Tasting T2.3 English Chardonnay

Whilst we weren’t waxing lyrically after the English light whites tasting (T2.2) a few weeks ago, Chardonnay from England is a totally different wine. This grape is a key component of the very successful and much awarded English sparkling wine revolution. We are hoping for a better identification of prime sites and some good winemaking knowledge of how to treat this highly versatile grape variety.

Chardonnay is a fantastic grape variety. It is very good at expressing both the location and climate of where it is grown (its terroir). Also expressing the techniques used in the winery such as malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and oak ageing.

Chardonnay itself is relatively neutral with some fresh appley aromas but when you add in all the above it can be complex. It has many layers of flavour, it can be crisp and minerally, soft and creamy or full on buttery. In tropical climates it takes on tropical flavours. It is often in the hands of a good location and winemaker that a well-structured, balanced wine with flavours from the subtle to the powerful is created.

As such, it is not possible not to like Chardonnay, but it is possible not to like some styles. Years ago, it had a poor reputation as super-oaked versions from the new world hit the supermarket shelves. In general, they are not so prevalent now, even at the cheaper end of the market and practically non-existent at the quality end. That’s not to say oak was a bad thing, what it can bring to a good chardonnay is immeasurable, but like all ingredients when added to a recipe, it needs to be of good quality and handled well. The practice of adding a shovel of oak chippings into a vat of cheap wine was never likely to result in a good wine.

An important part of the art of winemaking for Chardonnay wines is Malolactic Fermentation, this is where malic acid is converted into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This conversion happens after or during the yeast (primary) fermentation, which is why it is sometimes referred to as secondary fermentation.

The idea or purpose of Malolactic Fermentation is three-fold

  1. To reduce the acidity in the wine (although not completely) particularly relevant in colder regions like England, Northern France etc.
  2. To add a buttery, creamy complexity to the wine, also making the wine softer and smoother.
  3. To increase stability by preventing Malolactic Fermentation after bottling. This will make a wine look cloudy and be slightly sparkling.

Lees stirring is the practice of stirring or scraping the leftover (after fermentation) dead yeast particles and bits of grape solids (i.e. sediment) from the barrel sides back into the wine. The term for this stirring is Battonage. The benefits of lees stirring is a reduction of hydrogen sulphide, slightly reduced oak flavour and improved stability of the wine. This all benefits in terms of greater richness, creaminess, complexity and increased lees flavour.

Oak ageing is a very complex subject in wine and particularly in Chardonnay. As we mentioned earlier Chardonnay is a very versatile grape and there are wonderful examples of wines with no oak ageing. Also of light or older oak ageing which can be subtle. Also a full on new oak ageing which will be more and more powerful dependant on the type of oak and the length of the ageing. The type of oak used and its method and duration are all within the hands of the winemaker. It is exciting to see the similarities and the differences over different areas and wines.

I am not really sure what to expect from our selection of English Chardonnays as my experience here is very limited, hence the desire to explore this area as one of my 60 tastings.

The wineries are,

Lyme Bay

Now over 25 years old, Lyme Bay Winery is located in the Axe valley, Devon. Grapes are sourced from select growers and vineyards across the country. They also produce mead, gin, rum, cider and fruit wines and liqueurs to name but a few. 

Simpsons Wine Estate

Amid the pristine beauty of the Elham Valley in the North Downs of Kent they first planted vines of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir in 2014. The Roman Road Vineyard is situated alongside the route the Romans first marched when they invaded England in AD43, bringing with them the first vines.

Balfour Hush Heath Estate

The first vineyards were planted in 2002 and five years later their Brut Rose 2004 became the first English wine to win a gold medal and the Trophy at the International Wine Challenge.

Danbury Ridge Wine Estate

Located in Essex between the Blackwater estuary and the river Crouch, they have 29 acres under vine. They first planted vines in 2014 identifying the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones to exploit the mesoclimate. Inspired by the quality they achieved they constructed their own winery.

Chapel Down

Located in Tenterden, Kent, England’s leading wine producer, certainly by volume, started its wine life producing sparkling wines from two of the traditional Champagne grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

We have five wines today, just one from each winery. Whilst the vines are still very young that produce these wines. The natural wonder of Chardonnay, an often very forgiving grape in cooler climates, some judicious vineyard locations and the skillset in the winemakers will hopefully have impressed us. Not just with an exciting future for English Chardonnay’s but also with a very enjoyable flight of wines. This tasting was done by Jen, David and Harry. As ever, let’s hope it delivers.

 1st up is..

Lyme Bay Chardonnay 2018

Grapes sourced from a single vineyard in Maldon area of Essex, they were whole-cluster pressed. Fermentation in stainless steel then following completion of the malolactic fermentation, the wine was transferred to French oak barrels, along with the lees for 11 months gentle ageing and stirring.

Nose: Pale straw with hints of yellow on viewing. Lovely aromas of stone fruits and citrus immediately on the nose. Grapefruit and lovely floral hints with orange blossom and white flowers as well.

Palate: Quite literally from nose to mouth. Stone fruits and citrus on the forefront with specific tastes of peach and orange. Tarty grapefruit very much on the finish and the floral notes staying with the finish to have a nice easy drinking wine. A medium body, moderate acidity and a medium length finish. A lovely starting point that gave us some hope for the rest of the tasting. £25 a bottle.

Simpsons The Roman Road 2020

Hand harvested, once pressed, juice was left to settle then racked in both barrel and stainless-steel tanks with its lees. Conventional and indigenous yeasts used to ferment several batches that formed the final blend. Aged 25% in new oak, 25% in old oak (both French), 50% on lees in stainless-steel.

Nose: Pale straw on viewing. Bursting with stone fruits. Nectarines, peaches and apricots all making an appearance. Like smelling a summer fruit bowl, delicious. Hints of citrus and floral notes again. Jen thought she could smell passionfruit… certainly something I struggled with at first. Perhaps on taste?

Palate: Yep… passionfruit on taste. Passionfruit and stone fruits were very prominent on the palate. Unfortunately however, the taste did seem to dissipate rather quickly. The finish was non-existent and you were left with tart grapefruit that wasn’t overpowering but not my favourite fruit in the world. Light bodied, moderate acidity and a short finish. Still a very good wine however, fruit forward and interesting. Even if the finish was a bit underwhelming! £20 a bottle.

Balfour Hush Heath Estate Springfield Chardonnay 2018

Three parcels of Chardonnay grapes (all Burgundy clones) were handpicked then fermented separately in stainless-steel tanks. Ageing was carried out for five months in new French and American oak. Adding elements of spice and vanilla whilst retaining the delicate Kent characteristics.

Nose: Pale straw on viewing. “Smells like classic Chardonnay” according to my father. To be fair he wasn’t wrong. Stone fruits, citrus and oaky vanilla were all prominent and mixing very nicely. Slight hints of exotic fruits, pineapple was one that we could all agree on.

Palate: Usual aromas of citrus, stone fruits and vanilla on the palate. The exotic hints of pineapple coming through as well with limes and grapefruit towards the end. A light bodied, moderate acidity wine with a short finish. A very lovely wine. £20 a bottle.

Danbury Ridge Chardonnay 2018

Sourced from their Octagon Block 12 acre vineyard, soil of sandy gravel with clay outcrops. Fruit was handpicked and whole bunch pressed. Fermented in oak and aged on the lees in 228L Burgundian oak barrels for 10 months.

Nose: Pale straw with ever so slight hints of yellow on viewing (can you tell we couldn’t agree on the colour? 😉). Stone fruits were very powerful on this nose, vanilla and orange blossom making an appearance as well with some lovely limey citrus notes as well.

Palate: Peaches. Peachy Peaches. What a lovely mouthfeel this has. Vanilla is booming from the oak ageing. Extremely powerful vanilla notes on the finish but not overwhelming. Citrus coming through with the acidity as well. Very enjoyable. Medium bodied, moderate acidity and a long finish. Really lovely from our friends in Essex. £35 a bottle.

Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2018

Widely considered to be one of the finest still wines from England. This is a multi-award-winning wine produced from the finest parcels within the 95 acre Kit’s Coty vineyard on the north Downs of Kent. The grapes are whole bunch pressed before wild fermentation in old oak barrels to add complexity and texture to the wine.

Nose: Pale straw on viewing. Vanilla, stone fruits and citrus. The perfect amount of each on the nose. This led my father to exclaim “It’s Chablis-esque!” To be honest, I couldn’t disagree with him. Peaches and apricots, mixing with limes and vanilla to bring a lovely bouquet of aromas to your senses.

Palate: On the palate it really did not disappoint. Chablis-esque it was indeed. A gorgeous melange of vanilla, stone fruits and citrus to line the mouth. I want to write every superlative and adjective under the sun to describe it as it really was fantastic. (for an English Chardonnay at least). A medium body, moderate acidity and long finish which just made this wine sing. Extremely enjoyable. £30 a bottle.

Conclusion… So we now have the scores:

Lyme Bay Chardonnay 2018: 81 points

Simpsons The Roman Road 2020: 84 points

Balfour Hush Heath Estate Springfield Chardonnay 2018: 86 points

Danbury Ridge Chardonnay 2018: 88 points

Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2018: 89 points

Well I think we can all agree that this tasting was much more appreciated and exciting than the previous English tasting (T2.2). I was honestly hoping for that. Dad and I have tried a couple of English Chardonnay’s over the last 3 years and we have been pleasantly surprised every time.

Whilst these bottles were similar in price to a Chablis, they are certainly different. It honestly depends on what you personally prefer as to whether you buy a Chablis or an English Chardonnay. Both are good so maybe buying one of each and tasting them against each other yourself is a good way to start at least.

To summarise we were very happy with these wines and they really showed true character and expression of their terroir. It was very enjoyable and both Dad and I are very much looking forward to watching English chardonnay change and become even better over time.

Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoyed it 😊

Harry & David

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