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Litmus Wines: Making still wine in England has got so much easier

Managing director of Surrey’s Litmus Wines, John Worontschak, recalls how making still wine in England has become less troublesome as he strives to make his white blend “the Cloudy Bay of England”.

The Litmus Wines team: Mike Florence, John Worontschak and Matthieu Elzinga

Speaking to the drinks business, Worontschak, who was born in Australia but has been making wine in England since 1988, said that with rising temperatures, making good English still wine reliably has become much more straightforward.

“I’ve been wanting to make good quality English still wines for quite some time, and now it has got so much easier”, he said.

“I can’t remember a day over 30 degrees between 1988 and 2000, but now it’s like we get 30 degree days all the time! Ultimately it’s not good for the planet, but in the short term it’s good for wine.”

The average growing season temperature in England has risen from 13°C in the middle of the last century, to 14°C in this century, according to the WSET. While this may not sound like much, a degree difference can have a big impact on marginal climates such as the UK.

Worontschak explained that the industry is unrecognisable from when he started in the 1980s, with professionalisation and better knowledge helping to transform the viticultural landscape in the UK.

“There are two big changes that have taken place. The first is that the grapes are a lot better due to people planting better-adapted clones and using the right rootstocks. The second major change is that we now have a whole bunch of people that know what they’re doing – they’re professional, they’re not doing it as a hobby and aren’t planting the wrong grape on the wrong site with no idea how to ferment it.

“Now there’s some serious competition – look at Kit’s Coty [Chapel Down], that’s a great still wine.”

The price factor

A criticism that is often levelled at English still wine is its price, with some questioning its value for money. When asked about this Worontschak said it was important to consider economies of scale and break out of the mindset that just because a wine is made in England, it should be more affordable.

“It’s a little annoying when people say ‘I’ve had a better wine than that, and it was cheaper'”, he said. “That’s not the point! This is an English wine, it is as good as it can be and we’ve made it as well as possible. It’s an expensive thing to make, and frankly this is the price you have to pay for it – you don’t have to buy it!

“When you are around the £20-30 price point, it seems to be a problem for consumers. There are loads of New Zealand wines at this price point but no-one seems to bat an eyelid, but they do when the wine is from England. For some reason they think the wine should be cheaper.

“In actuality, in England, grapes are costing between £2,000 and £3,000 a tonne, in South Africa, it’s only £300 a tonne. English bulk wine is £3 a litre, Spanish bulk wine is 30 cents a litre.”

Worontschak would like the Element 20 to be the “Cloudy Bay of England”. 

Worontschak argued that it was also important to put the size of the English wine industry in perspective, something he feels would then put the price of the wines in context.

“I have another consulting business and one of the places I consult to is Russia. Most people don’t even know Russia has a wine industry. I work with a winery that isn’t by any means the largest, and they have around 3,000 hectares of vines planted. In the whole of England and Wales there’s just over 3,500 hectares planted – that puts things in perspective.”

Worontschak makes four wines that form the Litmus Wine range, which retail for between £20 and £35.

Making his first wines in 2010, he said the aim was to produce “super-premium English wines for the table”, with expressions that have undergone barrel-ageing, yeast stirring, malolactic fermentation and extended lees contact in order to develop complexity.

“The whole idea was to try and get Element 20 (Worontschak’s first wine, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Bacchus) to be like the Cloudy Bay of England. When someone thinks of English still wine, they see Element 20”, he said.

“That’s still the plan, but it is quite hard to create a following and an understanding. The wines are good, but the volume is hard to maintain.”

Worontschak later extended the range to include an orange wine, red Pinot Noir (made when possible) and a white Pinot – a style he believes “works really well in this country”.

In addition to having its own wines, Litmus is a contract winemaking company as well as a consulting agency and importer. The company consults for Denbies and oversees its production, as well as doing contract winemaking using Denbies’ equipment.

Ageing ability

Worontschak also believes that English wines have the capacity to age well, with high levels of acidity helping to create expressions that last.

“We recently did a vertical of Litmus wines, from the 2010 up. It really went to show these English wines can live for 20 years”, he said.

“If you make a wine well and bottle them well without any dissolved oxygen, they can age for a long time. The 2010 and 2011 still had this piercing acidity, and I think people are a lot less frightened of acidity in general, I certainly am.”

2019 harvest

With 2018’s bumper crop, where both volume and quality were present, how is the 2019 crop fairing?

“This year is going to be later than last year, a week, ten days, maybe even a little bit more”, said Worontschak. “But so far so good, it’s still very early days, but flowering was good and the crop is looking healthy. We only had a touch of frost, we lost around 5% of the crop which was nothing. The yield here at Denbies will be very similar to last year.”

According to the official figures from Wines of Great Britain, 15.6 million bottles were produced in 2018, beating the previous record (6.3m bottles in 2014) by 9.3m bottles.

Denbies recently announced a £4m investment drive and is set to increase its winery workforce by a third by the end of 2019. The winery has installed a fully-automated disgorging line, capable of processing 5,000 bottles a day and has just opened a 17-bedroom, carbon neutral hotel.

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