14 English wines from East Anglia that you have to try
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
East Anglia is fast becoming renowned for its vineyards. In celebration of English Wine Week, we raise a glass to some of the region’s growers.
Shotley Vineyard, near Ipswich
It was the stunning views over the River Orwell and estuary which initially captivated Charlotte Davitt-Mills and husband Craig back in 2017, when a plot of land came up for sale at Shotley.
They knew there were vines among the weeds and brambles, and once the land was theirs, took advice from a nearby vineyard who agreed they were in good health.
“It was at this point we started to research the English wine industry and realised it was burgeoning,” says Charlotte.
And this discovery led to a big career change.
“My husband and I both worked for an insurance broker, but I was on maternity leave. It was whilst on maternity leave I managed to learn a lot about viticulture and the English wine industry. I was due to return to work in April 2019, but was so passionate about the vineyard I decided to change careers and not return to my insurance job.”
As the vineyard hadn’t been tended for a few years, the initial challenges were with restoring the site.
“This took a long time as we preferred manual methods such as strimming. The vines needed a lot of care as they hadn’t been pruned for a long time and as you can imagine, there was a lot of growth to contend with,” says Charlotte.
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Now the vineyard has more than 15,000 vines planted over 16 acres.
They grow Bacchus, which loves the East Anglian soil and climate, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Auxerrois, Rondo, Ortega, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner.
“We believe our close proximity to the river means we are less susceptible to frost,” says Charlotte. “The soils here are free draining and predominantly clay, which is good for retaining heat and nutrients. And East Anglia tends to have good sunlight hours which is great for ripening.”
The couple released their first wines in 2020, a small amount of Bacchus and Pinot Noir, which proved so popular, they sold out by Christmas.
To mark Suffolk Day on June 21, they launched a limited release Bacchus.
“This is from Bacchus grapes from the south facing, premium area of the site,” says Charlotte.
“The wine was grown and vinified in Suffolk with a label designed by a local Suffolk artist, Sharon Teague of Outflux.
“We are also going to be releasing a sparkling wine in a few weeks.”
Charlotte describes their Bacchus as “a wonderfully easy drinking wine.” “The grapes were hand-picked at the beginning of October 2020. The wine is pale lemon in appearance with a silver hue. On the nose it has floral notes of elderflower and peach blossom. You might also pick up aromas of stone fruit and gooseberry.
“And our Pinot Noir is a light bodied wine, which is full of fruity flavours and aromas. The appearance is ruby with a violet hue. On the nose the wine is fruit forward with aromas of cherry, blackcurrant and plum. The finish is smooth and slightly earthy. Longer term we want to introduce more wines to our range,” she continues.
“We would love to have a rosé. We also want to host supper clubs with local produce paired with our wines to really showcase the excellent produce in Suffolk and the surrounding area.
“We might even look to plant more vines in the future in a neighbouring field."
Toppesfield Vineyard, Halstead
Over the border in Essex, Jane and Peter Moore of Toppesfield Vineyard planted 5,000 vines in 2012. Their first vintage was released in 2016, with their Bacchus named Wine of the Year for East Anglia.
“We have always really liked English wines. I remember going back 20 years ago there was a restaurant in Sible Hedingham that sold English wines and they were excellent,” says Jane. “We got inspiration from our friends at West Street Vineyard at Coggleshall.
“We had bought the land and my husband initially wanted to have cattle and sheep, but we were both working full-time in London, commuting every day, and the thought of getting back at 8pm in the middle of winter and having to go and check on livestock – we decided that probably wasn’t a good choice.
“So we decided to combine a hobby and the passion that we had for English wine and we decided to plant vines.”
Being novices, they employed the services of English wine consultant Duncan McNeil.
“For the first two years he would come every couple of months and advise us on the next thing to do,” says Jane. “We had already decided that we wanted to keep things simple, so we wanted to focus on two key varieties, which were Bacchus, which we know grows really well in East Anglia and on Pinot Noir to make a rosé.
“Duncan helped us choose the right site, he helped us with the analysis of the soil so that we could then determine what rootstock we needed for our clay over chalk terroir and the rows so that we got the maximum sunlight to ripen the grapes.” Their wines are made at New Hall Vineyard, between Chelmsford and Maldon.
Jane and Peter have sold out of their 2019 vintage and recieved their 2020 vintage about a month ago.
Toppesfield Bacchus is a crisp, fruity white wine with flavours of gooseberry, nettle and elderflower, while Toppesfield Pinot Rosé is a dry, Provencal style rose with hints of strawberries and citrus.
The wines are available in local restaurants, pubs and farm shops and through the East of England Co-Op, which Jane praises for its support of local producers.
In addition, they have holiday accommodation on the vineyard.
Jane and Peter are clearly passionate about what they do. Like any agricultural producer they’re at the mercy of the weather – but the outlook for this year’s harvest is promising so far.
“The main plus point this year has been the lack of a late frost,” says Jane. “Last year we had all that lovely weather in lockdown which meant that vines grew really well through all of that sunshine that we had, but then we got that very late frost at the end of May which was the latest, hardest frost for 19 years.
“We were badly affected by that last year so we probably lost about 30 per cent of our yield. Fortunately this year we haven’t had that, because last year my husband and I spent between midnight and six o’ clock in the morning four nights on the row, driving up and down the vineyard on tractors with big gas blowers on the back of them to try and prevent the frost from settling.
“Now because we’ve had a lot of sun and because we’ve also got a lot of rain at the moment you can almost see them growing day by day.”
Burn Valley Vineyard, North Creake
This is a real family affair.
The vineyard, which also has its own winery, is based on Samantha and Laura Robinson’s father’s farm.
And, as Samantha explains, it is what brought the sisters back to the county.
“We were both working abroad – Laura was working in Norway and I was in Vietnam, so we were at opposite ends of the world.
“Dad visited France quite regularly and, being a farmer, noticed that the soil was fairly similar to what we had back on the farm in North Creake and thought it might be something to get the daughters back to Norfolk.
“He put the idea to us in about 2014, then the vines were planted in 2016.”
On their 12 acres, they’ve got 17,000 vines, and grow nine different varieties.
“We’ve got quite a chalky soil, quite flinty,” says Samantha. “We’ve got 60 per cent of the vineyard planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to make the sparkling, then we’ve got Bacchus, Solaris, Sable Blanc, Regent, Rondo and Sayval.”
They weren’t expecting any wine in bottles for four or five years, but Mother Nature had other ideas. “In 2018 we had a really hot summer and managed to get a small bit of fruit off the vines, so our first wines were the 2018 grapes, which were released in 2019.”
As the vines have gotten stronger, production has grown. At the moment their range includes a lively Bacchus which has hints of tropical fruits, a buttery Solaris, an aromatic and fruity Pinot Blanc, and Marsh Red which has hints of plum, raspberry and cherry, integrated with subtle oak and soft tannins, plus rosé and sparkling wines.
Everything is made at their winery, where they also hold tastings and events in a marquee, apart from their sparkling wines which go to New Hall Vineyard in Essex.
Last year they hosted the Wine GB East Anglia Awards where they picked up three gold medals. “It’s a big learning curve,” says Samantha. “Luckily we’ve got Chris and Matt who are our two winemakers to help us out as well. Chris has been a winemaker for 20 years. He was based in Germany and Malta, making wine over there so he’s very experienced. He was with us from the day the vines were actually planted.
"Then Matt, I went to school with. He’s from South Creake the next village. He messaged me about two years ago when he returned from 10 years making wine in New Zealand. He came and had a look at the vineyard and then he stayed. He’s amazing as well, has lots of different ideas, he’s got an amazing work ethic, he’s in the vineyard at 6am doing stuff sometimes.”
And, of course, there is always something to be done.
“People kind of think it’s an idyllic job and something that people dream about, but it’s just non-stop," says Samantha. "It’s all-year-round. With 17,000 vines they all need to be maintained by hand so there’s always something to do - like tucking the vines in once they start growing. You’ve got to get any extra growth off the vines, you’ve got to choose which grapes you want to keep, and remove all the other ones and then the biggest job is the winter prune.
“Once you’ve picked off all the grapes you’re cutting off all the dead wood ready for it to start again, it’s a massive job.
“Seeing the wine in the bottle is an amazing feeling once you get there, but it takes a lot of hard work to get to that place,” says Samantha.
Copdock Hall, near Ipswich
For Ian and Diane Evans, the inspiration for establishing their own vineyard in the Suffolk countryside came when they were living in South Africa, where Ian was working as a foreign correspondent. “We lived in Cape Town for four years between 2007 and 2011, surrounded by vineyards,” says Ian.
“We came back thinking initially that we would just plant a big vineyard. But then we realised that’s quite a daunting plan, so we mirrored what we saw in Cape Town. There are a lot of venues that have vines and a lot of people had weddings and restaurants on the vineyard. We decided to do it the other way round.
“We bought Copdock Hall, which is a Tudor barn, and we planted the vineyard to go alongside it, so it was more the vineyard complemented the barn, if you like.”
The couple came back from South Africa in 2011, bought Copdock Hall in 2012 and planted the vineyard in 2013.
Their first wine was ready to drink in 2015.
“We only had a couple of hundred bottles, but it was quite a thrill to put a bottle of wine down on the table and say it’s from our vineyard,” says Ian. “It’s more of a boutique vineyard,” he continues. “We’ve got about half an acre, which is about 8-900 vines.
“We have got more space, but if you plant more you need more mechanisation, you need more tractors, you need more people generally.
“I can cope with about 850 vines myself, with a bit of help from my gardener.”
They grow two white grapes, Bacchus and Solaris, which are blended for their white wine, Foster’s Fate, and the dark-skinned grape Rondo, which goes into their still rosé. Last year they made their first rosé fizz, Tudor Rose, and they’ve also collaborated with Rory Faiers, known as the Gin Lord, on Queen Bess, a gin infused with Copdock Hall grapes.
Ian says that this year’s harvest is looking promising.
The wines will be made at Shawsgate Vineyard in Framlingham.
“At the moment I’ve got to say it’s been an excellent year so far for growing because we had quite a wet May and we avoided the frosts which is quite important. June more or less has been pretty warm and I think July is going to be pretty warm too. So actually the vines are in excellent shape so we will probably be doing a white again and a rosé again,” says Ian.
It’s in stark contrast to last spring when they were hit by the frosts, which decimated their crop.
“I think we lost 75 per cent, 80 per cent of the crop. And I think most vineyards not just in East Anglia, but across southern England got hit by it.”
As for future plans, he’s hoping that they might made a red wine from their Rondo grapes.
“English red wine is making huge advances, but you do need a lot of sun to make a good decent red wine,” says Ian.
Saffron Grange Vineyard, Little Walden
The family-run vineyard Saffron Grange, just outside Saffron Walden, makes award-winning sparkling wines and offers tours and tasting experiences during the growing season.
It is owned by Paul Edwards, whose son, Nick, has recently joined the team full time after moving to the town with his wife Aimie and their two young daughters.
Paul had a long career in the food and drink industry in Asia, and established the vineyard on his return to the UK and Essex, where he grew up.
“My family and I have always been fascinated with wine and spent many family holidays visiting the world’s most famous wine regions in France, Australia and the USA,” says Paul.
“At the end of my career, I didn’t feel ready to retire and was ready for a new adventure. With my background in biochemistry and food production, I was confident we could create a world-class quality sparkling wine in North-West Essex.”
Saffron Grange is a boutique vineyard around six hectares in size.
They grow a variety of grapes, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Gris.
“We sit in the heart of the so-called Saffron Region, which covers the area south of Saffron Walden, up through the villages of Linton and towards Cambridge,” says Paul.
“The chalky land on which our vineyard now sits was formed during the Cretaceous period, when the entire region was covered by seawater.
“Billions of miniscule sea creatures settled and compressed on the sea bed over millions of years, and the resulting mineral-rich chalk seam runs all the way from our vineyard in North West Essex, down through Sussex and into the renowned wine regions of northern France.
“In wet weather this rare soil formation provides excellent drainage, whilst holding enough moisture during the dry season to encourage the grapes’ flavour development ahead of harvest.”
Nick adds that their wines have a “naturally fruit-driven complexity.”
“Our grapes are gently whole bunch pressed to only extract the best juices for fermentation before spending time on the lees.
“The secondary fermentation is then allowed to occur in the bottle - this is known as the traditional method, also popularly known as the Champagne method, and creates wines with a greater complexity of flavours.
“We have recently launched three new vintages for 2021 which we are extremely excited about. Our delicious new Seyval Blanc Reserve (Brut) is packed with elderflower, citrus and soft caramel on the nose, and notes of lemon tart, a subtle minerality on the palate with a lingering, creamy finish.
“The 2018 Classic Cuvée (Brut) is Saffron Grange’s signature vintage wine: it displays notes of freshly picked white flowers, orange peel and brioche on the nose.
“The palate has hints of raspberries and baked apple leading to a long-lasting, complex and refined finish.
“And completing the trio of new releases is our 2019 Sparkling Rosé (Brut).
“This vibrant wine is pretty salmon pink in colour and bursting with fragrant lychee and rose petals on the nose. The palate is abundant with redcurrants and summer fruits balanced with a crisp, refreshing acidity.”
As Nick explains, it’s an important year for the vineyard.
They’ve just opened a new gift shop and tasting area and their own winery will open later this year as they start to bring the processing of their grapes and wine-making in-house.
“For me, the most exciting thing is looking at how we can revive this valuable land for generations to come,” says Paul.
“Saffron Walden was once a global centre for Saffron production.
“Today, the same unique soil that enabled the crocus to flourish is the key to growing the highest quality of grapes to make our premium English sparkling wines.
“It is our vision that Saffron Grange will help turn the Saffron region into a renowned centre for fine English sparkling wine, and create jobs, prosperity and a lasting legacy for our local community.”