I recently spent an afternoon at one of England’s oldest wineries – Three Choirs in Gloucestershire. It was a pleasure to be hosted by winemaker, Kevin Shayle, who’s seen it all since he joined in 1987. 30 years of growth and evolution is a lot in comparison to many wineries, but the winemaking history pre-dates Kevin by some stretch; the first vines were planted back in 1973.
Now with 30ha under vine, Three Choirs are far the biggest producer in the region. And they proudly champion Gloucestershire which has a rich cultural and agricultural heritage. The Three Choirs name comes from the annual music festival of the same name, in which the three local cathedral choirs take part. A number of their wines are also named after local landmarks.
I knew they had a reputation for experimenting and exploring the potential of a wide array of grape varieties. However, I think my jaw visibly dropped when I heard they’re operating with a whopping 30 different varieties. There’s too many to list but I will attempt to name a few…
- there are the popular ones we’ve “adopted” as a country (Sevyal, Bacchus, Madeleine Angevine, Müller-Thurgau).
- then there’s a good smattering of Pinot Noir (Burgundy and Précoce clones).
- there’s also some of the lesser-known, but relatively common (Siegerrebe, Phoenix, Reichensteiner, Triomphe, Rondo, Regent).
- and this is where I lose track as there were lots I’d never previously heard of (Schönburger, Huxelrebe).
The vine maintenance and replanting programme seems pressing and large-scale, but a carefully considered body of work. It’s always a touch heartbreaking to see irreparable damage to old, gnarly, wrinkled vines. However with the wealth of experience that Kevin, Martin and the team hold, continued strong production looks to be a certainty.
The winemaking facilities are fantastic. John Oldacre made a bold, forward-thinking step in 1990 to build such a big winery, and they’ve made steady, shrewd investments since. Everything they could possibly need is on site...
- A massive selection of temperature controlled tanks.
- A wall which is floor-to-ceiling with high-quality barrels.
- The ever-impressive riddling cages.
- A clean room devoted to perfect bottling (and labelling) conditions.
- A more recent purchase is their disgorgement line.
- It’s worth a visit to see the kit alone!
Not only was I struck by the scale of the set-up, but there was a genuine impression of a well-oiled machine. And they need to be good in order to undertake the mammoth annual task of harvesting and separately fermenting 30 varieties, many with multiple cuts for sparkling blends. Furthermore, they take on contract winemaking for many small wineries in the surrounding area and across the border in Wales. The team there must be as busy as an F1 pit team at harvest time!
The warm welcome was extended with an introduction to Assistant Winemaker, Ben Hawker, who joined me to talk and taste through the full Three Choirs range. Ben is pretty travelled in the wine world having spent time as a sommelier in Sydney and earning stripes with Villa Maria in Marlborough. His energy and passion for Three Choirs, and English wine in general, was clear to see.
All of the wines presented themselves in the refreshing, pure style that the winery is pursuing. Crafty blends aplenty and not a fault in sight. Another point of consistency across the range is the value for money they offer. The Classic Cuvée dances all around anything else home-grown I’ve tasted at £15.
One could say there’s been a shortage of recognition and coverage cast on Three Choirs, perhaps due to an unfair association between noble price points and unexciting wines. I think there’s no doubt they have the know-how and the means to produce excellent wine. There’s some exciting new releases around the corner and a complete rebrand planned for the summer. We recommend you keep a close eye in their direction. We certainly will be.
See below tasting notes for my four favourite Three Choirs wines:
- 30 Hectares
Three Choirs Classic Cuvée NV
GRAPES: Seyval Blanc, Pinot Noir & Phoenix RRP: £15.00
One of the country's most famous, and widely available Sevyal-led sparklers. There's also some Pinot Noir and Phoenix in the blend. This spends up to 20 months on lees (disgorged to service demand) and receives a marginal 0.7g dosage.
It has a spiked floral nose and an expansive attack full of lemon rind. Slightly savoury character that’s more leesy that yeasty, but the racy zing keeps any broad elements at bay. I loved the punctuating sorbet-like finish at front of mouth.
A revitalising fizz that’s brilliant value for money. Amongst the best I can recall tasting at £15.
Three Choirs Cellar Door Bacchus 2013
GRAPES: Bacchus RRP: £15.00
Our dear friend Bacchus stays true to form in Gloucestershire soils. The aromatics are dialled up here. Full of citrus, floral and greenery. Although not overly grassy or nettly.
The guillotine sharpness grabs your attention. Full of citrus, cooking apple and pear. Some grass shoots and a hint of vegetation.
It's swift from the front to the back of the palate. Blink and you'll miss it. Then the finish keeps coming. The acidity is sky high, but there's good structure to accommodate it.
WHERE TO BUY: Cellar Door Only
Three Choirs Cellar Door Siegerrebe 2014
GRAPES: Siegerrebe RRP: £15.00
This curious variety is something Three Choirs pride themselves on. Siegerrebe is the first to be harvested each year, then goes on to be used in this single varietal wine, as a component of their white blends and also as a dessert wine (with noble rot in some vintages). It’s a hybrid crossing of Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer.
Awesome nose. Reminded of a brilliant bone-dry Trimbach (Alsace) Gewürtz I had not long ago. Light violet perfume with grapefruit and nice waxy scents. Could sniff it all day.
The attack retains intrigue and interest. The layered palate unfolds bringing a combination of floral, citrus and herbal. The finish has a nice lift and zing.
Could be brilliant with right food. Ben Hawker recommends Sushi.
WHERE TO BUY: Cellar Door Only
Three Choirs Rosé 2015
GRAPES: Phoenix, Reichensteiner & Rondo RRP: £9.00
A high quality, hallmark dry rosé expression made predominantly from a blend of Phoenix, Reichensteiner & Rondo. So satisfying the demand has driven a significant rise in production each year for the last 5 years. It's now one of their biggest selling wines.
It brings pronounced red berry upfront with nice evolution introducing refreshing red fruit notes. It offers a level of brightness beyond typical English Rosés, then there's a touch of saline that gives it another dimension.
A good citrus backbone and noticeably low sugar levels result in a moreish finish. It’s easy to see why this is so popular.