Many of you will have seen the Trophy Winners of the Wine GB Awards 2020, announced around a week ago with an online presentation. Naturally, with the current pandemic, the Awards had to go “virtual” this year so there was no black tie dinner, and presumably fewer nasty hangovers all round. But with the difficulties experienced by English wine producers this year, whether that be with employing picking crews or merely selling wines when cellar door sales have been curtailed, it seems even more important to spread the word about the English and Welsh (I should stress Welsh as well) wine industry.
I hesitate to use the word “industry”. Although the UK is now planted with very close to 10,000 acres of grape vines, very few individual producers in the UK have reached the sort of production levels one might categorise as industrial, although it’s fair to say that a great many have gone beyond what we might call “artisan”. Most producers are still fairly small scale though, and many are also relatively new. They have all sunk large investments into their vineyards and wineries, and are hoping for a return on that investment. As we enter the great unknowns of the post-Covid economy and a potential deal-less Brexit, anyone who loves English wine will be keeping their fingers crossed for them.
The reason it’s worth investing our energy in promoting these wines is that they really are good. Okay, plenty of ridiculous hyperbole gets thrown around (recently we find that an English wine is purportedly the “best in the world”), but although that kind of wild reporting does our wines no good in the long run, except perhaps for the headline writers, nevertheless the quality of the best English and Welsh Sparkling Wines is simply stunning, and the still wines are not that far behind, if at all, in many cases.
The 2020 judging took place at the Ashling Park Winery near Chichester, with judges Oz Clarke and Susie Barrie as co-chairs, assisted by Rebecca Palmer (of Corney & Barrow). They tasted 281 wines over five days and awarded 245 medals (34 Gold, 98 Silver and 113 Bronze). For the top wines there were 13 Trophies. I shall list those and mention some of the other wines of interest which gained some sort of medal. After that we have the special trophies, the top awards.
Before moving on to the winners I would say that there were some producers who didn’t get a mention. It is likely, looking at my list below (just the ones which came to mind) that some may not have entered. That’s a shame, especially when one or two are clearly aiming to be the best. Some others may be too small to wish to enter (cost of entry?), or perhaps with one or two, their natural wine and biodynamic tendencies didn’t float the judges’ collective boat? We shall never know because the thirty-six wines which did enter but failed to gain an award are not listed anywhere, as far as I can see.
As I have drunk this past year excellent wines from Nyetimber, Rathfinny Estate, Westwell Wines, Tillingham, Ancre Hill, Hoffmann & Rathbone, Hambledon, Cottonworth and from the students at Plumpton College, I would like to give them a shout. Their names do not, as far as I can see, appear in the list of winners. Susie Barrie mentioned “boundary pushing” and I’d like to think that all of the above, albeit in different ways, have pushed forward the boundaries of English and Welsh Wine, and through innovation comes progress, does it not?
Oh, I didn’t expect to see Tim Phillips’s wines there, but those who know, know, and I think a fair few of you do judging by my correspondence.
Ashling Park (hosts) gained two trophies for their NV and Rosé sparkling wines.
Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place and Black Chalk gained Vintage trophies for their 2014, 2015 and 2016 cuvées respectively.
Breaky Bottom “Cuvée Michelle Moreau” 2014 (Non-classic Blend Trophy).
Chapel Down won three trophies for their Kit’s Coty cuvées (Bacchus and Chardonnay, both 2017, and their sparkling Coeur de Cuvée 2014).
Gusbourne won two trophies, both for still wines (Cherry Garden Rosé 2019 and Pinot Noir 2018).
Harrow & Hope Blanc de Noirs 2015.
Sugrue Trouble with Dreams 2014
Not all the gold medals are listed here, and not all are wines I know, of course, but the following producers have shown wines which, in the opinion of the judges (as stated by Oz Clarke on the Awards Broadcast) are “world class”:
Langham (2); Breaky Bottom (2), Raimes; Wiston; High Clandon Estate; Winding Wood; Grange Estate; Bluebell Vineyards; Sharpham; Gusbourne (2), Harrow & Hope; and Woodchester Valley.
Other notable medal winners…
This is just a random list of producers I know. Some are listed because they didn’t come away with any more than a silver though you might have expected them to.
Bride Valley gained Silver, as did Davenport for their well known Horsmonden Dry White 2018. Cornwall’s Camel Valley appears with a Silver for their 2017 Brut. Trevibban Mill gets a Silver for an unusual Sparkling Red. The two London urban winery projects get a mention, both Roberson via their London Cru Label (Pinot Noir Précose, better identified as Frühburgunder), and then Vagabond Wines, who managed three Bronze for Bacchus, Ortega and Pinot Noir Rosé.
Two further mentions, first Davenport who got a Bronze for their “HUX”. This is a botrytis-style varietal Huxelrebe made with 10g/l residual sugar (so off-dry). It’s a style which used to dominate English Wine, and it’s nice in some ways to see someone continuing the tradition at a decent quality level.
I’ll also mention Hidden Spring Vineyard. In the 1990s they had a burgeoning reputation. I believe that the first English Sparkling Wine the Fortnum & Mason department store in London sold was their pink, and their still wines boasted some innovative labels. I’m not sure how many times Hidden Spring sold but the current owners took over in 2015, building a small boutique winery on-site near Horam (East Sussex). It’s good to see a very old favourite back on its feet. They came away with one apiece of Gold, Silver and Bronze.
Now we come to the top awards of the competition. These are for the wines which really shone.
Top Sparkling Wine Trophy went to Hattingley Valley for their King’s Cuvée 2014.
Top Still Wine Trophy went to Chapel Down for Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2017.
Regional Awards went to:
Wales – White Castle;
West of England – Sharpham (for their Stop Ferment Bacchus 2019);
South East – Given jointly to Chapel Down and Ashling Park;
Wessex – Hattingley Valley Wines;
Thames & Chilterns -Harrow & Hope;
Midlands & North – Laneberg Wines
East Anglia – Tuffon Hall
Laneberg Wines is Tyneside’s first urban winery project, in the Team Valley, Gateshead. From what I’ve read, this sounds pretty exciting, though I know nothing about them really. Their first vintage was 2018, and if you wondered about ripening the grapes, those used for that vintage came from Leicestershire.
Equally, I know very little about Harrow & Hope, although I’ve been reading a lot in recent months. They are at Marlow, on the Chiltern Hills. They planted almost 16 acres (6.4 ha) of the main Champagne varieties in 2010 and have since been described as “stars of the future” (Stephen Skelton MW, The Wines of Great Britain, Infinite Ideas 2019, p162). Henry Laithwaite needs little introduction, being the son of Tony, of the wine mail order specialist of the same name. The south facing chalk hill, riddled with hard flint, which Henry farms with his wife, Kaye, provides excellent terroir. Skelton’s latest book gives a large entry to a vineyard on which he offered consultation services. Worth reading because he obviously knows the operation well and it does sound, from other sources, that his prediction may be pretty accurate.
Stephen Skelton himself received the Wine GB Lifetime Achievement Award.
Best Newcomer Trophy went to Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk in the Test Valley, and here I must moan that my closest wine shop has for whatever reason chosen to stop listing Black Chalk just as they receive recognition in these awards. A foolhardy decision. I must try to find time to pop over to see Jacob and the team, unless of course we are heading into a second Lockdown.
The Boutique Trophy is awarded to the top scoring wine of the Awards. A taste-off between High Clandon, Breaky Bottom and Sugrue saw the accolade go to Dermot Sugrue. His “Trouble with Dreams 2014” comes off a vineyard in Storrington (East Sussex), planted for a religious order in 2006. The field mix is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, planted (unusually) on an east-west orientation due to the nature of the site. The wine is made at Wiston, and in any vintage it is wonderful…but give it some age to see how magnificent it can be.
It’s worth noting that in his acceptance speach Dermot thanked, inter alia, his “Romanian pickers”, a reminder that the hard work done at harvest by these crews is often forgotten in the current climate. I know of several vineyards in the UK who rely on very experienced and expert Romanian pickers whose skills without doubt contribute to the quality of the grapes they bring in, and thus the end product.
Winery of the Year went to Wiston Estate, which I passed only yesterday by coincidence. The vines here were a project of Pip Goring, whose son Richard is now in charge of what, from their acceptance video, looks a very happy small team. Dermot Sugrue is Chief Winemaker. Fingers crossed I shall be toasting my dad on his birthday with the wine below, very soon.
Supreme Champion – The Gore Browne Trophy was a straight taste-off between the top still wine and top sparkling wine, the winner being Hattingley Valley King’s Cuvée 2014. This is a top barrel selection, both fermented and aged in barrel, fruit either sourced from the home vineyard or from vineyards directly managed by Hattingley Valley. Emma Rice is winemaker, at a producer which has grown to become perhaps the biggest exporter of English Wine overseas. Hanging onto, whilst adding to, export markets is going to be key to the future prosperity of UK wine.
The full list of medalists, along with a thirty minute film introducing the big winners from the 2020 Awards, is up on the Wine GB web site: here.
All I can add is to admonish Oz for his choice of a narrow flute with which to toast the winners. Take a tip from Susie, Oz! Treat him to some new stems, someone.
Otherwise, just go out and try some of these wines. The best are not cheap, but they do represent good value compared to Champagnes of similar quality. It’s a question of scale. If the wine is “cheap” then I’d be wary without tasting. Often we hear the criticism, albeit less and less, that the wines are acidic and young. As producers establish reserve wines for blending into the sparklers, and climate change brings warmer ripening seasons (albeit with less predictability for rain, frost and hail than previously), the route to true top quality becomes more well trodden. Often they key is merely to allow the wines to age, as indeed you would any other wine of quality.
I have changed somewhat during this pandemic, and one way in which I’ve changed is in a desire to shop locally. We can also try to drink more locally too. That’s never going to work perfectly for any wine obsessive, but then I still have to go further afield than my local corner shop and veg box delivery for some of what I need, and I even have to go to a large nasty online store when my local stores’s web sites can’t help me. Supporting the UK wine industry is no hardship, even for someone with my offbeat tastes. The old cliché rings true…use it or lose it.
Here are a few more photos of English and Welsh wines I enjoy, some winning awards here and others conspicuous by their absence.