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Five unusual English grape varieties to try this year

Rebecca Pitcairn gives her thoughts on some of the wines being made from Britain’s lesser-known grapes  

Pinot Gris 

Pinot Gris, aka Pinot Grigio in Italy, is a mutation of Pinot Noir and is characterised by a pinkish-grey skin. It currently makes up less than two per cent of the grape varieties planted in England but I’ve already tasted some amazing samples from Kent, Sussex and Surrey. 

While Pinot Gris is a relatively new kid on the block, the team Denbies Wine Estate have been producing a still, single vintage varietal for around 10 years – the vineyard’s first release in 2016 was from the 2013 vintage. They sent me a sample of their latest 2022 vintage, which is the first to be released in this new, more contemporary branding (a much-needed, upgrade IMO) and I really enjoyed it. Refreshing notes of apple and lime but also white peach and a touch of vanilla with stone fruit and slight almond flavour. I didn’t find the palate hugely complex but it had a really beautiful mouthfeel that kept me going back for more. 

Denbies Pinot Gris 2022, £24.95 from denbies.co.uk

Other examples I’ve previously bought and enjoyed:

From Sussex: Bolney Pinot Gris 2022, £23.95 southdownscellars.co.uk  and Oastbrook Pinot Gris 2022 (currently sold out but new vintage coming soon). 

From Kent: Heppington Pinot Gris 2019, £17.99 corkk.co.uk (2022 also available direct from vineyard).

Gamay 

Gamay (or Gamay Noir) is a light-bodied red wine, similar in taste to Pinot Noir, and is most notably grown in the Beaujolais region of France. It usually has delicate floral aromas and subtle earthy notes.  

While Pinot Noir is grown widely in Britain for our sparkling wines (and we’re increasingly producing some wonderful still wines made from Pinot Noir), there are just a handful growing Gamay.  

One of the first was Biddenden in Kent, which planted Gamay Noir back in 1985 and, because the grape requires somewhat of an Indian summer to allow the grapes to develop the right sugar levels, has since produced just six vintages in 2003, 2009, 2011, 2018, 2020 and 2022. ↗️

I had the pleasure of sampling the 2022 vintage, which won Gold at the IEWA 2023, a few weeks before it was released to the public last summer. I’d previously tried the 2020 vintage so half knew what to expect but was so bold over by 2022 that I pre-ordered a few bottles. 

It’s cheerfully fruit on the nose with a slight smokiness to it and is bursting with juicy flavours of raspberry and cherry. Because it’s so aromatic, yet light and with a good acidity to it, it goes well with spicy dishes – I have paired it with a salmon curry and it worked really well 

You can still purchase the 2022 vintage online priced at £22.50, but it’s a limited run of just 2,000 bottles and Biddenden has told me that unfortunately the conditions weren’t quite right last year to produce a 2023 vintage, so it could be a while before there’s another chance to try it! 

Biddenden Gamay Noir 2022, £22.50 from biddendenvineyards.com

Chasselas 

Chasselas, also known as Gutedel, is a white wine grape widely grown in Switzerland but is also found in France, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Croatia and… East Sussex in England! 

Bluebell Estate is thought to have the only commercial planting of this variety in the UK and is one that winemaker, Kevin Sutherland, is particularly passionate about. The vines were planted in 2013 and, while this 2020 vintage is the first wine to be released overtly under the Chasselas name, a 2018 and 2019 vintage were released under Bluebell’s “Estate White” line – so you may have tried the grape without even realising! 

Once poured, there are immediate aromas of peach and stone fruits, while the palate is more zingy with citrus flavour, yet a smooth. medium body. I can imagine sipping this in the height of summer with a fresh seafood salad but, if you want to drink with heartier winter fair now then, quite understandably being Swiss, it pairs brilliantly with warm cheese dishes like fondue or raclette – it went fabulously with the side of cauliflower cheese we had last night!  

This vintage has picked up a number of awards, including a bronze medal at Mondial Du Chasselas, where it was pitted against wines from countries, who have been growing the grape for decades. Really interested to see how this one develops and if we’ll see more Chasselas popping up across the UK soon. 

Ashdown Chasselas, £20.40 from /bluebellwines.com 

Pinot Noir (Blanc)

This isn’t so much a little-known grape as we grow hoards of Pinot Noir here in England but the style is a little bit different. 

As one of the holy trinity Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir is widely grown in England for traditional method sparkling wine. But since the 1990s (some 30 years ago – how is that so?!) Britain’s producers have been increasingly using the grape to make red wines. 

Sam Linter, former Bolney Wine Estate MD and head winemaker was pioneering in this respect (you can listen to her story on episode 32 of the English Wine Diaries) and thanks in part to warmer climates, we’ve since been refining the style (there are some beauts coming for all over the south including Lyme Bay, Martins Lane, Balfour, Gusbourne and Llympstone Manor, to name but a few. 

There are, however, fewer making still white wines from Pinot Noir – Albourne Estate Winery, a small, family-run vineyard just to the north of Brighton on the South Downs is one.  

If you like the Blanc de Noirs style of sparkling wine, then I urge you to try this – as well as a slightly peachy nose there are aromas of rose petals and cherry coming through, while the palate is ripe with raspberry yet creamy thanks to the wine undergoing MLF. It’s light yet indulgent so a great alternative to fizz as an aperitif or pair with oily fish like mackerel, salmon or trout. 

Albourne White Pinot Noir, £17.95, albourneestate.co.uk

Muscat

The Muscat family of grapes is one of the world’s oldest and most widespread and is used to make a variety of wine styles from Italy’s light, low alcohol sparkling wine Asti, to full bodied dry whites and sweet to full-bodied whites and sticky fortified wines. 

However, its planting in England’s cool climate has been somewhat sparing and experimental – understandably seeing as it’s a late ripening grape. 

English Wine project produces a dry sparkling Muscat for Reinshaw Hall in Derbyshire (which I am yet to try) but I’ve been particularly intrigued by this skin contact Muscat produced by Knightor in Cornwall, from grapes grown in Essex. 

Fermented for a short period on the skins (7 days), with some light French Oak maturation, this 2022 vintage orange wine, while delicately apricot in colour, really punches you in the nose with citrus, rose and almond aromas. The palate is wonderfully crisp with a touch of that nuttiness coming through and a long, zingy yet smooth lime finish. 

You’ll find the wine is cloudy as it’s unfiltered but please don’t be deterred, this is a really interesting yet drinkable natural-style wine (so many aren’t) that I hope we see more of in years to come. 

Knightor Muscat Skin Fermented, 2022, £22, knightor.com