Most new winemaking regions can only hope for one epiphany moment. Sauvignon Blanc launched New Zealand to superstardom, while Chile had its day in the limelight at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Somewhat more understated, England’s breakthrough wine moment occurred in the mid-1990s when a brave new winery called Nyetimber produced the first international Gold Medal-winning English Sparkling Wine. We all know what has happened since then. Our sparkling wines have gone from strength to strength and are gaining international recognition. Whilst our still wines are starting to turn heads, too, they are less widely talked about on a global level. English Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are indeed starting to gain traction, but is it perhaps far too early to start talking about our noble grape-based wines on the same level as some of the world’s greats? Are we ready for England’s second wine epiphany? Well, after visiting the Crouch Valley’s Danbury Ridge Estate and tasting their boundary-breaking wines, I am certainly ready!
Often seen (or perhaps unseen) as England’s grape growing powerhouse, Essex is the most exciting region in England right now. The area has been supplying some of England’s best-known producers for a long time, while names like New Hall have been quietly making a vast array of wines for over fifty years. However, upon arriving at Danbury Ridge, I couldn’t help but feel this place will be a game-changer. Not just for Essex, but for the English Wine Industry as a whole.
Attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection is the name of the game here. Owner, Mike Bunker, notes that many English Sparkling producers have recently turned their hands to still wines, many with mixed results, due to still wines being a secondary rather than primary objective. At Danbury, the goal from day one was to produce not just excellent but world-beating still wines. That’s a tall ask, given that English still wines are often seen as light and often poor value for money in the general consumer’s eye. The inaugural wine releases from Danbury Ridge fly in the face of these conventions, boasting high ABVs, intense fruit concentration and luscious mouthfeel. They also come with an ambitious price point: £32 for the ‘entry level’ and £52 for the outrageously good Octagon Block duo.
So what is it that makes the terroir in Essex, or more specifically, the Crouch Valley so unique? One of the most fascinating aspects of my visit to Danbury was the Geology masterclass given by consultant, John Atkinson MW, while walking around three of the Danbury vineyard sites. Crows Lane, one of the most recent plantings in 2020, is situated on London Clay soils upon a hill overlooking the Crouch Valley. Much has been said about the chalk-rich soils stretching over from Champagne to the south of England, but it can’t go unnoticed that many of the best still wines in England are grown on heavy clay soils. John was keen to point out that London Clay can be very high in a volcanic mineral called smectite. This compound is famously found in Pomerol, more specifically the prestigious Château Pétrus, and has a shrink-swell effect that can repel excess water at harvest time. It will also crack when dry to give the vine roots a chance to grow and explore.
The second site we visited, The Octagon, was planted in 2014 on gravel soils over London Clay. The more free-draining, looser soils make the vines work really hard to find water. This site is extensively yield managed, resulting in exceptional fruit that exhibits fantastic concentration. The proof is in the bottle, and the flagship duo of inaugural releases are single vineyard wines from The Octagon, both demonstrating the immense potential of this hugely promising site.
On the winery side, it’s safe to say that Danbury is absolutely at the cutting edge. A central Coquard press and smaller Bucher basket press ensure gentle pressing and extraction of juice from gently destemmed grapes by ‘mechanical fingers’. It’s all very sustainable too, with the winery being self-sufficient through the use of solar-powered electricity. And then there’s the centrepiece barrel room – a show-stopper in visual terms – which houses many more wines that are destined to become English classics. The 2020 still wines were already tasting tremendous back in November! It’s no wonder that head winemaker, Liam Idzikowski, formerly of Lyme Bay and Langham Estate, has a permanent beaming smile on his face despite the long hours as a winemaker. He’s found his perfect place in English Wine, having been instrumental in the design and creation of the winery to give him the platform to exploit his and the Estate’s vast potential.
Everything about Danbury feels like a ‘no stone left unturned’ approach. The Estate is a truly magnificent and grand place, and the four inaugural 2018 vintage wines, which I have again tasted since their launch last month, are truly game-changers when it comes to English still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And we haven’t talked about the sparkling wines yet. We’ll have to be patient for those, as the first sparkling wines from Danbury won’t be released for a good few years.
Danbury Ridge Chardonnay 2018
As the ‘entry level’ offering (it still comes at a £32 price point!), this makes an awesome first impression. This was the first wine I tasted from Danbury during my visit last year and the first one, re-tasting at home. It sets an immediate level of quality and precedence for the price.
The nose is a perfumed flurry of orange blossom, tangerine skin and red apple, with prominent spiced oak and vibrant bursts of tropical fruit.
On the palate there’s ripe fruit, young peach, juicy ripe apple, hints of pear and nectarine. It’s all underpinned by that textural, spicy oak and suggestions of minerality. The finish is lengthy and lingering on those mineral hints and prominent citrus peel, predominantly orange.
Danbury Ridge Chardonnay
Octagon Block 2018
If there’s one thing you leave Danbury Ridge remembering, it’s the number 8: 888 bottles of this Octagon Chardonnay were produced from the Octagon Block in 2018. It’s the oldest plot on the estate, spanning 12 acres of ‘Danbury Gravel’. This well-drained, low-density site has proven to produce spellbinding wines.
If the baseline Chardonnay was perfumed, then this cranks things up tenfold. The nose is an intoxicating fusion of peach skin, Acacia honey, pear and orange peel. The oak is perhaps less at the forefront than the Chardonnay 2018, but it’s also more complex and textural, with hints of toasted spice and nutmeg.
Tasted blind, you would be hard pushed to identify this as an English Chardonnay. The palate has breadth and depth, both from the soft, peachy and vibrant tropical fruit, and the citrus cut-through. The mouthfeel is divine – that 14% ABV helps to present a fuller, more involving palate, and adds as much texture as the oak brings grippy nuttiness.
This is the most complete Chardonnay I have tasted from England – tasted blind, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a warm climate Burgundy, or perhaps even a cooler climate South African Chardonnay. To have achieved that on one of your first releases is remarkable. I have to take my hat off to Liam!
Danbury Ridge Pinot Noir 2018
Grapes: Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir has been the red variety that I have developed the most love for over the last few years.
To describe the nose on this wine as ‘pretty’ would be selling it short. Indeed it has that classic red cherry and raspberry purity that the best English Pinots have, but there’s a real richness to these aromas. There’s deeper, riper notes of strawberry, perhaps even hints of dark fruit, with forest floor and savoury oak tones. This is captivating.
The palate delivers on that promise, beginning with a wash of tangy, but incredibly ripe berry flavours, moving towards black cherry and even Maraschino cherry notes. The palate is airy and clean yet also plush and rounded, lightly plummy, with soft textures of pepper and tannin.
Again, this is a hugely accomplished wine, perhaps reminiscent of a really good New Zealand Pinot Noir (I’m thinking Felton Road here, of which the understated but elegant branding of Danbury Ridge is also quite reminiscent).
Danbury Ridge Pinot Noir
Octagon Block 2018
Grapes: Pinot Noir
And now we move on to the Octagon Pinot Noir. I have to say that this was the wine I was most excited about, having tried Liam’s previous work with Essex Pinot at Lyme Bay. Here the oak integration takes a step up once again, with 100% of the wine having been aged in French oak for 18 months.
The nose on the Octagon Pinot is spellbinding: a mixture of black cherries, dark fruit, some richer plummy notes, lots more savoury spice, forest floor and almost gravelly mineral notes. It reeks of complexity and refinement.
Equally as exciting as its Chardonnay counterpart, this takes a step towards a moodier, meatier expression. There’s dark cherry, hints of blackberry and a soft, expansive palate supported by savoury complexities and a fine mineral texture. The tannins are firmer, and there’s a huge sense of journey in this wine.
I think it’s a rare example of an English Pinot in it for the long haul and that its best years are still to come – extraordinary.