Ah East Anglia, ancient home of Boudica; the warrior queen of the Roman routing Iceni tribe folk. Though the centurions eventually got their own back and as a result grapevines were planted en masse in what is the modern day Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. EA once produced 40% of the grapes in Britannia due to it’s fabulous terroir; particularly chalky limestone soils and low rainfall. However since its heyday a thousand or so years ago it has been eclipsed by Kent and Sussex as England’s premiere wine regions. But East Anglia’s vinous traditions live on ; as I found out on a dark autumn evening of tasting at the West Street Vineyard in Coggeshall, Essex.
There was a handful of wineries present, but I kicked off with New Hall Vineyards and their decent Bacchus 2012. The UK’s premiere white grape showed itself as fresh grapefruit, medium dryness and fragrant subtle green menthol smoke. Signature 2012 is a blend of the little known German varietal Siegegrubbe and better known Pinot Gris. I enjoyed the harmony of white flowers and spicy apricot. It was a good weight, had nice freshness nice body and a zesty kiwi finish. Even better was the Signature Reserve 2009 with its rich ripe muscat nose, clinging acidity, dry green apple and fresh pineapple. The Pinot Noir Rose 2012 had smoky strawberry, flinty stone on the nose and on the palate zippy cranberry was rich long and classy. Most impressive was their Brut Rose 2010 which was a blend of Chardonnay and Pinots Noir & Blanc. It was lean, a bit green but very fine fizz with a real classy rich biscuit tone that finished with a touch raspberry. Very good indeed.
New Hall is headed up by the UK Vineyards Association Winemaker of the Year 2013 and East Anglia winemaking royalty Piers Greenwood. Piers has a deep knowledge and wise warm wisdom when talks about his wines. But it was the regard with which other winemakers spoke about him that told the real story. Piers has an incredible passion for raising the wine profile of the area and does this by consulting at a number of other wineries in the region.
Set up “Essexites” the Mohan family in 2009 West Street Vineyard does more than it says on the tin. As well as being a micro vineyard (5.5Acres) actually in the village of Coggeshall, its home to “The Wine Barn”; a modern cafe restaurant complete with wine wall that boasts the best wines the UK has to offer. Tastings, tours and more are available at this Anglian wine hub, but I digress… First up was their White 2011 (Faber and Bacchus) which showed pretty well with it’s flinty fresh acidity, super tangy lemon pith and clean finish. Their Rose 2011 (Faber and Pinot Noir) really impressed; smoky earthy red berries, tart cranberry and a pleasingly high acids. Their good run continued with a fine Brut 2010; a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay showing ripe white melon, “prosecco” pear and rich brioche. Very nice indeed. I wasn’t familiar with the German Faber variety (Pinot Blanc/Müller-Thurgau cross) to which the site was originally planted, but Stephen and Jane have put a rather dull grape to good use by blending it newer plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
That theme of diversification is taken to a new level by Suffolk’s Lavenham Brook who in addition to their award winning wines they rear Red Poll Beef, Suffolk Lamb and produce single varietal heritage apple juice. The Bacchus 2012 dripped delightful peach, white melon, vibrant lime moving into dry tingling apricot finish. Soft red berries, nice texture and a touch leathery were the notes I made about their solid Pinot Noir Rosé 2012. There was a real class to both wines which came as no surprise when I found out that Herr Greenwood is the winemaker there as well.
Shawsgate is one of East Anglia’s oldest commercial vineyards which may explain their rather dated website homepage. I did however like their wines and the smart clean packaging as well. Bacchus 2011 showed lime, white flower, soapstone, pine needles and a super dry green apple finish. Pandora 2011; a blend of Seyval Blanc and Müller-Thurgau was off dry with vague citrus and ok weight. Spanish Rosado in style their Rosé 2010 (Rondo; a red cross of Czech origins popular here in the UK for making good Rose, though I have yet to have a very good red made from it) tasted ripe and gamey, had generous strawberry, was long, full-bodied and very drinkable. The hits kept coming as I moved to their bubbles. The 2004 Brut made from Seyval Blanc seduced with exotic Asian (apple) pear, rich cashew nut and was all over me with dense lime cheesecake yet zesty yummy freshness. Superb stuff. 2008 Rosé (Rondo and Acalon:another German red import) was meaty, with hints of lovely Brazil nut, strawberries and cream. Really liked the wild raspberry finish.
Much decorated family run Giffords Hall for me produced the best Bacchus (Defacto white grape of England, producing some of the countries most consistent white wines. Its a saucy threeway cross of Silvaner, Riesling with good old Müller-Thurgau) of the day. Their 2012 held my attention with its bracing sea salt, fresh melon, stinging nettle and lovely lively finish. GH’s award-winning Rose 2012 made from a blend of Rondo and the promising Madeline Angevin (white Loire variety) showed off hints of smoke, fine red flinty greenish berries and a subtle meaty edge. Classy.
I was able to sample some very niche liqueurs from DJ’s Wines who are so boutique they don’t even have a website. My quote about their Bramble Whisky was concise and to the point “I could lose a few days on that, but I wouldn’t mind”. While I was more measured when describing Monks Mead, the product of hard working bees that was fresh, fruity and light with notes of aged honey, heather and citrus zest.
I found time before dinner to move from the grape to the grain with samples from the English Spirit Distillery who are making some sensational spirits including the masterful Old Salt Rum. I found myself softly singing old sea shanties as I sipped this international gold medal winning rum. If you love rum or know someone who does then you must seek out this wonder, that uses traditions centuries old to distill this treacle laden, salted caramel, bananalicious beauty.
I had a chance to chat with Piers Greenwood during dinner and mightly enjoyed hearing his stories. His ethos, how he fell in love with wine and winemaking left an impression on me. With a guardian like him overseeing this reinvigoration of East Anglia vineyards then these smattering of awards and accolades I feel will only increase. The result being hopefully more bottles from this ancient and noble English wine region being enjoyed by the descendants of the Romans who first planted those vines. Oh and Boudica’s as well…
Postscript: I had a look at the websites and other social media for these producers and (with the exception of Lavenham Brook and to a lesser extent Giffords Hall) felt most of them really needed to update and expand their online reach. A twitter account, facebook page and attractive easy to use website are must haves in this modern world of marketing. Ignore them at your peril.