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Danbury Ridge Wine Estate – an emerging star

An emerging star of English wine

It’s rare to see such unanimous consensus on the outstanding quality of an estate’s first releases, but Danbury Ridge Wine Estate, in Essex, have obtained glowing reviews from across the spectrum of wine critics and journalists for their inaugral 2018 vintage. Jancis Robinson wrote about the estate here, in comparison to Burgundian wines. Other Masters of Wine, such as Mike Best and Anne Krebiehl, have been effuse in their praise too.

We sold out of our allocation of their limited edition wines (of which only 888 bottles per release are made) within hours, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are still available. Read on to find out all about Danbury Ridge.

The story

Danbury Ridge was founded by two generations of the Bunker family: Michael and Heather Bunker and, their daughters Janine and Sophie.

For Michael and Heather, there really was no place like home, and having spent several years living in Asia they returned to Essex, settling in the village of Danbury, just a few miles north from where they had grown up.

While walking with friends on the estate it was suggested that some of the agricultural land owned by the Bunker family may prove an ideal location for growing vines. The fields had long been scorned by local farmers for being lean and arid – a good training ground for racehorses over wet wint ers, but far from ideal for summer  cereal  crops. Following  their passion for growing and talent for identifying opportunities, the family commissioned a detailed feasibility study.

The first vines were planted in 2014 with an unwavering focus on still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones to exploit the unique mesoclimate. After just a few  seasons the vines were producing grapes of a ripeness previously unseen in the UK.

Inspired by the possibility of what could be achieved with expert advice, capital investment and patience the family decided to grow their ambition further and commenced construction of one of the most well-equipped wineries in Europe.

While most UK estates look to Reims and Epernay for inspiration, scaling their activities and ambitions to compete with the vast brands of the Marne, the focus at Danbury Ridge is directed toward grower Champagnes and the small domaines of Burgundy.

Now, just a few vintages into the project, and that early aspiration is being realised: Danbury Ridge is bottling wines that critics have already favourably compared to some of the finest addresses in Burgundy, Oregon and cool climate, New Zealand.

Danbury Ridge Wine Estate English Vineyard lake

Sustainability

As winemakers, Danbury Ridge are always looking ahead to the future, whether it is the next harvest, vintage, or wine release. They understand the need to be patient as the decisions they make today will see fruition well into the future.

Vineyards

As a family business, Danbury Ridge want to provide a legacy; something that is sustainable, that the next generation can take pride in and an asset that will support their children’s child ren. It is these principles that shape not only the way that they do business but also the way that they interact with the environment.

Like any agricultural ecosystem, vineyards can be susceptible to pests and disease. The pest control methods used in an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach enable them to protect their vines in a way  which respects the local environment and with the least possible disruption to the vineyards’ delicate ecosystem and wildlife.

In 2020, Danbury Ridge took the decision to remove herbicide use across their vineyards and now use mechanical weeding in the growing season and a local flock of 25 Suffolk and Mule sheep over the winter. The sheep graze the vineyards, keeping the grass short and removing weeds without compacting the earth or harming the vines.

To balance soil nutrients and provide our vines with everything they need, they compost all grape marc post-harvest and utilise it across the estate vineyards along with natural chicken manure pellets.

Winery

The Danbury Ridge winery has been designed to be energy efficient and to generate its own electricity through solar panels situated on the south side of the building. They have created a thermal envelope or ‘above ground cellar’ in which to age the wines. This unique design negates the need for any powered climate control systems.

‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ is an important part of the winery ethos. Winery effluent is converted into drinking water through a series  of ecologically balanced wetland cells and returned to the natural waterways. Light sensors mean that only the working area is illuminated, so that energy is not wasted. They recycle everything that is no longer required and cannot be reused.

Estate

As long-term supporters of The Woodland Trust, Danbury Ridge understand the importance of trees and their impact on local wildlife and the environment. Over the years, they have planted 8,000 new trees on the estate including a registered wood as part of the Jubilee Project by The Woodland Trust to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

They have also created a naturally fed 6 million litre reservoir on the estate to supply a vine irrigation system. Each year this large body of water becomes home to  breeding flocks of Canada and Graylag geese. All the vineyards have deer fencing which not only protects the precious vines but also means that the local herd of Fallow deer do not harm themselves on trellising and wires.

The land

Geology

The longer story of Danbury Ridge is told in geological time. Fifty million years ago, during the Ypresian period, global temperatures increased by 8°C. This rapid  warming  episode, brought  on by an intense period of  volcanic  activity, melted the ice caps. The resulting sea-level rise submerged much of the area we now think of as the Thames Basin, the warm water reaching as far west as Wiltshire.

The clay beds that sedimented over this shallow sea floor incorporated silt washed from the land, and volcanic minerals falling out of the atmosphere. The brick facades of Downing Street and Kensington carry the dark stain of kilned silt, but it is the inclusion of volcanic minerals that is more significant for wine producers. London Clay swells as it gets wetter, rendering it impermeable, a useful property in wet autumns, as it minimizes the possible effects of dilution on the berries.

Estuarine Essex is smeared with a thick layer of London Clay, but at Danbury Ridge this tenacious deposit lies beneath a significant  overburden of fluvial-glacial sand and gravel. It is this coarse aggregate, deep in some places, shallow in others, that makes Danbury Ridge so unique.

Cool Climate

The test for cool climate provenance is boasting about warmth. Across Germany’s Rheingau, the pattern of winter snow melt reveals the ghost of the summer’s Grand Cru; whilst in foehn-affected Otago the afternoon peak of heat drives vineyard workers into the shade.

England has the bragging rights for being the coolest of the cool, but it is a hollow boast. Flavours develop late-on in grape ripening, not a problem for sparkling wines whose personality derives from layering the effects of  maturity and ageing upon a neutral base, but the same blank slate is an inauspicious starting point for still Pinot and Chardonnay.

The Danbury Ridge mesoclimate comes into its own in late summer. Ripening does not stall with the autumn equinox. Natural woodland shelter belts, together with the light topsoil, magnify the effect of September sunlight. Every harvestable photon and joule nudges flavour a little higher up the register. The coupling of daytime warmth to seasonal coolness intensifies varietal character, whilst maintaining delicacy.

The Vines

Love and marriage. Chardonnay and Pinot. If we take Champagne and Burgundy as our lead, the two varieties seem inseparable. When the fashion for White Burgundy took hold, Chassagne-Montrachet changed its spots, and growers ripped out Pinot Noir and replaced it with Chardonnay, giving the impression that the two grapes are substitutable.

Despite sharing some genetic material, the two vines are quite dissimilar, beyond the obvious difference in colour. In simple terms, Chardonnay is more responsive to climate, its flavours becoming more rounded and expressive with increasing warmth, while Pinot Noir is generally more responsive to differences in soil type, providing it is cultivated within a narrow and cool climatic range. Where Chardonnay gorges on high-summer heat, Pinot Noir flags.

Temperatures in the UK are rarely high enough to inhibit Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, so the extra heat units accumulated at Danbury Ridge become of a benign force within both the red and white wines, building flavour and softening acids. This trend is further  magnified by a rigorous selection of clones.

The third grape grown at Danbury Ridge is Meunier, another Champagne import. Meunier lives in the shadows of Pinot and Chardonnay but it makes a soothing contribution to sparkling blends. It is a reliably early ripener, and as the first grape into the winery each autumn, is very much the herald of the harvest.

Octagon Block

At 12 acres, the Octagon Block is the most established on the estate. For decades orchards enjoyed the favourable climatic conditions, highlighting its future potential as a vineyard. It has an eclectic and diverse soil profile. Clay outcrops at the lower, southern end of the vineyard, but most of the vines sit on a plateau of gravelly loam.

The Octagon’s soil gets heavier and more tenacious the deeper the roots sink into the profile. The light loam topsoil makes this a warm site, and its high gravel content aids drainage, but eventually the mineral veil of London Clay takes over and closes everything down. Protection from prevailing south westerly wind is offered by Slough Wood, and a shelter belt of poplar running along the eastern field boundary.

The vineyard produces wines in its own image: full and expansive, but never too dense. Clay is renowned for producing powerful wines, but gravel pulls in the opposite direction. The wines share in this tension, balanced between light and shade, force and suppleness.

  Planted  2014  Varieties66% Pinot Noir, 24% Chard o nnay , 10 % Pinot Meunier
  Total Acreage  12.27 (5 hectares)  Trellis system  Single guyot VSP
  Root StockSO4, Binova, 3309, Rivaria  SoilsDanbury Gravel, Bagshot sand , London Clay

Sleipnir

Sleipnir is located in the most easterly region of the Danbury Ridge estate. Twelve acres are planted on loam soil with the ideal mix of London Clay, sand and silt providing rich and deep soil optimal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vine cultivation. With Hyde Wood to the north to assist in heat retention, it is planted at 1,300 vines per acre and crop yields are kept ultra­ low.

Named after the Norse god, Odin’s eight-legged horse the Sleipnir Vineyard is slightly larger than the Octagon, and less sheltered. This is the coolest of the three blocks by day but, conversely, the warmest by night.

The soil here is a mix of loam and calcareous clay. Having bulldozed its way across East Anglia’ s chalkland, the melting ice sheet terminated and deposited its load erratically. The exhausted marl pits just to the east of Sleipnir were once a source of carbonate-rich clay, and both red and white wines benefit from the freshness and mineral qualities that have long been associated with this soil type.

  Planted  2017  Varieties52% Pinot Noir, 37% Chard onnay , 11% Pinot Meunier
  Total Acreage12.36 (5 hectares)  Trellis system  Single guyot VSP
  Root Stock  S04  Soils  London Clay, sand, silt

Polo Field

The four-acre Polo Field has played a long game. At the turn of the last century, its free draining properties were recognised by Hyde Racing Stables, and the land was used as winter gallop. It was later rejuvenated as a polo pitch with the arrival of the Bunker family in the 1980s.

A shallow layer of loam disguises the fact that this vineyard sits on a deep deposit of sand and gravel. This is the driest of the Danbury Ridge vineyards, maybe too dry in the early years of establishment, when young vines are made to struggle hard for water and Danbury Ridge were made to wait an extra year or two to reach a harvestable yield.

The lightness of the soil causes large diurnal temperature swings. From June to September, daytime temperatures  peak 2-3 C above the surrounding countryside. The downside of all this high-summer warmth comes in April and May when Polo Field is the most frost prone of the estate vineyards.

Lighting frost bougies in the spring you ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” The answer comes in the autumn, when a light crop of small jewel-like berries and bunches provides the winery with its most fragrant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit.

  Planted   2018   Varieties   50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay   Total Acreage 3.93 (1.6 hectares)   Trellis system   Single guyot VSP   Root Stock   SO4   Soils   Deep glacial gravel deposits    

Associated Growers

Danbury  Ridge understand that no single estate can produce all the best fruit and so they source grapes from growers in Essex who share their passion and commitment to growing the highest quality still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The search for great locations has brought about long-lasting partnerships in the Crouch Valley and Blackwater Estuary. Danbury Ridge have carefully selected individual parcels of land to compliment their estate vineyards with London Clay soils, and with more open rolling aspects.

The inclusion of the Associated Growers reflects the unrivalled quality of still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay  grapes that Essex can  produce. Danbury Ridge only work with growers who are exacting in their practice, and they only accept grapes that are exceptional.

  Planted  2019, 2020  Varieties  60 % Pinot Noir, 40 % Chardonnay
  Total Acreage42.62 (17.3 hectares)  Trellis system  Single guyot VSP
  Root StockSO4, 125AA, Fercal  Soils  London Clay

Winemaking

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skilful execution.” – William A Foster

Making wine at 51 degrees North was never going to be easy. It is impossible to overestimate the burden of vineyard work and the ongoing level of sacrifice and dedication that is needed to nudge the dial favourably towards balance and flavour.

What makes all the toil and investment worthwhile at Danbury Ridge, is that the mesoclimate has passed through a significant threshold for ripeness. Dropping crop, leaf removal and de-vigourating practices make sense because they are enhancing rather than remedial or reparative.

Integrating the vines into the environment is one side of a coin. The flipside is revealed in the winery, where a different form of  integration and nurturing occurs, between the fruit and winemaking.

Again, the level of investment and devotion required is sobering. Sparkling wines are Coquard-pressed, and the still wines gravity-fed into a mix of small oak open top fermenters and Nomblot concrete tanks.

Liam Idzikowski – Winemaker

As one of the first winemakers to recognise the world class potential of fruit grown in Essex, Liam has spearheaded the ambitious production of premium still wines in the UK.

Growing up in Northern Ireland meant Liam travelled to learn his trade in California, Australia, South Africa and the Rhone. Working for world-renowned wineries like Tyrrells Estate in Australia’s Hunter Valley, and Williams Selyem in the Russian River Valley, California, meant Liam was able to hone his fastidious eye for detail.

Since passing his degree in Viticulture and Oenology with first class honours, Liam has built a reputation for crafting some of the finest still and sparkling wines yet released by UK vineyards.

At Danbury Ridge, Liam has been instrumental in the design and creation of the winery and has full autonomy to create exceptional quality wines.

DANBURY RIDGE WINES

Still Wines

Pinot Noir

Grapes are handpicked and clusters sorted both in the vineyard and in the winery. Along with whole clusters a portion of the grapes are gently destemmed, without crushing, ensuring a large percentage of whole berries. The grapes are then gravity fed into small oak or concrete open-top fermenters, which have a useful permeability that allows for a gentle exchange of oxygen.

After three to five days cold maceration, the musts are allowed to warm naturally with wild yeast before inoculation. Fermentation is cool and total maceration time can last up to 28 days, with manual punch downs between one and three times a day.

All wines spend up to eighteen months in exclusively French oak from three selected cooperages. And are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Chardonnay

Grapes are handpicked and whole cluster pressed. Musts undergo a short settling of a few hours before racking to barrel with very high solids and no enzymes or fining additions added.

Fermentation is long and slow, in 100% French oak barrels, with a significant proportion completing fermentation naturally. The wine goes through malolactic fermentation and receives no battonage. It remains on gross lees for up to 18 months before a very light filtration and prior to being bottled unfined.

Sparkling Wines

Classic Reserve NV and Rosé NV

These two sparkling wines are a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Handpicked at remarkably high ripeness levels to  display full flavour and power. With an aim to preserve the freshness and purity of the fruit, the grapes are gently whole cluster pressed in a Coquard before cold settling overnight. Only the cuvee is used, and the must receives very minimal sulphiting and no enzymatic or fining treatments.

A cool fermentation is conducted in both stainless steel and old neutral French barrels, before blending with Reserve wines that are aged in oak foudres, using a Solera-type system. The reserve wine proportion depends on the vintage, but typically will comprise between 15% and 30 %. Also, according to vintage, there will be either no malolactic or partial malolactic fermentation.

After tirage bottling the wines will age for a minimum of 36 months before disgorging and further ageing on cork.

Blanc de Blancs and Vintage

The Danbury Ridge Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay grapes and the Vintage is a 50:50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Both wines are derived from the most ripe and intense fruit grown in a specific year and will be selected from a single vineyard block.

The grapes are basket pressed and the must transferred to barrels without any settling or sulphiting, where it will stay for eight months on gross lees. The objective is to create powerful, robust wines that display a wide range of flavours and depth.

The wines will receive some battonage, and do not undergo malolactic fermentation.

Once bottled, the Blanc de Blancs and Vintage wines spend a minimum of 48 months sur lie before disgorging and further ageing under cork.