Great expectations for English wine

Leading English winemaker Charlie Holland explains how English wine can compete with the best.

Charlie Holland is one of the most respected names in the English wine industry. Having studied oenology at Plumpton College, for the last decade Holland has been blazing a trail at Gusbourne in Kent, where he’s both the chief winemaker and CEO. We caught up with him to find out how the sizzling summer affected the 2022 vintage, whether English Chardonnay can compete with the best from Burgundy, and the inspiration behind his ambitious new prestige cuvée, 51 Degrees North. 

How did it go with the 2022 harvest? 
It’s looking really good – we finished picking our sparkling grapes on 6 October, and brought in the final blocks of still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the following week. The quality has been great – we’ve achieved lovely high sugars in our Chardonnay and Pinot, which have natural alcohol levels of 12.5% and 13%, and a lovely breadth of flavours. It’s fun to blend in years like this and our yields have been good too. 

How did the sizzling summer affect the vintage?
It definitely moved the picking date forward. With climate change, most years now we experience 35-degree heat for a few days during the growing season. Our vines are established now, with good root systems, so they can grow in these conditions. We had slightly smaller berries this year due to the heat, and our harvest started early, on the 18 September, but not as early as 2018. 

What attracted you to work at Gusbourne?
I was keen to work at an estate with excellent raw materials, vineyards and fruit, and I knew Gusbourne had all three. It was exciting to join the estate at a time of growth, going from making wine in a few tanks at a neighbouring estate to building its own winery. I was attracted to the fact that Gusbourne doesn’t buy in any fruit and works entirely with its own grapes. Provenance is really important and what we’re trying to investigate is all the nuances of our parcels and what they give us each year, by picking and pressing everything separately. It’s my 10th harvest now and I’ve got a much better understanding of our blocks and what they deliver, which allows me to make small improvements each year.

Do Gusbourne’s sparkling wines have a signature style? 
I don’t want to put my fingerprints all over the wines, but the style has changed and evolved over time. We’re viewed as a riper, more full-bodied style of English fizz, but the wines are also quite focused and precise with good balance. A lot of that comes from the soil, as two thirds of our vineyards are on clay, which leads to fuller, rounder, richer wines, and our winemaking aims to accentuate that with lees work and oak ageing. We have 15 vineyards and some have 40 different clones within them. We vinify specific blocks in 100 different tanks and use 200 different barrels, so we have up to 300 components to play with, which is a lot of work when you come to blending, but it gives us a big palette to play with. 

Why do you age your sparklers in oak?
In the early days we didn’t use much oak, but we’ve gradually increased it over time. We don’t want to make oaky wines, so around 10% of the blend sees oak, of which only 2-3% is new as it’s quite high impact. We treat oak like seasoning to give subtle complexity to the wines, adding weight, body and mouthfeel. English wine has a great attack from the acidity, but it can be quite hollow in the middle like a donut, so we use oak to bridge the gap and add texture to the palate. 

Why do you take a vintage approach to sparkling wine at Gusbourne? 
We hand sell our wines in restaurants and at the cellar door, and having different vintages gives us a story to tell each year. When the wine is made is really important, and we want to reflect the vintage where possible. Non-vintage is a bit of a compromise, and we’d rather make the best of each year. It’s a challenge though, and the equivalent of producing a vintage Champagne every year, but having hundreds of different components at our disposal helps us to bridge the gap, as does oak and lees ageing, allowing us achieve a consistency of style. A lot of winemakers wrote off 2012, but we made a great blanc de blancs that year. 

Do you get more excited by making still or sparkling wines?
I love making both and am always trying to push myself. We launched a sparkling single vineyard project where we pick four of the most expressive parcels each year and bottle them separately as limited edition releases. This year we’ve bottled a 2017 Blanc de Blancs from Sussex grown on chalk and another from Kent grown on clay. It’s fascinating to see the differences between them as they’re made in the same way with the same clones, so it all comes down to the terroir. 

How do English wines grown on chalk and clay differ? 
Wines grown on chalk are elegant, lifted, direct and precise, while those grown on clay are fuller, rounder, richer and more fruit-driven. Perhaps conversely to what you’d expect, I prefer our clay-grown Chardonnay, as it’s round and rich with tension and drive, and our chalk-grown Pinot, which is more high-toned and red-fruited. I think in time England will find its Grand Cru sites; Boot Hill is ours.  


sparkling wine
Several days with temperatures around 35 degrees are now common during the English growing season 


What innovations are you currently working on?
We made a single varietal Pinot Meunier in 2020 and are going to be making another from this year’s crop. It has a fascinating flavour profile, with lighter, brighter fruit than Pinot and an appealing earthiness to it. It’s a great barbecue red. We’re also looking into ways to elevate our rosé into a fine wine, and are hoping to bottle our first sweet wine this year from Chardonnay, which is the missing piece of the puzzle. The Chardonnay we’re using has a lovely acid line and is very floral on the nose with notes of orange blossom. It smells a bit like a Muscat.  

Creating world-class Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail in England, are we there yet?
We’re at the tip of the iceberg right now. We’ve achieved so much already, but the potential to grow the category is huge. We’re still honing and developing what we’re trying to do, and not every year is suitable for making Pinot in England. I didn’t make any still red in 2021, as the conditions weren’t good enough. The consistency of vintages and yields isn’t there yet, and UK producers don’t have a huge amount of experience with Pinot, but they’re making amazing wines, and our Pinots are holding their own against the great Pinots of the world in blind tastings. It’s exciting to see where we’ll be in another 10-20 years. 

We’ve made still pinot still since 2010 and are very committed to it. The 2018 vintage was a watershed moment when we were blown away by the quality of the fruit and the level of ripeness we got. I think it inspired lots of estates to have a go. Wineries like Lyme Bay, Balfour and Simpsons all make still Pinot and a real category is being formed in England. I think a lot of Pinot will be made this year due to the warmer conditions. 

Is England now capable of making Chardonnays to rival the best of Burgundy?

Yes, but it’s a different style; ours are lighter and fresher styles in general. I’ve done a few comparative tastings and Burgundy is the natural benchmark when it comes to Chardonnay. We’re only just getting going but I believe top English Chardonnay can compete with the best from Burgundy, Australia and New Zealand. Burgundy is increasingly expensive and less available, so England has a chance to move into the space and offer a more affordable alternative.  

How has the English wine industry evolved since you first got in the game?

When I first studied at Plumpton there were a few pioneers like Nyetimber and Ridgeview, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities to be a winemaker in England. When it comes to the world wine map, it’s not very often that you get a new wine region coming onto the scene – it last happened in New Zealand in the ‘90s, so it was exciting to be part of England’s growth and development. 

Climate change has helped with ripeness levels in England and has shaped our ability to grow grapes. Increased experience, knowledge, R&D and investment into the industry is helping us to make better wines year on year, and consumers are really getting behind the wines now and are becoming brand loyal. You can find English wines on pour at most good restaurants in the UK now – it’s not mainstream yet, but we’re getting there…

You’re experimenting with extended lees ageing of your Brut Reserve, how have you found the wine develops over time?

I’ve tasted a lot of Bollinger R.D. and Krug in my time and love that rich, butterscotch style you get from lees ageing and autolytic development. English wine can be austere in youth, so extended lees ageing brings weight, texture and complexity into the mix. The wines still have their signature drive and energy, but are richer in flavour from long lees ageing.

Tell me about the inspiration for your prestige cuvée, 51 Degrees North… 

I’ve worked on this wine since I joined Gusbourne a decade ago. The goal was to make a wine that encompassed the best fruit and the best sites to the purest juice and the best barrels. We wanted to create a sparkling wine with real ageability and have been watching it closely over the years, working out the best time to release it. We only made around 4,000 bottles of the 2014 vintage and it will always be a small production release. We’ll definitely be bottling a 2018, and there might also be another release in between. 

We disgorged it last Christmas and launched it a few weeks ago just before harvest. For me it’s English winemaking in the purest sense and the best expression of what we do. It’s a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot, two thirds from Kent and one third from Sussex. The Pinot brings the body and texture while the Chardonnay delivers the creaminess and weight. We aged it on cork for a few years to develop its tertiary bread and biscuit aromas. It’s on sale at Fortnum & Mason and Michelin-starred restaurants like The Fat Duck and L’Enclume. It’s an exciting release that has been really well received so far. 

What does it taste like?

It changes dramatically over time in the glass and has a lovely minerality when you open it, and an iodine seaweed character that you get from a blanc de blancs. After a bit of time in the glass it opens up and displays notes of ripe orchard fruits, white pears and red apples, then unfurls further into the brioche, toasted nuts and caramel realm. It’s a complex and intriguing wine that needs a bit of air and the right glassware. It can pair with everything from scallop tartare and rabbit with root veg to pastry desserts. 

£195 is a punchy price – is English fizz at the point now where it can command such prices for its prestige cuvées?

We want it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with best sparkling wines in the world. I was supremely nervous about launching it, and did lots of benchmarking with best fizz in the world at similar price points. It really is a fine wine and behaves as such. It evolves in the glass and fits well within that competitive set. Having prestige cuvées is important for producers to set their stall out and say this is the pinnacle of what we can achieve. It’s important for the English wine industry to be ambitious.


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