In search of English Red wines

Forget what you think you know about red wine when it comes it English Red wines.

What are the particularities of English red wines?

That’s the view of Lizzie Mellish, author of The Budding Sommelier blog and former wine buyer for The English Vine.

“I have conducted quote a few virtual wine tastings and English red wine is seen as a bit of a novelty,” said Lizzie.

“However, when people try English red wine for the first time, it tastes completely different to what they expected – and in a positive way. When we think of red wines, we think of Bordeaux, of Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rioja and so on, which generally are all strong, full-bodied wines with a lot of tannins. English reds are very different when likened to those wines. A good vintage for an English Red will produce a glass of wine that is light and fresh and should be drunk while its young. English red wines are incredibly easy drinking. Some are ideal for being lightly chilled and perfect for drinking on a warm summer’s day as an alternative to rose, but slightly heavier.”

Grape Varieties to make English red wines

As a result of the cooler climate conditions in Great Britain, the variety of grapes are much more limited when it comes to red wine production. The predominant grape for reds produced in England is Pinot Noir, which is synonymous with the grand red wines of Burgundy. In Great Britain, there are around 1,000 hectares of Pinot Noir vines planted. It is one of the three main varieties used to produce English sparkling wine.

You can also find a number of vineyards in England producing reds using Dornfelder and Rondo grape varieties. These varieties have their origins in Germany. Other varieties which are grown in small quantities are Pinot Noir Precoce (or early Pinot Noir) and Regent. But these are predominantly used in blends.

Interestingly, there are a couple of vineyards producing English red wines made with grapes which you would associate more with France. For example, Sharpham Estate in Devon offer Beenleigh Reserve, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) and Merlot (25%), which are grown under polytunnels.

Further along the south coast in East Sussex, Bluebell Vineyard claims to produce the only 100% Merlot wine grown in the UK.

Where do they grow?

Reds are not exclusive to the south of England. Indeed, the Yorkshire Heart vineyard has a red entirely from Rondo grapes, while neighbours Laurel Vines produce a Rondo as well as a Rondo/Pinot Noir blend.

There are also a number of Welsh vineyards that are producing good quality wine. One example is White Castle Vineyard which produces three distinctive reds using Rondo, Regent and Pinot Noir Recoce.

Another element about reds produced here is they are not as high in alcohol. And this seems to have become a trend in other parts of the world, with wines around 11-12% ABV, which also explains their ‘easy-drinking’ tag.

Is there an appetite to expand red wine production?

“Red wines will always be second to sparkling wine in England – definitely in terms of production, demand and prestige. However, English red wine producers are able to experiment more and we are seeing in that in the wine produced,” says Lizzie.

The prospect of more vines being planted to expand red wine production is very unlikely according to Stephen Skelton MW. Skelton is one of the UK’s foremost viticultural consultants. He has five decades of experience in the wine industry and has written many books on wine. His bibliography includes The UK Vineyards Guide and the Wine Growing in UK. And he says that the combination of high investment, low profitability and limited demand for English red wines means there is little appetite to expand.

He said: “English red wine accounts for no more than about five per cent of wine produced each year. The biggest challenge for red wine producers is profitability. It is front end loaded and requires high capital investment. You’ve also got to develop a market and a brand. The English wine industry as whole is still pretty small in global terms and we’re still feeling our way. Yields are very variable year on year because of the climate. And nowhere in the world do the yields vary as much as they do in this country. Expansion depends on the climate and the consumer appetite to spend high sums on English Pinot Noir. Especially when there are other countries also producing it.”

“However, while it may be produced in small quantities, there are some very good wines out there from the likes of Danbury, Chapel Down and Gusborne.”

Pick of the bunch?

While there may be a limited choice in terms of reds, there are still more than enough options to get sampling. So, if the temptation is there to crack open a bottle or indulge in some tasting of English (and Welsh) red wines, Lizzie Mellish has some suggestions.

  • Halfpenny Green (Staffordshire). Their Penny Red is blend of Pinot Noir, Rondo and Regent. It is a good entry level red wine.
  • Litmus (Surrey). This is one of my favourites and always in demand. It is 100% Pinot Noir and is very complex.– complex, smoky
  • Charles Palmer Vineyards (East Sussex) – Made their first still red in 2018 (a Pinot Noir), which was a vintage year.
  • Biddenden (Kent) – This is very different from the rest as it is 100% Dornfelder. It’s very light and fruity and comes from a vineyard that has been producing wine for 45 years.
  • Davenport (East Sussex) – They produce a 100% organic wine Pinot Noir, which from my experience just flies off the shelf. In 2020 they produced just 2024 bottles.
  • Winbirri (Norfolk) – Their signature red is definitely worth a try. It’s 100% Dornfelder and is reminiscent of Rioja. Quite heavy for an English red. It’s rested in oak and that comes through in the taste.

Enjoy you English wines at their best, with the Aveine aerator.


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