Pushing the frontiers of English wine: Richard Esling September 15

Our home-grown wine industry is now firmly established and indeed expanding rapidly.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 12:31 pm
English Pinot Meunier SUS-200914-121254001

It’s not just the quantity that’s growing, but quality improves also with every vintage, as both expertise of the wine makers and the age of the vines increases. No serious wine drinker would now ignore the range of English sparkling wines, the vast majority being made by the same method as champagne, and largely from the same grape varieties. Personally, I am a fan of virtually all English fizz, but I find the still wines a little trickier.

As wine industries develop, so does the desire to try something more unusual, to experiment and push the boundaries of flavour and style. Cue single varietal wines, both sparkling and still, from lesser known varieties, or at least varieties not often seen on their own. Such is Pinot Meunier, a red variety and one of the three standard champagne grape varieties, now grown across the globe by producers of high-quality traditional method sparkling wines. The other two are the white Chardonnay and the other black grape, Pinot Noir, both of which have seen a multitude of incarnations in virtually every wine making region of the world.

Once thought of as ‘the poor relation’ in ‘champagne’ grape terms, Pinot Meunier is now gaining in recognition for the richness and body it contributes to the wines. Making up a third of all grape varieties in the Champagne region, it now represents eight per cent of English grapes. Seldom used on its own for wines anywhere in the world, some English winemakers have gone out on a limb to do so, with surprisingly good results, although quantities are small.

‘Blanc de Noirs’ is a white wine made from black grapes. As a sparkling wine, Pinot Noir is the usual grape, sometimes mixed with Meunier. However, Fox and Fox in Mayfield, East Sussex has produced a traditional method sparkler from 100 per cent Pinot Meunier. Aged on the lees for nearly three years, the 2014 vintage has that biscuity character, melded with pear and red apple flavours, giving a deliciously refreshing, elegant and seductive wine with a long finish. A tribute to the winemaker, Jonica Fox.

Continuing with the white wine from black grapes theme, Simpsons Wine Estate near Canterbury in Kent, has created an outstanding still wine Derringstone Pinot Meunier 2019. Unique and exquisite from the chalky North Downs, from a producer who originally swore never to make still wines in England, this is exceptionally good – and that’s from me who often finds still English wines tricky! Fabulously creamy and mellow, with flavours and aromas of poached pears and preserved lemons. A first for the UK from the daring and innovative Charles and Ruth Simpson. Fabulous sleek bottle too!

To complete the range of Pinot Meunier styles, Hush Heath Estate, also in Kent, has produced a still red wine, The Red Miller 2018. According to the winemaker Owen Elias, this was an experiment which worked far better than even he had hoped. From a single parcel of superbly ripe Pinot Meunier, he has crafted a delicate and aromatic garnet red wine, with depth and balance. With a touch of French and American oak, the tannins are soft with dark berry fruit flavours and aromas, with a touch of smoke and soft spice. Rewarded by a Gold Medal from the International Wine Challenge, a first for an English red wine.

Keep up the experiments!