Back in mid-2018, Josh fired off an email asking to interview a stranger for a podcast on English wine. He didn’t know how to edit audio or what making a podcast would really entail. That summer, Josh travelled around the country interviewing winemakers for what would become ‘An Introduction to English Wine’. It would also turn out to be the best summer on record, and a great year for wine.
As Josh writes in Issue #34 of the newsletter, ‘I initially set out to discover if regional styles existed in England, in the way that Bordeaux and Burgundy exist in France. I quickly discovered that that wasn’t to be the case - instead the individual sites, vineyard managers, and winemakers were the real heroes of English wine.’
In total, sixteen people were interviewed for the podcast over six episodes focusing on a different area of the country. From the point of view of February 2021, the summer of 2018 feels a long way off. The idea of travelling across the country to wineries and vineyards far and wide feels like a novelty of a pre-pandemic world.
Over a series of blog posts, we’ll be revisiting the conversations Josh had in ‘An Introduction to English Wine’.
‘An Introduction to English Wine’: Episode One, Part One: Will Davenport (East Sussex)
Will Davenport is a bit of a cult hero in world of English wine. When it comes to organic growing, Davenport is a widely known, and loved, name. As Josh exclaims in his introduction to Davenport in the very first minutes of the first episode of ‘An Introduction…’, “his wines are some of England’s best - or at least, some of my favourite. His red pinot noir in particular is one that I love.”
Of the Davenport Pinot Noir, Will explains that there’s as little intervention as possible in the winemaking process. “[This] is actually reflecting the grapes it’s made of rather than reflecting how clever we are at winemaking. So the Pinot Noir is basically fermented on the skins and then it’s pressed and put straight into barrels. And then left in barrels for nine months until just before harvest.”
At the time of Josh’s interview with Will, Davenport were getting ready to bottle the 2017 vintage Pinot Noir, ready to barrel the next year’s supply. The 2017 vintage would go on to win the Soil Association’s 2019 BOOM award for organic alcoholic drink. “It’s a fun wine to make because it’s entirely reliant on getting really good grapes because there’s nothing we do to it,” Will tells Josh. “We don’t adjust the winery or mess around with it at all. It doesn’t have any yeast added to it, it’s not filtered. It’s literally just grape juice.”
Though Davenport’s Pinot Noir is Josh’s favourite, Horsmonden is another award-winning white wine, and it makes up roughly 60% of the vineyard’s production. There’s also the Limney Estate sparkling wine (the recipient of more awards), a sparkling rosé and a small production run of a pet nat.
Making pet net is good fun, Will explains; “it’s an interesting style of wine that not many people make and it’s very difficult to really get right properly because again, you’re not allowed to do anything in the winery to adjust it.” The term ‘pet nat’ is short for ‘Petillant Naturel’ in French, meaning ‘naturally sparkling’. Though it’s become a fashionable style of wine in recent years, the process of making pet nats is actually very old, even predating Champagne.
Davenport’s wines have been organic since 2000, a move that came nearly ten years after the vineyard opened in 1991. The move to organic was something Will had wanted to make for some time prior. “The rest of our farm at home, we grow all our own vegetables, are all organic, apart from the vineyard. And all my friends were going ‘why on earth don’t you do the vineyard organically?’ And I was just worried about detritus and mildew really. I didn’t know enough about commercial organic farming and so I was scared of going fully organic. We had a consultant over from Germany in 1999 who convinced me that it was worth a try. And so we thought, we’ll go for it, we’ll have a try, we’ll keep an eye on what the grapes look like and what the wine looks like. And if we see any deterioration in the wine quality, we’ll just stop and go back.”
There was no looking back at Davenport though. “The wines changed almost instantly when we did it. And the quality of, the style of fruit we were getting changed and the wines suddenly became softer and more fruity. Even though their chemical analysis wasn’t any different really. The sugars and acids that we were getting in the grapes were the same, but the flavours were very different.” Will’s not quite sure if the change was the result of going organic, or whether it was because the vines were older - or if it had just been a really good year for wine. Nonetheless, being non-organic has never been a question for Davenport since.
Unlike mass-produced wines which are made to always taste the same, wine produced by small vineyards like Davenport will vary much more. “If you try a dry white wine from England, they all taste different because of different grape varieties,” Will explains. So at Davenport, the aim is to produce wine that is “very specifically [the] taste of our wine.”
Since Will started out making wine in the early 1990s, the amount (and quality) of English wines has changed massively. “There was some good wines in England, but there were very few wine in England that would have stood up on an international stage and held their ground.” The past 30 years have changed all that. “I think the quality of winemaking in this country is phenomenally high because it’s a modern wine industry.” Unlike other winemaking regions around the world, there isn’t centuries worth of wine traditions to follow. “We’ve got winemakers in this country who learnt recently how to make wine. And they’re really on the ball and they’re not trying to do what their grandfather did.”