Pinot Noir – capable of making the most ethereal and haunting of red wines, and contributing character and body to the finest sparkling wines. However, it is fussy and fickle, or “capricious and extremely variable” according to Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine. It is a variety that challenges both viticulturist and winemaker, but the potential is so great that many English and Welsh producers have taken that challenge on. And, oh, the variety of wines they are making from this variety! Sill white? Still rosé? Still red? Sparkling white? Sparkling rosé? Sparkling red? Yes, all of them!
This article briefly describes the position of Pinot Noir in the modern English wine industry, before going on a journey through the styles of wine currently produced from Pinot Noir on these shores, and providing top examples of each style – feel free to skip straight to this section if you aren’t interested in the background!
Pinot Noir has been planted in England right from the outset of the modern winemaking era, with Raymond Barrington Brock including it in his trial plantings on the North Downs near Oxford in the late 1940s. For decades it was very much a minor player in the industry, given its fickleness and the marginality of the English climate. Only 3.5% of vineyard area was planted to Pinot Noir in 1990. However, from the late 1990s onward, plantings have grown enormously. The latest figures from WineGB, the trade body for English & Welsh vineyards and winemakers, has Pinot Noir as the most planted grape variety, at 33%, just above Chardonnay at 32%. The 33% does however include Pinot Noir Précoce, an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir (see this article by Tom Hewson of Six Atmospheres for more on Pinot Noir Précoce). Whether they should be conflated is a debatable question – many vignerons state that Pinot Noir Précoce expresses different aromas and flavours from Pinot Noir, rather than simply ripening earlier. Stephen Skelton, who has been consulted on the planting of hundreds of English vineyards over the years, and collects data on the industry, puts Chardonnay slightly ahead at 27.9% compared to 26.4% for Pinot Noir, although, with 2% of Pinot Noir Précoce itemised separately, the picture painted is very similar.
There are more than 50 different “clones” of Pinot Noir. Different clones of the same variety may have different viticultural properties (such as better tolerance of calcareous soil) but also subtly different aroma and flavour profiles. With Pinot Noir, there are key groups of clones called Burgundy (or Dijon) and Champagne clones. As you might expect from the names, and locations where the clones were established, the former are more suitable for still wines, the latter for sparkling. Stephen Skelton believes that the most successful still wine clones are the compact-bunch Dijon clones 113, 114, 116, 667 and 777, plus the Geisenheim Gm 20-12 & Gm 20-19 and Italian SMA 201. He believes that the question of which clone to plant is not as important for sparkling wines, due to the greater impact of the winemaking process and that low acidity and perhaps most critically, high yield, should be the key selection factors.
Styles of wine made with Pinot Noir, and top examples
Pinot Noir is present in all English Sparkling Wines made in the classic method with the main three Champagne grapes (at least, we’re not aware of any made solely from Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier). There are a few cuvées in which Pinot Noir dominates, perhaps the most famous of which is Nyetimber’s exceptional Tillington Single Vineyard; the 2013 is 76% Pinot Noir and 24% Chardonnay. Another worthy example is Charles Palmer’s Classic Cuvée at 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay for the 2014 vintage.
Sparkling rosé is, in my personal view, currently the top performing sub-category within English Sparkling Wine. The vast majority of them have some Pinot Noir in them, while many feature it as the dominant grape. Some are made purely from Pinot Noir, and even within this sub-sub-category there is a fascinating variety of expressions. The Camel Valley Pinot Not Brut 2018 is fresh and breezy, the Saffron Grange Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé 2018 is all peaches and cream, while the Simpsons Wine Estates Canterbury Rosé 2018 is a sparkling cherry delight, with hints of Bakewell tart.
Others, however, claim that Blanc de Noirs is where Pinot Noir finds its best expression in English Sparkling Wine. This is a reasonable position to take! Personally, I find the English Blancs de Noirs that impress me most are blends of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, such as Harrow & Hope and Raimes, but there are a couple of outstanding, and very different, examples made purely from Pinot Noir. Ancre Hill, the organic and biodynamic Welsh vineyard, produce a zero dosage Blanc de Noirs that is sizzlingly crisp but with enough rounded red fruit to prevent it from being too austere – it is a sensational wine for pairing with rich foods. The Gusbourne Blanc de Noirs, on the other hand, is one of the weightiest and most complex English Sparkling Wines on the market.
The production of sparkling red wines is relatively rare, outside Australia and Italy at any rate. There are several red English Sparkling Wines however, made from a range of grapes. Balfour Hush Heath’s Leslie’s Reserve Red NV is 100% Pinot Noir, and, with a slightly higher dosage at 16g/l (so in the “Extra Dry” tier), delivers a beautifully balanced contrast between the sharp cranberry fruit and the sugar in the wine.
Turning to still wines, the first stop, you may be surprised to read, is white wines. A still Blanc de Noirs is an even more unusual beast than sparkling reds in the wine world, but England has produced more than its fair share, and it seems to be a niche that suits our grapes. While Simpsons Wine Estate make theirs from Pinot Meunier, Albourne Estate in West Sussex, whose 2018 White Pinot Noir reminds us strongly of a Greek Moschfilero, Litmus Wines from Surrey and Martin’s Lane Vineyard in Essex, use Pinot Noir. The Litmus and Martin’s Lane wines have a lovely, rounded mouthfeel and, as you might expect, more of a red fruit expression than most white wines, with hints of redcurrant as well as peach and ripe lemon.
Oz Clarke believes that still rosés should be a big focus for English wine producers – and we agree. This is a category where multiple red grapes thrive, but Pinot Noir produces some of the most sophisticated and elegant examples, almost always in the dry Provencal style. Leading the pack is Simpsons Wine Estate, again, with their Railway Hill Rosé. The Winbirri and Woodchester Pinot Noir Rosés are both also well worth searching out – refreshing, flavoursome and very moreish.
Of course, it is still reds that the reputation of Pinot Noir fundamentally rests upon. From its heartland in Burgundy, it has spread across the globe, and fantastic examples can be found from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the US and many other countries, including, in recent years, from England and Wales. Requiring sufficient warmth and sunlight to gain true phenolic ripeness and avoid green or indistinct flavours, the best examples come from the east of England; being drier, the grapes can hang longer in autumn with lower risk of mildew and rot. Balfour Hush Heath’s The Suitcase Pinot Noir 2018 is a top expression of the grape, displaying bright red fruit flavours but also an incredible nose of coffee, chocolate, petrichor and truffle. Further north, in Norfolk, Winbirri produce excellent red Pinot Noirs year-in, year-out, focused on pure fruit expression. Exceptional examples can be found further west though, such as White Castle’s Pinot Noir Reserve 2018, which has beautifully integrated oak, and Knightor Winery’s Pinot Noir 2018, which is exactly the sort of ethereal yet intense Pinot Noir that Burgundy made its name with, yet may be becoming too warm to produce in most years.
We’ve curated a phenomenal mixed case with an exceptional example of a 100% English Pinot Noir of each colour, both still and sparkling – buy here for £149.99. This really is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable mixed cases of English wine that you will find.