Essex, Somerset and Hampshire shine with still wines

Itasca's winemaker Ben Smith

© Photo provided

Itasca's winemaker Ben Smith

Itasca's winemaker Ben Smith

© Photo provided Essex, Somerset and Hampshire shine with still wines UK contract winemaking outfit Itasca Wines – owners of the Penn Croft label – presented a range of their new releases. Falstaff got a taste.

Still wines are on the march in England. The island is already well-known for its award-winning sparkling wines, but the still wines are ever more convincing and well-made. When contract-winemaking facility Itasca, who own the Penn Croft label, presented some 2021 wines made by their winemaker Ben Smith, Falstaff was impressed.

Bacchus but not as you know it

Of the six wines presented, three were made from the grape variety Bacchus, a safer bet here in England’s cool and changeable climate that ripens early. But while the still wines made from Bacchus of yore – think 10-15 years ago – used to be rather weedy, both climate and winemaking are now more optimal than they ever were. Where Bacchus previously was all aromatic elderflower scent with not much body, now it is a real stunner, with far more complex notes of nettle and real body and texture. Winemakers now work with subtle oak and lees ageing – as well as malo-lactic fermentation to craft rather elegant wines that make the most of English briskness – even in a year like 2021.

The tricky 2021 vintage

Readers may remember how drab the summer of 2021 was – for winegrowers, however, it was not just drab, it was difficult: “2021 proved a challenging vintage,” says Itasca’s winemaker Ben Smith who crafted all the wines that were tasted. “A cool growing season led to a protracted harvest as we were waiting for full development and for flavours on the vine to move beyond the herbaceous phase in the Bacchus. We picked on 17th October, the fruit was then whole bunch pressed and fermented in a combination of stainless steel and neutral 4th fill Burgundy barrels. We delayed blending until later in the spring to allow us to build texture in the components Stylistically we want to make a Bacchus that has some restraint, elegance and balance.”

Essex scores

Two wines that stood out were from Thorrington Mill Vineyard in Essex. The site is a south-facing 12-acre vineyard, on sandy clay soils, planted by farmers Polly and Mark Baines who planted it to Pinot Noir, Bacchus and Chardonnay in 2018. Shropshire sheep “help” in the vineyard, de-leafing vines without damaging the fruit. This ensured that the grapes were well-ventilated and free of botrytis. They started harvesting healthy fruit in the middle of October last year, finishing on 11 November. The lovely Pinot Noir Rosé is one of the most expressive still pink English wines we tasted.