Pinot Noir is recognised as the “most challenging” grape on earth; challenging to grow, challenging to turn into a decent wine, and often challenging even to like! It’s like a stubborn adolescent teenager who just will NOT do what it’s told and unless it gets it’s own way you can forget it! Its natural home is Burgundy, particularly the Côte d’Or, the golden slopes, where the terroir is completely conducive to producing some of the finest, long lived, and most expensive wines in the world. By terroir, I mean the total environment in which the vines grow including the soil, water availability, the climate, the aspect. Then there is the winemaker and the winemaking process which has to be lovingly applied so as to bring out the sought after characteristics of this Noble grape. Is it any wonder that winemakers all over the world have tried and often failed to get anywhere near the perfumed glory of the best Pinot Noirs from those golden slopes? But to be fair, there are brilliant examples now coming from New Zealand and America …… and believe it or not …….. from England! Leading the way is Gusbourne, the vineyard near the village of Appledore in Kent, where there has been a Gusbourne Estate since 1410.
“The de Goosebourne family crest was made up of three geese and can be found in our local parish church in Appledore – nowadays, each and every bottle of wine crafted at Gusbourne carries a contemporary goose crest in honour of our heritage. This ‘Goosemark’ is a symbol of trust, representing our pursuit of uncompromising quality.”
The estate has a total of 220 acres of vines, some in Sussex as well as Kent, mostly planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier for the production of their sparkling wine. Amongst these vines however is the “Boot Hill” climat/field which has Pinot Noir planted specifically for a still wine. It is here that Gusbourne have produced a great red wine from Burgundian Pinot Noir clones 828, 777 and 115 which thrive in the clay and sandy loam of this south facing ancient escarpment. This is how, increasingly, the “new world” winemakers have found the answer to matching the benchmark of Burgundian Pinot Noir……… the vineyard itself is the answer in terms of the terroir, and allowing the grapes to find their OWN expression through minimal intervention in the winery.
“Soft, yet rich and clean, this wine shows all the classic Pinot Noir aromas of ripe strawberry, morello cherry and earthy spiciness. Carefully selected parcels of grapes from the Boot Hill vineyard were hand picked, gently destemmed and slowly fermented in stainless steel tanks. Further ageing in oak barriques for 8 months add spice, pepper and dark chocolate to the attractive underlying flavours of cherry, redcurrant and subtle violet.”
The vineyards description was good enough for me as we enjoyed a bottle of the Boot Hill Pinot Noir 2018 on Christmas Day 2020. It was a perfect match for our “Three Bird Roast” of combined turkey, duck, and goose. A few days later I emailed the vineyard to ask about the maturity potential of this wine and was pleased to receive a quick reply advising me that the wine would continue to improve up to 2028. And so, here is my first case of an English Pinot Noir to replace my red Burgundies, not cheap at £35. But cheaper than the Burgundies they will replace!
Another English Pinot Noir trailblazing a path of high quality is that of Winbirri Vineyard in Norfolk, East Anglia. I’ve already written about Winbirri and their award winning Bacchus white wine though here is a little more information. Winbirri Vineyards has 25 acres in Surlingham where the soils are very light, sandy loams with clay about 6ft down, in other words soil almost identical to that of Gusbourne mentioned above. There is a high flint content and all pruning is carried out by hand. Historically there was an important Anglo-Saxon settlement on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park and the name Winbirri comes from the Anglo-Saxon “win” (wine) and “birri” (grape). It was established in 2007 by experienced fruit farmer, Stephen Dyer, who supplies major retailers. He spotted an opportunity and planted around 2½ acres with vines. Stephen’s son, Lee, took over at the age of 32 in 2010 when the first commercial plantings took place. All sites have been carefully selected so that they are not in frost pockets and each site has a lower-lying field for the frost to run off to. Once again the Burgundy clone 777 Pinot Noir has been planted in the Winbirri terroir.
“English Pinot Noir is elegant cool climate Pinot Noir at its best. Fragrant, soft and flavourful with aromas of ripe black cherries and sweet fruit tannins that provide a seductive structure and character.”
We also opened a bottle of the Winbirri Pinot Noir on Christmas Day. We had slightly over chilled this wine and on opening we suffered a huge wave of disappointment. Christmas Day, lunch on the table, and our anticipation dissipating as we experienced zero aromas and taste! More in hope than in certainty we wrapped our hands around our glasses trying to warm the wine. It worked! Now we all experienced the classic Pinot Noir aromas and flavours, earthyness on the nose followed by black cherry on the palate. Soft tannins completed the character of this brilliant example of an English Pinot Noir.” Definitely a Special Occasion Wine, £14.50, but without the “longer life” of the Gusbourne wine
So, there is definitely a revolution taking place in English vineyards. Highly skilled winemakers backed by entrepreneurial owners are advancing the quality of English wine at a rate the early wine producing monks of Burgundy could never imagine. But we must pay tribute to them and recognise that we are now benefiting from the centuries of experience passed down to the modern day growers of Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or. Next up is Burgundian Chardonnay, a very different problem for the English winemakers.