Why Essex is England’s still wine capital

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There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the Crouch Valley lately, and much of it stems from a producer based miles away in Devon. The Wine Merchant teamed up with Lyme Bay Winery to bring a group of indies to the area to see what makes it so special for viticulture


“It doesn’t feel like England” is a phrase uttered more than once as we admire heaving bunches of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and gaze down upon the sloping vineyards towards saltmarsh and shimmering river. Yet England this most certainly is, and we’re in a county that could hardly be more English, or indeed maligned for being so.

Jancis Robinson described the Crouch Valley as England’s answer to the Côte d’Or, which might come as news to the denizens of Basildon, Chelmsford and Southend, but not to the farmers who first started to see the area’s potential a couple of decades ago. Or for Lyme Bay Winery, based a five-hour drive away in Devon, but which relies on Essex fruit for much of its still wine. It’s largely thanks to the encouragement and support of managing director James Lambert, who first started working with Crouch Valley farmers in 2016, that the area has become one of England’s winemaking hotspots.

Lyme Bay began as a cider business, planting its first vines in 2010.

“In 2015, we started working with growers around the UK,” James says. “It allowed us to mitigate the risk, so we weren’t just buying fruit from vineyards in Devon. It allowed us to be more ambitious. Our mission is to produce the best wines from the best grapes grown in the best vineyards by the most passionate growers.”

The business “always wanted to focus on still wines rather than sparkling”, James explains. “The UK can make some world-class sparkling wine. Still wine, until 10 years ago, was almost viewed as a sort of by-product of English sparkling wine.”


Crow’s Lane Estate


We start our visit at Crow’s Lane Estate, just outside South Woodham Ferrers, where the Pinot Noir is looking healthy in the early autumn sunshine. This shouldn’t be surprising: as viticulturist Duncan McNeil (pictured right) tells us, this area achieved the ripest Pinot Noir in England in 2020, with a potential alcohol of 14.6%. That was despite almost a third of the expected annual rainfall arriving in the space of five autumn weeks.

The Crouch Valley is actually one of the driest and sunniest places in the UK mainland, rarely affected by frost in the growing season and sheltered from brutal north east winds. But its real secret weapon is the heavy Essex clay. It’s a problematic soil for cereals, but the way it soaks up and gradually releases water (along with some useful trace elements) to grapevines is now proven to yield impressive results.

The folklore about picking grapes 100 days after flowering doesn’t apply here. It’s more like 110 days: last year the harvest began on November 2. That extra hang time ensures the fruit achieves the kind of ripeness that wouldn’t necessarily matter for sparkling wine, but which is crucial if, like Lyme Bay, your ambition is to make top-quality still wine.

As Duncan points out, this extra vineyard time adds to costs, and there are additional expenses involved in the way the vines are trellised and managed. When he first started working with Lyme Bay, he assumed that the brief would be to deliver grapes for sparkling production. Some recalibration was required, not least with clonal selection.

As James points out: “When growers are planting things like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay they are usually planting clones that are good for sparkling wine, focusing on high yields rather than the highest quality.”

Duncan agrees. “If we’ve got premium vineyard sites, we should be planting premium vineyard clones,” he says.

James says that Lyme Bay “incentivises growers very strongly to achieve really high levels of ripeness,” adding: “We have to accept that the yields will go down in certain vintages.”

Our next stop is nearby Martin’s Lane Vineyard, where we’re greeted by Graham and Caroline Martin. Graham’s late cousin Roy Martin was something of a viticultural visionary, persuading the couple, along with a small band of fellow investors, to take the plunge with the south-facing plot back in 2009.

“We bought a 30-acre patch of land that hadn’t been farmed since the end of the Second World War,” Graham tells us. “We took some advice from people who said it wasn’t a good site for a vineyard, and planted anyway.”

Most of the vineyard, which rises to 50 metres at its highest point, is planted to the Champagne varieties; originally the plan was to make fizz, but the ripeness of the fruit persuaded the Martins to switch to still wines.

There’s some Pinot Gris and Bacchus too, and some experimental blocks of Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Graham says he’s still assessing the progress of these experiments, which were really his cousin’s project. Roy died unexpectedly in June. “He would have been so annoyed,” Graham jokes, sadly, reflecting on how much of the Crouch Valley’s potential is still to be realised. It seems unfair that Roy won’t get to enjoy the next chapter.

Most of Martin’s Lane’s grapes are sold to Lyme Bay, but the Martins bottle a small amount under their own label, mainly for the local market.

Over lunch at Crouch Ridge Vineyard in Althorne we meet owner Ross Lonergan and our first growers from south of the river. Ümut and Katie Yesil once ran a PR company together but are now growing grapes on Katie’s dad’s farm. He’s a third-generation arable farmer, more accustomed to seeing wheat and feed beans on his land than grapevines. But he’s said to be delighted with the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris that now thrive there.

Like Graham Martin, the couple sell most of their fruit to Lyme Bay but bottle a small amount under the Riverview name.

They’ve released their second vintage and are planting more vines, having impressed a number of independent merchants, as well as The Wine Society, with their early efforts.

James Lambert, MD of Lyme Bay Winery

Duncan McNeil is excited by these kinds of developments. “Fifteen years ago, ‘Crouch Valley’ didn’t mean anything to anybody,” he says. “Now in the English wine industry it’s become a very well recognised name or terroir.

“We’re starting to get small-scale production of local wines and I see a lot of similarities between the Crouch Valley and Central Otago in New Zealand, where I worked 20 years ago. There was a recognition that they had the climate and they were getting the results and I can remember the small-scale producers just starting out.”

Graham Martin points out that, in this corner of the English wine industry, much of the groundwork has been done by local landowners. “It hasn’t been done with City money but by the farmers themselves,” he says.

“People know the land because they’ve had it in their family for a long time.”

Although the idea of a Crouch Valley PDO remains controversial (the local vineyard association would be happier with a simple trademark) there are potential crus beginning to emerge, such as Stow Maries, Battlesbridge and Althorne.

“If Lyme Bay hadn’t encouraged us to grow the grapes you wouldn’t have these wines,” says Duncan. “I think it’s great if we also have small-scale local labels as well. Then the region doesn’t just become a vineyard region, but a wine region.”


A full version of this article apears in the October 2023 edition of The Wine Merchant


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