It’s not all traditional method sparkling wine up in England. This month’s feature casts a light on two of the country’s most innovative wineries, Blackbook and London Cru.


Before delving into the wines, let’s follow British custom with a chat about the weather. It’s famously unpredictable owing to its’ location at the polar stream. Here, the cold polar air to the north meets the warm tropical air from the south, creating a pressure difference and the movement of air to try and equalize conditions. The resulting weather presents challenges year-round for the cultivation of wine grapes, but being closer to the poles does bring with it the benefit of long summer days to aid gentle ripening of the grapes. 

Furthermore, vineyards in Britain are typically planted between 51 and 53 degrees latitude, outside the so called ‘wine belt’, a latitude band in both the northern and southern hemisphere given as 30 to 50 degrees. As a general rule, this belt indicates areas with potential to cultivate high-quality vitis vinifera. This belt covers the whole of Italy, Spain and France, and the southern tip of Africa here in the Cape.

English and Welsh vineyard currently covers around 3800ha, less than 5% that of the Cape and a tenth the size of Champagne alone. However, vineyard planting is changing at a rate. In the last 8 years the vineyard area in Britain has doubled. 

In a good year, English & Welsh wine production can top 10 million bottles. Climate change is playing a role. Whilst European vignerons battle to retain freshness in a spate of warm vintages from 2018, in Britain it is allowing for a successful run at still wine expressions for the likes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

The domestic market is insatiable and exports markets are catching on. Around 10% of wine is exported and growing year on year, despite the challenges of Brexit and the pandemic.

Post Brexit, in 2022 Sussex became a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), a formal designation much like our own Wine of Origin. It joined the English wine PDO and Welsh wine PDO, albeit the Sussex PDO is not currently recognised in the EU. 

So, when you’re next visiting the UK look to order a glass of Sussex.


Blackbook was founded in 2017 by Sergio and Lynsey Verrillo. They have a small winery in Battersea set within a Victorian railway arch. They set out to specialise in cool climate, still expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but have added a few niche, experimental wines to the range. They source fruit from top vineyard sites in southern England. 

Sergio is from the US and moved to London to work as a sommelier, where the wine bug took off. This led him to Plumpton College to study Viticulture & Oenology, before embarking on winemaking experiences across the world, including a harvest at Stellenbosch based Mulderbosch.


It was the maiden 2017 Clayhill Vineyard Chardonnay release that first caught our eye at Radford Dale Imports. Tim Atkin MW was over and attending the 2019 Annual Lismore Tasting, hosted by Samantha O’Keefe. The tasting sees a host of top SA producers gather in Greyton to share and benchmark wines, with the theme of 2019 being Chardonnay. Alongside the Cape expressions were a mix of international wines from the likes of Burgundy, California, New Zealand and Australia. Tim had brought along a bottle of the Blackbook Clayhill Vineyard 2017, which would place second overall in the rankings, holding its own in epic company and really impressing on Radford Dale founder Alex Dale.

The wine prompted Alex to visit Blackbook on his next UK trip to learn more and ultimately join the waiting list for an allocation, which eventually came with a tiny parcel of the 2019 release.

Conditions in 2020 were optimal and the latest arrival is a cracking advert to the potential of still Chardonnay in England. The vineyard is situated to the east of England in Essex on a coastal peninsula which sees milder winters and dry, warm summers. About as sunny as it gets in Britain.

Chardonnay is the most planted varietal in England, with the other traditional sparkling wine varietals of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier following suit. What sets the Clayhill Vineyard apart is that the Chardonnay is planted to a Burgundy clone (277). With the majority of English Chardonnay vineyard destined for sparkling wine, early ripening clones are understandably more commonplace. 

Winemaking is traditional, the juice undergoing a natural fermentation and spending 11 months in a combination of new and old French oak. Whilst there is regular stirring of the lees to encourage palate texture, the wine remains vividly refreshing, centred around citrus, melon and gentle, attractive oak derived spice. A thrilling line of English acidity provides a sense of place, cutting through the fat so to speak.

"Painter of Light is a superb expression of one of Essex’s finest vineyards, made by the talented Sergio Verrillo. With aromas of struck match and popcorn, it’s fresh and elegant, with racy acidity and a cheesy, salty, nutty palate with subtle stone fruit undertones. Weighty without being fat, it’s what great pre-climate change Chablis used to taste like. One of England’s finest whites." 94pts, Tim Atkin MW


Like the Painter of Light Chardonnay, the Nightjar Pinot Noir is picked from the Clayhill Vineyard, planted in 2006 and to Burgundy clones 777 and 115, as favoured here in Elgin and the Hemel-en-Aarde. The warmth and conditions of 2020 have yielded a still English Pinot Noir with structure, the long summer evenings gently guiding fruit to full ripeness. 

England’s fynbos contributor might well be hedgerows. The wine shows sweet red and blackberry hedgerow fruit, spiced sloe berry and wild herbs. Signature Pinot silk tannin and a little savoury tug on the finish. 

If you wanted to explore English Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these 2020s from Blackbook are an excellent place to start. 


Now this is a fascinating wine. Mainly grown in Britain, Seyval Blanc is a hybrid varietal. As it contains some non-vinifera genes it is outlawed for cultivation in Europe. It ripens early and is well adapted for cooler climates. As Sergio notes from his time in New York, Seyval Blanc was treated like a poor mans Chardonnay, as it takes well to maturation in oak vessels. 

The varietal occupies around 6% of the English vineyard and was considered a white varietal of real potential for still English wine production. That said, Blackbook use it to produce a ‘col fondo’ style sparkling wine.

Col Fondo translates from Italian to ‘with the bottom’ and here refers to the lees sediment remaining in the bottle. In traditional method sparkling wine the lees is removed when the wine is disgorged, after the deposit has been riddled – the process seeing the gradual turning of the bottle neck down so that the lees loosens and gathers in the bottle neck for removal at disgorge.

The result is a sparkling wine cloudy in appearance, with a fine mousse and underlined by a sappy, slightly sour quality to the fruit. The wine underwent 50% fermentation in barrel, spends 6 months on the lees prior to bottling and secondary fermentation. Bottled under crown cap with zero dosage and no added sulphites.

“Such fun! Lively, bright. Tropical fruit with a cut-glass English accent, as crazy as finding a tangle of passion-fruit vine through an elderflower and hawthorn hedgerow. Soft, full-mouth mousse. A wine that makes you laugh out loud! Just a little zany, a little funky, a little cloudy – but more serious than it looks. Quite some staying power – it opened up, developed more and more length, chalkiness, texture. Perfect wine to have with cicchetti while you watch the world go by. Do not drink too cold!” 16.5/20, Tamlyn Currin, 


London Cru is the UK’s oldest Urban Winery, opening its doors in Fulham SW6 in 2013. The label was founded by Cliff Roberson, an important and dynamic figure in the UK wine industry, with a career in wine spanning some 60 years.

In the early years London Cru would source vineyards in Europe and transport the grapes back to the winery in London to vinify. They abandoned this approach in 2017 to focus exclusively on English vineyards. Head Winemaker since 2019 is Alex Hurley, an Australian young-gun overseeing an exciting array of wines and with a keen eye to experiment. 


Pinot Gris is a popular choice among the new generation of winemakers in the Adelaide Hills of Australia, so when Alex chanced upon this vineyard in West Sussex he jumped at the chance to work with it. 

Initially, Alex had planned to produce a still wine but owing to a sky-high acidity, felt the wine would be better suited for a sparkling wine produced in the ancestral method. This is a process of halting the fermentation and bottling the wine before fermentation has finished. The remainder of the fermentation takes place in bottle with the resulting CO2 trapped and creating a light sparkle. The wine is disgorged but with a little sediment remaining.

The wine was fermented in a combination of egg-shaped fermenters and neutral oak barrels. It shows the beautiful peachy hue of Pinot Gris, with a tropical fruit character that is kept in check by a line of citrus acidity and a playful fizz. A little ginger like spice on the finish. 


Bacchus is another niche white varietal to find a home in the UK. It was created in 1933 and received varietal protection and clearance for cultivation in 1972. It’s a Silvaner x Riesling cross with Muller-Thargau. 

In the UK, it’s traditional made white wines of searing acidity and lifted aromatics of elderflower, gooseberries (not the Cape version) like character. Some refer to it as Britain’s Sauvignon Blanc for this reason.

The varietal is taken seriously at London Cru and the result is one of the finest expressions to be found. It is sourced from two vineyard sources in Kent and Essex respectively, and Alex makes up five components for use in the final blend, which undergo fermentation at varying temperatures and with a variety of yeast strains. Always experimenting, always refining. 

A portion of the grapes were macerated for 16 hours to extract aromatics and texture, whilst the majority was whole-bunch pressed. Around 20% is aged in French oak barrels. 

The result is a textural, concentrated expression of Bacchus, with stone fruit, apple and classic notes of elderflower, hedgerow and cut glass. A quintessential English white in an excellent vintage.


Pinot Noir Précoce or Fruhburgunder as its known in Germany, is a mutation of pinot noir, which holds appeal for its ability to ripen early. The grapes are darker than that of usual Pinot Noir. It can be simply labelled as Pinot Noir, and is cultivated in Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and Germany. 


The fruit for the London Cru Pinot Noir Précoce is grown in Sussex with 90% destemmed fermented as whole berries, a process which applies a gentle extraction of the compounds and tannins in the skins, whilst uplifting the fruit. A common practice in Beaujolais and among the Cape young-guns in producing lighter, refreshing styles of Pinotage. 

The wine is matured in neutral, older oak barrels for around 7 months prior to bottling. 

Beautifully ripe in 2020 at 13.2%, the wine shows dark cherry and little tart raspberry, wet earth and a charcuterie spice. The whole-berry ferment contributing a gentle tannin structure and real drinkability. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published