Vineyards have been established in East Anglia for at least 50 years, but, although we regularly read about English wines winning international awards, many of us still have a slightly circumspect view.
Perhaps it’s because of price – English wine has sometimes seemed expensive compared to supermarket imports. Or, perhaps, in spite of all those awards, we still find it strange in the land of sugar beet to produce something with the romance of wine.
A scintillating Shawsgate morning
Shawsgate Vineyard is just outside Framlingham in Suffolk. On a scintillating autumn morning with the sun as sharp as glass, any suggestion that Suffolk wines may lack romance was quickly dispelled. An entirely unexpected story was waiting.
The courtyard was busy with eager pickers, struggling into walking boots and exuberantly greeting old friends. Because the wine harvest here is, just as it is across Europe, a social occasion. Shawsgate’s pickers are mostly local, and some have been coming here for 15 years. One claims to have helped to plant the original vines in 1974, and often two or three generations of the same family turn up, passing on the passion through the years and making it a treasured annual event.
Sleepy cumulus floated overhead, and between the long autumn shadows the grapes glowed in the late sun. It was a tempting scene.
The vineyard is owned by Les Jarrett. It produces 12 wines: red, white and rosé, the best known of which is the white Bacchus, sold mostly through the East of England Co-op.
“The eventual harvest is heavily influenced over a long period and [by] what leads up to the season”, Les explains.
“Last autumn was wet, then we had a cold spring which meant it took longer for the grapes to ripen. So our harvest was about eight days late this year.”
The soil in Suffolk, though, is a long way from the bare schistes of southern France.
“We have heavy clay with sandy loam, over chalk and flint. But grapes will grow on anything, as long as they’re well drained, because they have a deep root system.”
Will the changing climate affect future harvests? “We always have a short and medium term plan,” Les explains. “Long term, though, climate change may well affect us, but I’d say at the moment it’s just on the horizon.”
In contrast with Shawsgate, new and on quite different soil is Saffron Grange, a ‘boutique’ vineyard of 40 acres on the edge of Saffron Walden, which produces only sparkling wine. Their first vintage was in 2019. Paul and Nick Edwards, father and son, chose the valley because of its chalk and its southerly slopes: chalk is needed for chardonnay, the most famous grape used in champagne. The team has planted 3,000 Italian alders to protect the valley from the wind, and the valley stretches from 45 to 90 metres above sea level.
Chardonnay had not previously been used in wine production in England, but Paul was determined and has succeeded in getting the grapes to ripen in the limited local season.
But chardonnay is not the only unexpected grape. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the vineyard also uses the red pinot noir grape to produce its white wines.
“From a style perspective and in terms of champagnes we’ve tasted and other English sparkling wines, a dominant pinot noir is what we wanted, to give the wine body and structure,” Nick explains.
“Pinot meunier, another red grape, brings fruitiness, and chardonnay gives the wine that citrus liveliness.”
The red wines are pressed gently, in bunches, since the red colour of the wine comes from the skins and it is important to avoid too much pressure or contact. As a result, it’s only possible to use the first 25 percent of the juice.
They reckon to produce 15–20,000 bottles a year, half sold online or at the door, the other to mostly local restaurants and farm shops. Local provenance is an important attraction.
“Everything is hand nurtured, pruned a few times a year,” says Nick. “April was cold, so buds burst a month later. That meant we avoided the frost, which can have a terrible effect. It’s as though someone has come through the vineyard with a flame thrower. Everything goes brown. In only a few minutes it can devastate your crop.”
The vineyard relies on minimal intervention. “We don’t use insecticides, in fact we promote insects because they predate other insects. The same with birds, we’re very bird friendly and we work with the University of East Anglia and Cambridge on research here, because we’re keen to avoid this being a monoculture. Birds come here and shelter, and we reckon we play home to about 50 varieties.
“Sometimes the birds get a bit hungry, but that’s OK – it’s a good sign the grapes are ready to harvest. So we’re looking forward to this year’s vintage.
“We have a lovely blanc de noir ready for Christmas which we’re extremely excited about, a really lovely quintessentially English sparkling wine.” This is their third year, and Nick is enthusiastic about the future, as, he believes, are the birds.