.
Another very interesting wine to try in England is made with Madeleine Angevine. This originally French grape grows successfully in the South East of England, producing delicate, floral and elegant wines. This is Natalia's - our Sales Manager - personal favourite!
And don't forget our very top white: the King's Fumé. This wine is made with Chardonnay and Ortega grapes in the same style as White Burgundy wines such as Meursault or Pouilly-Fuissé. A multi-award winning, made following low intervention techniques so unfined and unfiltered.
English Red Wines
Black grapes are used to make red and rosé wines, but you can also make white wine from a black grape, for instance (again) Champagne, which is typically made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (....are you learning loads? Do you want to learn more? Join our fun and educative Wine Tours!)
We don't grow loads of black grape varieties in England, because the climate here doesn't allow for the majority of them to successfully ripen. So forget about making bold reds like Zinfandel here, we need a much hotter and dried summer than the British one!
But we do grow one of the most famous and prestigious black grape varieties: Pinot Noir. With this absolutely fantastic grape we are able to make delicious reds, rosés and white wines (English Sparkling Wine, again!). The most famous Pinot Noir wines in the world are made in Burgundy and are able to age for decades, notably improving with time. So how long can you age an English Pinot Noir? Well, we don't know - English wine industry is still too young to tell, but if you manage to leave a bottle in the cellar you might know in a few decades!
Another black grape that we grow in England (and at Stanlake Park) is Meunier, previously known as Pinot Meunier, another important component of the famous fizz in the Champagne region of France, but also part of our red wines.
And then we have a fantastic grape that it's called Dornfelder. Originally from Germany, this grape is great because it's able to fully ripen every year in England, no matter the weather conditions, making delicious and fruity reds and rosé. A very good example of a Dornfelder-made wine is our popular The Reserve, which is our very best-seller red.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec: can they grow in England?
The main restriction to the varieties we can grow is down to the low growing season temperature. Other grape varieties, especially of black grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, just won’t ripen here. We just don’t have sufficient warmth for colour to develop in the skins, nor for tannins to soften. The grapes would also just be too bitter and contain insufficient sugar to convert to alcohol during fermentation.
Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to drink a glass of dry wine where the tannins are so grippy and harsh, making your tongue feel as though it had been grated and your top lip stick to your teeth, will know where I am coming from.
So choosing the right varieties allows vineyards in the UK to produce different types of wines, sparkling, still whites and still reds. We do have a long growing season to counteract some of the lack of warmth and this allows grapes to ripen slowly all the way through to harvest in September-October.
With the turmoil going on around us at the moment and uncertainty around supplies of essential products (that most definitely includes wine), it is reassuring to know that many wineries including Stanlake Park are continuing to explore grape varieties able to produce outstanding wines in England.
I shall be opening a bottle of Stanlake's Madeleine tonight and saying “Centurion, I salute you”.