Great British Wine Round-up October 2023

This month, following a series of tastings and recent wine launches, I have turned my attention to urban wineries.

London’s urban winery scene was kicked off by London Cru all the way back in 2013. When I first visited back in 2015, the winery was selling Syrah sourced from Roussillon and Barbera from Piemonte, both of which were pressed in their winery in West Brompton, London. It was an arduous task and, whilst there were some solid efforts in the wines released, it all felt a little odd with the blossoming home-grown wine industry on their doorstep. Their first English wine was a Bacchus from the 2014 vintage, but it wasn’t until 2017 and the arrival of Alex Hurley as winemaker, that English grapes became the focus. Alex has persevered with grapes and varieties that typify English Wine. The still Bacchus remains a strong staple in the range (and naturally features in this article), and he’s also done some impressive things with still and sparkling Chardonnay. The recent Blanc de Blancs is incredibly accomplished, despite its youth, for a mostly still-focussed winery.

Over in Cambridge (and based in a grade-II listed windmill), it’s hard to believe Chris Wilson only launched his first Gutter & Stars wine just over two years ago in May 2021. He’s since released a slew of beautifully labelled textural and complex English wines. With many of his wines being made from fruit sourced from Essex, Chris has particularly explored those made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bacchus, but has also made striking examples blended from multiple grapes. Here I’ve sampled Chris’s latest wines – a light but multi-faceted Bacchus as well as an impressively deep Pinot Noir. These are two of his best to date.

Back in the capital, Vagabond is a fascinating business that has existed in some capacity since 2010 when they ran a small wine shop in Fulham. Today they have an urban winery in the stylishly redeveloped Battersea Power Station, as well as 9 wine bars in London and two outside at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. Along the way, making their own wine became a strong focus and, after a little winemaker jostling (Jose Quintana joined in 2021), the winery appears to have entered its stride for considered textural and diverse English wines. Jose makes an extensive range of wines (his Chardonnay 2022 was a previous GBW Wine of the Month), and here I’ve selected his orange Dios Mio Bacchus 2022 and the playful ‘Pét Not Rosé’ 2022 to demonstrate his diversity as a winemaker.

Blackbook Winery, nestled under a railway arch in Battersea, is well established and winemaker Sergio Verillo has garnered much critical acclaim. The Blackbook website states: ‘Blackbook was born of a love of three things: cool climate pinot noir and chardonnay; the English wine industry; and this fair city we call home, London.‘ Naturally, I’ve headed to Sergio’s current 2021 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir releases. Both impressed me, especially considering the vintage they were born from, and successfully demonstrate Sergio’s nuanced and minimal intervention approach to winemaking.

My journey into the urban winery scene ends with Renegade, based now in Walthamstow. Established in 2016, the winery, headed by owner Warwick Smith, has thrown off the shackles of tradition and legislation with a truly diverse and often experimental approach. They make 12-14 different wines a year, some from imported grapes, many from English fruit, and cover a wide range of styles from, as it states on their website, ‘classical styles with a twist to wines that are entirely unique’. I’ve selected two bottles that typify this, with a surprisingly rounded and buttery Chardonnay contrasting with the beer/wine fusion that is Bethnal Bubbles 3.1.

London Cru Bacchus 2022

Grapes: Bacchus
Fruit Origin: Upperton Vineyard, Sussex

Made from just four rows of Bacchus from Upperton, West Sussex, Alex ferments the Bacchus with three different yeast strains at different temperatures to bring structure and texture to the final blend.

This is a classy, modern expression of an English staple. The London Cru Bacchus has a fresh nose of cut grass, lime, grapefruit and floral hints.

Crisp and dry to taste, the Bacchus has crunchy green apple and limey acidity up front, with a riper pear and melon fusion before a floral finish with hints of minerality.

London Cru Blanc de Blancs 2020

Grapes: Chardonnay
Fruit Origin: West Marden, West Sussex

Perhaps the most grown-up style of the London Cru range, this is the only Traditional Method sparkling wine from any of the urban wineries featured.

It’s made with 100% Chardonnay from Kent that underwent full Malo and lees ageing, before being bottled and undergoing secondary fermentation until January this year.

The resulting wine is very classy, typical of a good English Blanc de Blancs. It has racy bursts of lemon and green orchard fruit, riper peach and pear hints from a warm 2020, and soft suggestions of brioche and pastry on the finish.

Gutter & Stars Lost in You Bacchus 2022

Grapes: Bacchus
Fruit Origin: Essex

Modern Bacchus in its most extravagant form is almost unrecognisable from the Bacchus that I tasted when I started Great British Wine eight years ago. Wines like Kit’s Coty Bacchus and Flint’s Bacchus Fumé have paved the way for a more textured, oak-influenced style of Bacchus – and Chris Wilson is another winemaker to have refined this style.

On the nose there’s a fusion of tropical fruit, grilled lime and grapefruit, with spiced notes, hints of mint and meadow grass.

The palate is punchy and limey up front – there’s lots of acidity and zesty freshness. The label describes it as edgy and electric, and that it certainly is! But the mid-taste is fuller and fleshier than a lot of Bacchus; it’s tropical and peachy and so packed full of flavour and texture. And all this whilst maintaining a light 10.5% abv.

Gutter & Stars The Automatic Earth Pinot Noir 2022

Grapes: Pinot Noir
Fruit Origin: Brenley Farm, Kent

This is not only quite a contrast to the other Pinot Noir featured from Blackbook (see below), but also a contrast to Chris’s own previous Pinots. The fruit was sourced from Brenley Farm in Kent and has an immense generosity and weight that is immediately apparent.

This Pinot was made from 100% destemmed grapes and (like the Blackbook) fermented open-topped – Chris used a combination of wild and cultured yeasts.

Deeply hued in colour, the aromas immediately leap out of the glass with a fusion of red and black fruit. Black cherry and strawberry, with blackcurrant and damson, set the stage for a fruit-forward adventure.

The palate is plush and slinky – this is a super-ripe German clone of Pinot Noir (F105) where the red fruit is big and bold. With its supple cherry, strawberry and ripe black fruit notes, this is rounded and very moreish!

Vagabond Dios Mio Bacchus 2022

Grapes: Bacchus
Fruit Origin: Yew Tree Vineyard, Oxfordshire

With winemakers starting to become more confident and experimental with their approach to Bacchus, this has to be up there with the most complex examples available. As with all of the Vagabond wines, this underwent wild ferment, with 50% fermented on skins and 50% in old Burgundy barrels.

Wow, what a nose there is on this! It’s very complex for a Bacchus, with grapefruit zest, grilled lime, jasmine tea and tropical fruit.

The palate is equally diverse, retaining that green citrus and grassy freshness of Bacchus, but taking it into a grilled tropical fruit direction. There’s also a nettle, lemongrass and dried straw complexity. This is compelling winemaking and flies in the face of what many would expect from a Bacchus.

Vagabond Pét Not Rosé 2022

Grapes: Pinot Noir & Pinot Noir Précoce
Fruit Origin: Hidden Spring Vineyard, Sussex / Yew Tree Vineyard, Oxfordshire

This is a Col Fondo style rosé (hence the ‘Pét Not’), where the grape juice is fully fermented before being bottled for secondary fermentation and released undisgorged in pink, cloudy splendour in this case.

The ‘Pét Not’ has a confident pink hue and a fragrant, fruity nose of raspberry, cranberry and cherry.

The palate is brisk and ultra-dry (this has 0g/l residual sugar), with a summer fruit profile that isn’t sweet and sickly at all; there are super refreshing, grapefruit, watermelon, cranberry and raspberry flavours. Overall, a smashable style of sparkling wine to remind us of the warmer, summer months.

Blackbook Nightjar Pinot Noir 2021

Grapes: Pinot Noir
Fruit Origin: Crows Lane, Essex

Despite being from a very challenging vintage, 2021, a year from which I have tried very few decent English red wines, Sergio has come up trumps – this is one of the most grown-up and textural in the selection here.

Nightjar was fermented open-top with partial whole bunches and then aged in Burgundy barrels for a minimum of nine months. The nose is surprisingly deep, with red and black cherry, strawberry and raspberry aromas as well as distinct black pepper and savoury notes.

Don’t let the light complexion of this wine fool you: on the palate the fruit is rounded and ripe, and pleasingly soft and layered, with ripe cherry, tangy raspberry and dried strawberry. There’s a peppery spice, a hint of vanilla and a slightly greener leafy note that sits quite well against the ripe red fruit – very accomplished.

Blackbook Painter of the Light Chardonnay 2021

Grapes: Chardonnay
Fruit Origin: Crows Lane, Essex

Another impressive 2021 release from Blackbook, ‘Painter of Light Chardonnay’ is the winery’s most well-known wine, having taken multiple awards and receiving critical acclaim, particularly for the inaugural 2017 vintage.

The wine did have a slightly funky rawness on opening (as do several of Blackbook wines) but, once that blew off, it revealed a beautifully textured cool climate Chardonnay.

Aromas of green apple, lemon and green tropical fruit, with complexities of almond and crushed oats set the expectations for an involving wine. The palate is nuanced, bursting with fresh green orchard fruit up front, but delivering the expected nutty, oaty complexities. There’s a fine texture to this wine that really impresses and it’s even more tasty in magnum form!

Renegade Sara Chardonay 2021

Grapes: Chardonnay
Fruit Origin: Essex

Another lightly golden Chardonnay, this wine has a rich, buttery nose, with honeysuckle, ripe apricot, peach skin and poached pear aromas.

Impressively full and ripe for a 2021 English Chardonnay, the promised ripe fruit entertains with a creamy, almost toffee-tinged richness.

Overall, this is an ambitious, ripe style that is quite atypical for English Chardonnay, especially considering the vintage. One for the oak lovers, for sure!

Renegade Bethnal Bubbles 3.1

Grapes: Pinot Noir
Fruit Origin: Herefordshire

Whilst some of the wines coming from urban wineries can be a little leftfield in style, this has got to be the bottle that takes the top spot in the uniqueness rankings. It’s made from Herefordshire-grown Pinot Noir which is “dry-hopped” after primary fermentation, before undergoing secondary fermentation in bottle and then being released undisgorged.

The resulting product is best described as something of a cross between the hoppy freshness of an IPA and the racy acidity of a Pét Nat. Its nose is as striking as its appearance, with a mixture of lemon and grapefruit, papaya as well as hops and savoury yeastiness.

To taste, it’s bone dry and full of zesty citrus and grapefruit. It is also ultra-lean and fresh, with a slightly bitter, grassy undertone, before a yeasty richness and suggestions of tropical fruit open up. This is unlike anything I have tasted before – certainly one for the adventurous out there.

Posted in Monthly Round-Up.

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