particular priority during our trip to Kent was to visit a vineyard in its
infancy, so when the opportunity arose to see Woodchurch, we were delighted to
add them as the last stop on our tour. I must admit that although I had spotted
the vines falling away down the gentle slope to my right, I sailed past the
entrance on my first pass and had to perform a rather questionable 20 point
turn on a narrow country road to get back on track. There was no signage or
elaborate visitor centre, just a corrugated shed, a tractor, Graham Barbour,
and his vines – and you know, I quite like that.
Graham has always lived in Kent and leaving a
successful career in publishing in the City behind him, his ambition was to
produce wine that was completely representative of the county – a wine that
“tasted of Kent”, you might say. His wife Donna worked in the United States for
some time and was initially keen for them to move the family and set up a
vineyard over there, but thankfully they ultimately decided against the idea.
and Donna very much tend to the vineyard themselves so it seems that we visited
at exactly the right time of year – Graham’s favourite time of year, when the
pruning and tying is complete, everything is under control and all he has to do
is keep a keen eye out for late frost and wait for the buds to burst.
couple bought the South-facing plot at auction in 2009 planting the first
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier clones in 2010. As with many producers
that we speak to, Graham was clear that site selection was critical and their
meticulous preparation was immediately rewarded (as best as it might be…) by
their first harvest – the devastating wash-out of 2012.
On the crest of a hill, Woodchurch recorded a
significantly lower rainfall than even the Kent average and the younger, more
disease-resistant vines yielded 2,000 bottles each of the Blanc de Blancs and
Classic Cuvée, when many of the already established producers scrapped the
smaller harvest may have actually benefitted in the development side of the
business, as it allowed the Barbours time to experiment and really fine-tune
their product. For example, the keener-eyed of you may notice that not only are
the first harvest’s bottles individually numbered, but the original bottles
were green and subsequently changed to a darker glass from 2013 to better
protect the wine.
wine itself is vinified by Kevin Sutherland at Bluebell Vineyards, who was
chosen from a shortlist of contact producers because he offered the couple a
very direct connection to the winemaking process, which Graham quite rightly
felt was important. They gave Kevin a detailed brief of how they hoped the end
product would taste, from which Kevin produces 7-10 different base wines each
vintage. After much sampling and discussion, the final blend is decided upon
and after three vintages it seems they are much clearer and closer to achieving
the end goal. The other real attraction of working with Bluebell is rather more
technical - the number of fermentation tanks that were offered for the
production of the wine. Whilst other contractors offered just 4 or 5 tanks for
the contract, Kevin ferments each of the 12 clones of the 3 varietals
separately. This attention to detail really does pay dividends in the end
product and the wine has winning awards from the outset, not least recognition
from the IWSC and Decanter.
2013 the Rosé Brut was added to the portfolio following a much better vintage,
yielding around 6 times as many grapes as the previous year and producing
around 23,000 bottles in all. Some grapes were sold to recover start-up costs
and recoup some of the losses from 2012, but their brand was growing
successfully. The packaging was conceived by Donna and the end result is not
only striking, but beautiful and would certainly draw the eye on any major
In 2014 the Barbours hoped to add a still Pinot
Noir and Chardonnay to the portfolio, but the final result on the Chardonnay
was not entirely satisfactory so the wine “went back into the mix”. The Pinot
is still in barrel and I am extremely eager to try some once available – I’m
sure that Great British Wine will be reporting on it for you as soon as it is
released. Having tried some sublime still English Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
this year, we do hope that Woodchurch have made another attempt at the Chardonnay,
as their signature style would create a very interesting and exciting wine.
this year’s vintage goes to plan Graham aims to keep some of the wine back, so
it's with great anticipation we report that we may also be seeing a Non
Vintage Sparkling Wine from Woodchurch in the near future. They are also
planting their first Bacchus vines this year, with first harvest planned for
2018 and another still wine hitting the shelves in 2019. There are much grander
plans for the vineyard site in the near future too, with ambition to expand by
two or three fold and an interesting concept for a cellar door and tasting room
made from shipping containers was excitedly explained and drawn out in the air
by Graham, who told us that work should be well underway this Summer and
planned for completion by the end of this year, or early 2017.
leave you with a lovely sentiment from Graham about the English Wine world, who
he tells us is extremely close-knit and supportive – he firmly believes that he
and Donna couldn’t have got to where there are now without assistance and
advice from the wider English Wine community and is extremely grateful to
everyone along their journey. I can’t help but love the vision and simplicity
of the Woodchurch set-up as it is now but I sincerely wish them every success
in their future development, because the wines borne from their first few
vintages are truly excellent.
the challenging 2012 vintage forced their hand to only using Pinot Noir and
Pinot Meunier in their Classic Cuvée (technically a Blanc de Noirs?),
Woodchurch have more traditionally added Chardonnay to the blend for 2013.
is typical English vibrancy and freshness on the palate, but Donna’s insistence
on the Chardonnay receiving a lick of oak has really brought the best out of
the wine by adding a bit more texture, weight and all of those delicious
associated flavours that I personally adore.
fruit is certainly Kentish, with apples and pears at the fore, notes of summer
berries and melon and then a clean, citrus finish that just seems to keep
unfolding on the palate.
Woodchurch Blanc de Blancs, 2012
fact that this was my favourite of the three shows that perseverance was
justified in 2012. A higher dosage of 15.8g was needed to pin back the higher
acidity, but the fruit has certainly not been quelled by the additional sugar.
nose is distinctly of red apples, with lemon zest and white peach joining the
party on the palate. A touch of vanilla and brioche too, imparted by Donna’s
elegant bubbles and again, a clean, persistent finish. I found myself asking
Graham if he’d recommend this as an aperitif, but who am I kidding – it would
be equally brilliant before food, with food or even instead of food!
Woodchurch Rosé, 2013
Pinot Meunier & Pinot Noir
precise blend of 68% Pinot Noir and 32% Pinot Meunier produces this delicious
sparkling rosé. Whilst they all retain their Kentish heritage, the Woodchurch
wines each have their own unique character
palate is alive with vibrant red fruit. Wild strawberries, raspberries and
cranberries followed by watermelon and white pepper on the finish.
slight creaminess cuts through the freshness and the fine bubbles dance all of
the flavours across the tongue beautifully.
It’s not often that I get to visit the South coast, so I couldn’t resist a visit to the nearby English Oak Vineyard when a weekend in Poole was planned. On a gloriously sunny but fresh February morning, the weather could not have been more perfect for this time of year to explore. We were warmly greeted by Andrew Pharoah, who told us that his wife Sarah was out in the vineyard pruning the vines – a laborious but crucial process being carried out by vineyards across the country at this time of year. We began in the converted stables, which are kitted out as meeting or presentation rooms to aptly portray that English Oak is more than a vineyard; but a destination. Kudos to them, because I cannot think of a better spot to hold an off-site conference and then enjoy a glass or two at the bar after a hard day’s work.
Andrew fondly regaled his story of how the idea of a vineyard came about during a visit to their holiday home in Cyprus in 2004, where he and Sarah found themselves drinking a bottle of red from the nearby Nikolettino vineyard at a local taverna. Wanting to take some home of the delicious local wine home they discovered that it was only available from the vineyard, so naturally they went off to seek it out. They took two things back from the vineyard that day – cases upon cases of wine and tired of their careers in IT, more than just a glimmer of enthusiasm that perhaps one day they could open their own winery. The major problem they faced was that whilst it would be easy to grow grapes in the Mediterranean, surely it would be impossible to produce quality wine back in England? Or so they thought. Such a common misconception, but it was refreshing to hear from a producer.
Once back in Britain they found over 400 wineries already in existence and went to see several of our established producers as part of their research. Like many, they were so impressed with the standard that soon there was no going back. Enrolled onto a course in Viticulture at Plumpton College, they began searching for the perfect site. In 2007 they sold their house in Sandbanks and bought a nearby farm, which at the time was used to raise cows and grow turnips. As well as having perfect soil conditions for growing Champagne varietals, the bowl shape of the plot was ideal for retaining sunshine and heat, whilst sheltering the vines from cold winds – a great advantage in our climate.
The aim was simple – to turn the farm into a boutique vineyard. Making wines in the Champagne style but with a unique British character, and like Nikolettino back in Cyprus, to concentrate their marketing on the local area to ensure exclusivity and quality of supply. Andrew was proud to tell me that this also helped them to minimise their carbon footprint, helped further by their electrically-powered delivery vehicle. In 2007 they planted the first of 23,000 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines and the first harvest came in 2009, with more vines planted that year. Their name English Oak Vineyard, coming from a huge 300 year old oak tree in the middle of the site and each of their wines is also charmingly named after a species of oak; Engelmann, Chinkapin and San Gabriel.
Focus is certainly on quality at English Oak, with their vines yielding between 2.5-4 tonnes per acre, an average of 40 tonnes in all. The excellent weather of 2014 brought the best crop though, of just over 87 tonnes at harvest – a stark contrast to the disastrous wash-out of 2012, which gave them just 7 tonnes and was ultimately undeclared and scrapped. Just as for many British producers this must have been such a difficult decision, particularly in the infancy of their business. But it is great to hear that the business is thriving despite their setback, particularly on the back of recognition for all of their wines by Decanter last year.
Playing a key part in the process is renowned winemaker Dermot Sugrue, who takes care of everything between harvesting the grapes and bottling. Dermot is an absolute legend of the English wine world and I’ve never tried a wine of his that I didn’t enjoy, so I knew we were in for a treat even before the first cork was popped. On the vineyard side, Sarah’s original background in horticulture ensures that he has the finest of produce to work with – a real winning combination. We caught up with Sarah amongst the vines and enjoyed a brief demonstration of the pruning and tying process. It’s clear that a lot of skill goes into nurturing the vines and it was such an education to see a vineyard at this time of year, in its starkest guise.
The thing that struck me most about English Oak was just how multi-faceted an innovative the business was – aside from the converted stables already mentioned and of course, the wine, a large marquee takes pride of place under the old oak in Summer for weddings. What’s more, later this year they will be offering Segway tours to the more adventurous visitors. I was most excited to hear that 2017 will see the first release of a 100% Pinot Noir “Wainscot” Blanc de Noirs. Andrew was delighted to tell us that the 2014 harvest was the first time he had tasted the juice from his Pinot Noir and thought “wow, this would make a really great still red!”. But a fantastic limited 1,000-bottle release BdN was the first priority and I for one am extremely eager to try it once Andrew, Sarah and Dermot decide that it is ready!
San Gabriel Blanc de Blancs 2010
Grapes: Chardonnay Price: £31.99
In a limited release of 1,000 bottles, this Blanc de Blancs from English Oak Vineyard made by Dermot Sugrue oozes quality. Classic in style, the wine is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes taken from the vineyard’s finest aspect.
Incredibly pale in colour and equally light on the nose, initial impressions are of elegance and finesse. The additional age smooths the edges out beautifully and I’d be tempted to cellar a few of these for several more years.
The palate is equally charmingly delicate and crisp, led by green apple and lemon rind. A fine mousse eases in more classically British country garden style with some pear and more citrus that helps to keep the palate evolving during its superb length. Just a hint of white pepper finishes everything beautifully.
English Oak’s wines all have a signature crisp, refreshing green apple character and I was surprised to find that this also followed through to this delicious rosé. The freshness comes from cold fermentation of the wine – a common trait in Dermot Sugrue’s wines.
In this blend of 51% Chardonnay, 16% Pinot Noir and 33% Pinot Meunier, the apples are joined by cranberry, redcurrant, wild strawberry and raspberry, with all the flavours coming through extremely clear and bright.
As the palate evolves, a slight creaminess breaks through the delicate mousse and balances the tart berry palate nicely.
To my palate this is the jewel in English Oak’s Crown. Aptly elegantly gold in colour, English Oak’s website suggests that competition judges think it is “a very nice wine”, but I don’t think that does it justice. This wine rates highly now, but it’s still young and with another few years in the cellar I think it’s going to be even better.
The palate begins in their signature style, with crisp green apple. Cranberry and a hint of wild raspberry creep in from the red grapes in the blend, before the 24 months ageing on the lees takes over. Freshly baked croissant, cream, butter and all things nice!
More apples and lemon cut through the decadence on the finish, which just seems to linger and evolve for such a long time. Fine bubbles offer a great mouthfeel against the slight weight of the Chardonnay.
This morning I had my first article published on a "proper" website! I met John Mobbs of Great British Wine a while back via Vivino, following the English Wine Producers Trade & Press Tasting. Following a bit of inspiration from Robbie Priddle, we set up a small campaign to get English Wine recognised as a regional style on Vivino, which finally happened last week! Following multiple trend reports from the likes of "big boys" such as Berry Bros and even Majestic, all predicting that English Wine will overtake Champagne on the global market in the next few years, I can't help but get excited about how big English Wine is going to be in 2016.
In a former (but not too distant past) I owned, if I may say so, a superb little gastropub on the outskirts of the Derbyshire Peak District. One of our resounding successes was our Wine List, which at its peak showcased no less than nine English Wines in a list of around eighty bottles. I was first properly introduced to it by a former employee, who was insistent that we should have English Wine on the list. Despite his best efforts and reasonably sound arguments I must admit I was sceptical – I’d heard mixed reviews on quality, along with stories of high prices and therefore saw the prospect as a bit of a gamble. Nevertheless we sent him off to the English Wine Producers (EWP) Trade & Press Tastingin London to see what was available, with a brief to seek out the best still English Wine that his modest budget could buy. Well, things just snowballed from there...
Now a fully-fledged convert, in my current role of selling wines to the on-trade I often face the same resistance and feel the same frustration that I bestowed on that poor employee in our opening exchanges. Two things are clear in my eyes – first, some English Wine is world-beating stuff and in fact has beaten leading contemporaries in blind tasting competitions and second, not enough people know about it. Every restaurant, pub and bar in England should be selling English Wine – but why?
1. IT IS NOW WIDELY REGARDED AS SOME OF THE BEST WINE IN THE WORLD
English Sparkling Wine in particular, in my humble opinion, is some of the best wine available on the world market today. As an affirmation of standing, the EU granted English Sparkling Wine a PDO in 2011 and applications are also currently pending for some of the largest producing sub-regions such as Sussex. It is well-reported that the same vein of chalky soil runs under the Channel and re-emerges in parts of Sussex and Kent, but the real game-changer has been global warming.
Whilst producers had previously been limited to the hardiest of grapes or hybrids, we now have the perfect climate to grow some of the world’s best known and loved varietals. Specifically, our climate is now what Champagne’s was approximately 30 years ago, and in years to come Champagne may just be too warm to produce the same sorts of wines. Whilst we sold Nytimber’s 2007 Blanc de Blancs at the pub (for £70.00, and it did sell!), I have since discovered the release of their 2010 Classic Cuvée, which I think might just be the best sparkling wine under £35 in the world - a bold, but absolutely unapologetic statement!
It was only last week that I was reading of Taittinger’s acquisition of an English site; perhaps planning ahead, perhaps getting in on the action, but certainly confirming that our terroir and our climate are highly in demand. Whilst English Wine struggled for years to make inroads as a result of lack of experience and the aforementioned climactic limiations, it is safe to say that the tide is undoubtedly turning.
Earlier this year Noble Rot Magazine organised a blind tasting event in London, which was judged amongst others by eminent wine critics Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, Kate Spicer and Jamie Goode. Hambledon and Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvées claimed the top two spots over the likes of Pol Roger and our new natives Taittinger, with Wiston Cuvéeand Gusbourne Brut Reserve faring particularly well too. Gusbourne Brut in fact picked up two IWSC gold medals this year and won the title of IWSC English Sparkling Wine of the Year 2015. Wiston Estate were my “surprise package” of the EWP event this year, having enjoyed all of their offerings but particularly their 2011 Sparkling Rosé. You can read a brief synopsis of my favourite wines from the EWP event here.
2. TO SUPPORT THE BRITISH ECONOMY
Any restaurant or gastropub worth its weight prides itself on sourcing food as locally as possible. This phenomenon has not just borne itself out of the belief that a local area’s produce is the best, but also because of increasing pressures to support the local economy and reduce our carbon footprint. Another of my favourite wine-producing regions is California, but because of high import/export taxes and a huge captive market on their doorstep diversity in good (affordable) Californian wines is very hard to come by in the UK. If some of the world’s best wines are at our fingertips it makes sense to keep them for ourselves, just as the Californians do!
All of the best-selling wines in the UK come from overseas – France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Chile… Whilst the UK government sees the benefit of excise duty and VAT on each bottle sold in the country, none of that money goes into supporting the grass-roots of the British economy and in particular, our wine growing community. By taking the plunge and buying British we will undoubtedly see even further improvements in the world market, as well as potentially a reduction in relative pricing over time.
3. IT IS WIDELY AVAILABLE
I’ve already mentioned that English Wine is on our doorstep – so use that to your advantage. Any wine merchant worth their salt now has a good selection of English Wine for your to choose from – if not, it’s perhaps time to change your wine merchant!
That said, I used a combination of sources to build my 11-strong English Wine selection at The Wingerworth. Aside from our friendly wine merchant, take a look at online retailers – there are always bargains to be had, which means more margin for you and potentially a more accessible price for your customer too. Waitrose have really outdone themselves over the past year or so and boast a fantastic selection of English Wine! Just recently I picked up bottles of the Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 in-store for just £21.59 using a combination of promotions. Sadly this offer has expired, but the beauty of any good wine list is that you can keep it rotating based on any particularly great deals that you can pick up. I also used Majestic, Laithwaites, Wine Direct, The Drink Shop and Great English Wines, to name just a few.
However, the best tip I can give is to speak to the producers themselves. Arrange an educational “staff training” day at the vineyard for your team even. In fairness to the producers I won’t list prices, but by speaking directly to local producers like Kieron Atkinson at Renishaw Hall and George Bowden at Leventhorpe, or slightly further afield Biddenden and Brightwell, we were able to retail English Wine under the £20 mark and still make good margin. The best news – I wasn’t paying or a middle-man and the producer was probably making a better margin than if they had sold to an intermediary.
4. IT IS STILL BETTER VALUE THAN ITS CONTEMPORARIES AND THE MARGINS WORK
I have to address the issue of price – because let’s face it, you won’t find a bottle of English Wine for under £5. So why is English Wine so expensive? The simplest answer is that we are fairly new to the wine world. The age-old wine adage goes that “to make a small fortune in the wine world, you need to start with a large one”. Our producers have invested huge sums of money into their vineyards relatively recently, whilst our neighbours in France for example paid for their wineries generations ago, so we’re playing catch-up with the majority of the rest of the wine world.
Now, if the quality wasn’t there I certainly wouldn’t part with an extra couple of quid per bottle, but we’ve already said that it’s world-class. One of the best-selling wines in the UK is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which shares similar characteristics to one of our best-known varietals, Bacchus. I’ve said that I won’t mention pricing, so I’ll say that our Brightwell Bacchus was purchased and consequently retailed for less than our NZ Sauvignon. Yes the Sauvignon still sold more, as it always will do, but as a result of great staff training and subsequent recommendation to customers we sold a surprising amount of Bacchus.
But what about the margins if the New Zealand retailed at a higher price point you say? Well, I set the cash margin of the Bacchus similarly to the Sauvignon so that the business wouldn’t lose out. Equally as a percentage of retail price, our Gross Profit on the Bacchus was therefore better (see table below to demonstrate). Your business doesn’t lose out – the extra £3 retail price pays for a greater chunk of VAT and a middle-man.
Cash Margin :
Retail Price :
£20.95 (£16.76 ex. VAT)
£23.95 (£19.16 ex. VAT)
Gross Profit (%) :
*Note all prices are fictitious and for demonstration purposes only.
5. IT GETS PEOPLE TALKING
English Wine is exciting! If staff have met the producer, if they have tasted the quality and if they have been trained correctly, they will get excited about it. If your staff are excited about a product, your customers will be too. This is so simple, I really don’t need to say more!
If you would like to discuss in greater detail, please do not hesitate to contact me via the details below, or John at Great British Wine.