English Vertical Series: Simpsons Roman Road Chardonnay

Every so often, an English wine comes to market that stops you in your tracks. Something so elegant, distinctive and well-made that it immediately put a huge smile on your face. The Simpsons Wine Estate Roman Road Chardonnay 2018 was one of those wines. It’s no secret that I’m incredibly passionate about what Charles and Ruth Simpson have been doing down in Kent. I knew them before the conception of Great British Wine through their delicious and very accessible Domaine Sainte Rose wines from the Languedoc.

I have followed the progress of their English estate, located in Barham and just outside Canterbury, with considerable interest, having visited during the planting of their second vineyard in 2016. I even adopted a Pinot Noir vine! In spite of my very much amateur viticultural skills, the vine has given us ripe Pinot Noir grapes for the last three years here in Weybridge.

And, despite all my particular passion for this project, one still has to try to remain impartial and evaluate the wines without bias. The first couple of vintages of Roman Road Chardonnay, 2016 and 2017, were valiant efforts showing the promise of what was to come from the vineyard. Indeed, critics across the country were very optimistic about these early releases from Simpsons Wine Estate. Still, ultimately, they didn’t quite have that ‘x-factor’ that would propel the wines into English wine stardom.

But with the 2018 vintage, on paper and by all accounts the best vintage for English wine of all time, the stars would align and elevate Roman Road to new heights. I recall tasting this wine at the Wine GB trade tasting in April last year and being taken aback at its combination of Chablis-like steeliness, precise orchard fruit flavours and a struck match minerality that reminded me of Meursault. I hadn’t tasted anything like it from England. Subsequent tastings on release proved this wasn’t a whirlwind romance, and firmly cemented Roman Road Chardonnay 2018 as a Great British Wine favourite, alongside county-mates Chapel Down (Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2016) and Gusbourne (Guinevere 2017).

The 2018 was sublime, and my adoration of the wine felt truly vindicated this week when it was awarded a Decanter Platinum Best in Show award. The judges described it as ‘pure and vivacious, lively and dancing; a spring-fresh Chardonnay of great grace whose pleasures are almost amplified by their restraint’. I couldn’t agree more.

Photo with thanks to Simpsons Wine Estate

‘The Roman Road vineyard is situated on the sunny, sheltered slopes of the North Downs of Kent, the Garden of England. Exuding a true sense of place, our Roman Road Chardonnay is elegant and pure, with a distinctive mineral quality that you would expect from fruit grown on these iconic chalk soils.’
– Simpsons Wine Estate

And so that brings me to my second article in my English Vertical Series. The recent launch of the follow-up Roman Road Chardonnay 2019 felt like the perfect time to revisit not only the superstar 2018, but also the 2016 and 2017 vintages that preceded them.

I enlisted the help of long-time GBW tasting collaborator, Alex Ram, and together we tasted the four vintages blind, also including a bottle of the entry-level (and also delicious) Gravel Castle Chardonnay 2018. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful session, and was perhaps the first time I had identified all five wines correctly in a blind tasting. Ultimately, the ripeness and exuberance of the 2018 vintage shone through (both the Gravel Castle and Roman Road 2018 were the stars of the line-up). Still, as the older wines were made with fruit from younger vines, it was fascinating to see the impact of both increasing bottle and decreasing vine age on these examples. 

Following on from the outstanding 2018 vintage was never going to be easy, and true to expectation, the 2019 is not quite there in terms of balance and richness. However, I feel it is perhaps too soon to really critically evaluate this wine.

While the Roman Road Chardonnay 2019 does not hit the peaks established by the 2018, it still has the make-up of a great English Chardonnay. There are textural and structural qualities that are elevated, as well as an honesty and precision that reminds me of that superstar 2018 vintage. Both of the recent vintages were quite a bold contrast to the first two, and we observed a clear evolution in complexity, oak integration and fruit quality develop between the 2016, 2017 and 2018. Overall, this was a engrossing insight into the first four years of one of England’s most promising vineyards.

Full tasting notes and observations for the five bottles tasted, including the Gravel Castle Chardonnay 2018, can be found below.

The Roman Road Chardonnay 2019

Vintage: A very different year to 2018, yet yields were almost on a par with 2018 despite it being a cooler, wetter growing season. Despite the risk of rot due to rainfall during harvest, the grapes were harvested as late as possible. But sugars, nonetheless, were not as developed as with the 2018.

Tasting Note: With a nose of toasted almond, red apple and hints of popcorn, spice and butterscotch, we knew we were on to Roman Road here. Compared to the 2018 wines, it was immediately clear that this was a cooler vintage, with the fruit feeling a little shy and the oak feeling more pronounced. A younger vintage too? Yes, and that was backed up by the palate having a certain austerity with tangy, but juicy green orchard fruit throughout. The minerality shone through, though I felt we were perhaps tasting this young wine a touch too soon?

ABV: 13%
Vine Age at Harvest: 5 Years
Harvested:  23th, 26th, 27th & 31st October 2019

The Roman Road Chardonnay 2018

Vintage: The vintage of the century by all accounts thanks to perfect conditions for budding and flowering, followed by a long and warm summer with just the right amount of rainfall. The continual sunshine meant that the Simpsons could pick at perfect ripeness with fantastic sugar levels and flavour concentration.

Tasting Note: We expected this wine to shine as it had done before, and we weren’t disappointed. There was ripe orchard fruit with peach skin and apricot aromas, but it was the bright, chalky minerality and struck match notes that immediately led us to conclude that this was the RR18 before even tasting. This is the most Burgundian of all of the wines, with refined and pure orchard fruit and gravelly minerality. It’s so finely textured, with hints of Kiwi fruit and other tropical fruit in the background, showing that 2018 vintage ripeness while integrating beautifully with the crispness and mineral structure.

ABV: 12%
Vine Age at Harvest: 4 Years
Harvested: Between 25th October & 3rd November 2018

The Roman Road Chardonnay 2017

Vintage: The second harvest and the Simpsons had hoped for an increase in volume. However, the much talked about air frosts in April hampered that idea and wiped out 60% of the crop. Despite it being a cooler year, the low yields saw the fruit reach a decent ripeness with slightly higher sugars than the 2016.

Tasting Note: With aromas of tinned peach and orchard fruit, the 2017 also had a distinctive hint of vanilla fudge. The acidity was bright, but the fruit a little reserved and lean. There were flavours of crunchy red apples and a hint of caramelised fruit. Overall, a definite step up on the 2016, with some nice nutty complexity on the finish and a distinctive minerality.

ABV: 12%
Vine Age at Harvest: 3 Years
Harvested: 6th October 2017

The Roman Road Chardonnay 2016

Vintage: The first harvest from very young vines at Roman Road, so yields were relatively small, but promising due to a warm Indian summer. The fruit had been picked for sparkling wine, however, as flavours developed during fermentation, a small tank (enough for a limited 600 bottle release) was set aside for the first Roman Road, which spent three months in second use French oak.

Tasting Note: Aromatically showing more similarities to the 2017, this had aromas of tinned peach, green orchard fruits and lime with some vegetal notes. Compared to the other three vintages, the palate on this felt a little out of balance, with zippy acidity and green fruit at its core. It was on the lean side on release, and that is still the case, while the original vibrancy of the fruit has faded somewhat.

ABV: 11.5%
Vine Age at Harvest: 2 Years
Harvested: 5th October 2016

Gravel Castle Chardonnay 2018

We tasted all five wines blind and in a completely random sequence. Coincidentally, the Gravel Castle appeared first in our flight, and I was immediately convinced about what this wine was, based on its immediacy and vibrancy.

The nose was rich, ripe and practically shouting with its white peach, tangerine and orchard fruit aromas. There was a hint of vanilla and oak, which I hadn’t picked up previously. Instantly gratifying to taste, this wine was packed with waves of crisp orchard fruit, tropical pineapple richness, fleshy peach, and a lean, clean finish with sublime acidity. This is a stellar wine in a brilliant place right now.

ABV: 12.5%
Harvested: Between 15th & 25th October 2018

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