Pinot Noir on the vine at Oastbrook Estate

The best place to grow Pinot Noir in England

In England 24.7% of all grapevines  are now Pinot Noir. As we discuss in another blog, Pinot Noir is especially clonally diverse and all clones are not created alike. Discussing where the best place to grow Pinot Noir is also to discuss what wines are being made.

To make great sparkling wine one needs grapes with higher acidity and lower sugar. The defining characteristic of English sparkling wine is its acidity which gives it a playful yet sophisticated liveliness that even the best Vintage Champagne’s lack.  It arguable that English Sparkling Wine is now the benchmark that all others must follow.

Sparkling wine, such as Oastbrook’s Sparkling Rose made with 50% Pinot Noir grapes, demands unique qualities in grapes compared with still wine, with relatively higher acidity and lower soluble sugar as well as a balanced and specific phenolic profile. That requires good terroir and clone and varietal choice. The Rother Valley in which both Oastbrook and Gusbourne are based creates a richer style of sparkling wine in contrast to the more linear styles from the chalkier soils nearer to the coasts of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.

Growing Pinot Noir for Rose wines is far less challenging that doing so for still red wines. In practice, those same grapes that are used for making sparkling wine can be left on the vines a little longer to reduce the acidity and the resulting  crisp and aromatic wines are easily produced in most of the more southerly regions of England. Granted the highly acidic and later ripening grapes from higher lying regions such as Sevenoaks or exposed areas on the coast may present more difficulties but the more inland lower lying areas can produce very rich aromatic roses.

The sixty thousand dollar question of course is what about Red Pinot Noir. Can England ever make Rich Burgundian style Pinot Noir? This is no easy task, the Pinot Noir grape is known to winemakers by another name – The Heartbreaker. It is indeed a heartbreaker from vineyard through to finished product. Why is this grape so troublesome and why are some crazy Ros-Bifs (and one Brazilian) trying to take on the acknowledged world leader Burgundy?  The world thought us crazy for making wine at all and yet we are now challenging incumbent old world sparkling producers. So is it really so crazy for us to think we can’t make red wine as well?

We start with one disadvantage and one advantage. The disadvantage is that our growing degree days (GDDs) are on average significantly lower than Burgundy but with global warming that is changing. Temperatures are getting warmer so when we are planting now we have to think of where the climate will be in 25-40 years time – the average lifetime of a vine. In Beaune, they are facing the opposite problem, the relatively cool climate of Burgundy is changing and becoming warmer. So this is a long game but like any gambler knows you cant wait forever for your luck to come in. Fortunately not all climates are the same. So whilst the macro-climate has a significant role, terroirs exist at the meso and  micro-climate level with  localised soil moisture, rain fall, altitude, slope and diurnal temperature variations, clone and rootstock all playing their part in weighting the dice in favour of riper grapes. 

So whilst we start with a natural disadvantage in the long term that gap will narrow and in the meantime certain meso climates in England are going to favour the growing of Pinot Noir. Alistair Nesbitt has examined both the climate shift and also localised variations to highlight quite literally the hotspots where Pinot Noir grapes can better ripen. 

When making red wine from Pinot Noir, you are presented with a grape that has a very thin skins, so there is simply less colour and less tannins in the grapes than other grape varieties. That which there is dependent on the ripeness of the grapes themselves. So if you have too little sun and not enough time to ripen then your resulting red Pinot Noir will be a light wine. This is compounded by the fact that those thin skins make Pinot Noir very susceptible to grape vine diseases, which means its hard to leave them on the vines to ripen. Still wine producers favour so called Pinot Fin varieties, which are lower yielding clones with compact bunches and small berries higher in tannin and anthocyanins. However, tighter bunches make such grapes more prone to Botrytis.

You can, however, improve things by choosing your site wisely. In England that means need basically need somewhere hot and dry with lots of sunlight, good canopy management and preventative disease management.

First you need lots of sunlight. The record for sunlight is claimed by various towns but it’s in East Sussex somewhere around the Eastbourne/Worthing Area.  So that’s the perfect area right? – if only it were so simple.

The problem with coastal areas is that they have  maritime weather – its mild and doesn’t get as warm as inland areas. So whilst Eastbourne may have the most sunlight hours it isn’t the warmest place nor is it the driest.

As much of the prevailing weather comes from the Atlantic and warm and wet air is brought up by the Gulf Stream the West of England is the wettest and East Anglia is the driest. This means that some places in Cornwall have twice as much rain as places in Essex.

East Anglia is flat, dry but has slightly less sunlight hours than Sussex. That makes parts of Essex such as the Crouch Valley, who have their own meso-climate very suitable for growing Pinot Noir grapes to full ripeness. So what about East Sussex. We have the most sun and inland its also amongst the warmest places in the country but its not quite as dry as Essex except for parts of the Rother Valley. A lot of people who visit Oastbrook to try our Pinot Noir  in the summer, think that they’ve arrived in the South of France. Indeed if you ever watch the satellite maps in the Summer as the rain clouds come hurtling in from Brighton you will see that they move around Bodiam like a bowler spinning a cricket ball in mid flight. So the Rother Valley has perfect conditions for ripening our grapes. We are blessed with hot, warm and dry summers and clay soils that retain the heat.

So please watch this space and lets see if any Burgundian growers follow their Champagne cousins over the channel to the Rother and Crouch valleys and in the meantime see what you think of our Pinot Noir.