Say no to rondo and other thoughts on English wine

When visiting large trade tastings, it’s always good to go with a plan. Otherwise you’ll find yourself floundering about, tasting old favourites, and leave feeling tired and emotional. It was particularly tricky at the WineGB tasting at the Lindley Hall in September because it seemed to be the first tasting where everyone was back. There was an air of jollity mixed with relief and some trepidation. It was hard to concentrate on the wines.

Nevertheless, I came with a plan: no traditional method sparkling wines, and no bacchus. Considering they made up about 90% of the wines there, this narrowed down the field considerably. Mainly I tasted still wines made from French varieties like chardonnay and pinot blanc, though there were some reds, a very tasty pet nat and a sparkling merlot! I’ve included some of my favourites below but first a few thoughts about where English still wines are going:

Say no to Rondo!

This is a red grape that has proved bafflingly popular with English growers probably because it’s easy to get a nice ripe colour which customers like. The wines though, don’t taste great, with a strange vimto kind of flavour. It’s particularly bad when people blend it with pinot noir to boost the colour, completely destroying the delicate flavour of English Pinot. No more Rondo please!

Reds are still work in progress  

Nevertheless, things are improving rapidly. I was particularly taken with pinot noir precoce from London Cru, pinot noir from Hush Heath/ Balfour and Simpson, and a delicious gamay from Biddenden. Plus the usual excellent pinot noir from Gusbourne. Some producers, however, seemed a bit too keen on whole bunch fermentation, a brave move in England.

Why are the rosés so dull? 

With all the pinot noir being grown which isn’t quite ripe enough for reds, you’d think England would be rosé heaven but it seems like everyone is trying to make versions of Provence rather than light sappy wines that straddle rosé and red wine. Again Gusbourne stands out here.

The French white grapes are coming on 

I tasted excellent chardonnays at all price levels from £15 to £30, and different styles, lean Chablis-like and richer more Macon style. But I also had some very tasty pinot gris, pinot blanc and chasselas (I know, it’s swiss.) Three producers told me that they do the only sauvignon blanc in England, though none of them was that great.

Bluebell Estate in Sussex

Here were some of my favourites:

Lyme Bay Chardonnay 2020 

Made in Dorset though the fruit is from all over the country. Very different to previous vintages, no oak, lots of fresh crunchy Granny smith apple. Mouth-watering, clean and ripe. Don’t think it’s available yet. The 2017 is excellent (£18 from Majestic) in an oaky style.

London Cru Pinot Noir Precoce Pimlico Road 2020 

Impressive level of alcohol, 13.5% with no added sugar. Very pale colour with plenty of raspberry fruit, leather and some floral spicy notes from whole bunch (though not too much.) Great fun – especially chilled. £20 from English Wine Collection

Bluebell Vineyard Chasselas Ashdown Estate 2020

Lemony fruit on the palate, lovely creamy feel, really textured (I underlined this word in my notes), with long mineral finish. This is very good indeed. One of the best English still whites I have had. £15 a bottle which is good value, and not just for an English wine. Found the 2018 here for £14.99.

Artelium Twenty Twenty Pinot Gris 2020 

This producer, a new one to me, really impressed. I believe this is made by Defined Wines near Canterbury. This has a big spicy nose, apples and ginger. Lots of flavour, maybe a touch of cider but nothing to frighten the horses. Alsace sort of style but bone dry. This is good. £18.99 from Grape Britannia so not bad value for England. The chardonnay is good too.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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4 Responses to Say no to rondo and other thoughts on English wine

  1. HHGeek says:

    I agree that rondo is underwhelming, but I suspect it’s really popular in part because it’s so easy to drink. More alcoholic fruit juice than structured wine. I’ve worked consumer events where I’ve had to show it to people, and I usually found I could sell it to those “who don’t normally like red wine”, i.e. they’ve only previously encountered cabernet sauvignon and other more tannic grapes. More than a few times I’ve looked past the man standing in front of a tasting table explaining on behalf of his wife how “they don’t like English reds”, and wound up selling a Rondo based red to her.

    & the still pink wines often include too much rondo, dornfelder etc., and not enough pinot. The better pinks are pretty much all sparkling. The beauty of rondo & dornfelder is the yields are comparatively huge / reliable; use them for still wine, and you’ve got the cashflow to keep you going whilst waiting for the fizz to be released. No point in wasting your lower cropping pinot if you can help it.

    • Henry says:

      That’s a really interesting perspective. Rondo doesn’t taste like it’s made from wine grapes – which is perhaps why people like it. I was talking to a sparkling wine producer in Kent, a fellow Rondophobe, who uses Regent to give colour to his rose.

  2. I really like the Simpson still wines. I think Ruth and Charles are doing great things there. Also enjoyed the Bluebell varieties. They are in a great location too. Another one I did enjoy is Kingscote (also E Sussex). Good to see you seeking out some hidden gems sir!

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