English Wine Tour - Crouch Valley
We visited arguably the best region in England for non-sparkling wine grapes - Crouch Valley in Essex. What we found were experimental visionaries with a growing sense of identity
Time & Location
12 Aug 2023, 09:00
London, Underground Ltd, Heron Quays Rd, London E14 4HJ, UK
Part 2 of our England wine tour - this time to Crouch Valley in Essex - was unlike most wine tours in more well-developed wine regions. There were very few bustling wine production facilities with gleaming stainless steel tanks, high tech filtration machines and regal rows of oak barrels. The Crouch Valley is very much about farming - historically cereal grains but more recently acres upon acres of wine grapes. Vinification and bottling is done elsewhere - Surrey, Kent, Hampshire etc - by someone else and often under a different name. The region's predominant business is still about providing grapes that are riper than can be produced elsewhere in England to wine producers. Much of the final product is still wine, not sparkling.
Growing grapes rather than wheat is a vastly different undertaking, and everyone we visited had a different notion of what was best. Passionate and stubborn farmers as they are, one can imagine heated debate taking place amongst them, perhaps with pitchforks near at hand. And yet, open experimentation and learning are also prominent traits of the local ethos. Are Germanic-clones of pinot noir better than Burgundian clones? Or vice versa? Does riesling work? Or even shiraz? Watch this space.
An interesting consequence of touring a community with such a pronounced farming rather than winemaking personality was that the wines we sampled were decidedly 'off-piste' in aromas and taste profiles. There were positives and negatives in equal measure. In the most extreme case, a vineyard manager plopped down several half drunk, poorly-labelled bottles of wine that he had vinified himself, then announced that he had field work to do and headed off in the direction of his combine harvester. The wines he left us to taste on our own - a riesling, pinot gris, muscat, sauvignon blanc, and an adventurous sparkling red pinot noir - were 'rustic' to 'home brewed', depending on how polite one wanted to be in describing it. N.B. - they weren't for the faint-hearted or uncharitable palate! At other tastings, the wines received mixed reactions - some were vegetal and underripe, others were refreshing and crisp. Our group consensus? The local winemaking will continue to improve as the growers expand their expertise into vinification in order to build their own brands and labels.
The day finished back in central London. The Blackbook winery we visited was located in a tight industrial warehouse space under the railway arches near Battersea Park. It was astounding that so many different styles of wine could be produced each year in such a compact and seemingly chaotic facility. Crates and boxes were stacked on top of each other, barrels of various sizes and ages reached high to the corregated metal ceiling, and crammed into wherever they could fit were a de-stemmer, pneumatic press, labeling machine and semi-automatic corking machine. But somehow, one got the impression that the founder and winemaker - Sergio Verrillo - could skillfully manage his way around the facility blindfolded. He takes a low interventional approach to his winemaking, both by clear intent and cost necessity. He relies on ambient yeasts, ferments directly in small oak barrels, and doesn't filter or fine. All of his grapes are sourced within a two hour drive, including from the Crouch Valley, in order to stay close to his growers.
His wines are shot through with unique character and personality. The sparkling wine we tasted was cloudy and presented with loads of yeasty autolytic flavors (think sourdough bread), and it was delicious. The pinot noir rose was more complex and earthy than the 'pretty' provencal roses that are so prominent on supermarket shelves around the world. The chardonnays and pinot noirs had much to offer in diverse fruit flavors with floral, herbal and flinty aromas.
The visit to Blackbook was the perfect way to end a fascinating day. Everything that was witnessed was a decidedly handmade operation. It demonstrated the exceptional potential that Crouch Valley and English-grown grapes can have when placed in the care of a passionate and talented winemaker who is confidently willing to let their uniqueness shine.
There has been much media buzz in the wine trade recently about Essex. And for good reason, it seems. However, to declare that the region has 'arrived' on the map of premium wine lovers might seem premature. The Crouch Valley is still finding its feet. But there can be little doubt that the region will soon stand as tall as its better known and posher sparkling wine neighbors to the south. For wine lovers, does 'the only way is Essex' popular saying apply to the Crouch Valley? That's up for lively discussion. Let's do it! Just not too close to any pitchforks.
Our schedule was as follows::
Saturday 12 August 2023
9 am - meet at Canary Wharf tube station to board our minibus
10 am - 12 pm – Martins Lane Vineyard for tour of property and wine tasting Martin’s Lane Vineyard, producers of quality English grapes & wines (martinslane.co.uk)
12.15 - 2.15 pm – tour and lunch at Clayhill Vineyard, supplier of grapes to leading wineries Visit Clayhill Vineyard - English Vineyard - Wine Cellar Door
2.30 - 4.30 pm - tour and tasting at Crouch Ridge Estate Crouch Ridge Estate – Come for the wine, stay for the view
6.30 - 7.30 pm - tour and tasting at Blackbook Winery in Central London, featuring wines made with grapes from Clayhill Vineyard Blackbook Winery
excluding Optional Dinner at Chez Bruce£130.00+£3.25 service fee
NON IWFS Member
excluding Optional Dinner at Chez Bruce£145.00+£3.63 service fee