The longer story of Danbury Ridge is told in geological time.
Fifty million years ago, during the Ypresian period, global temperatures increased by 8⁰C. This rapid warming episode, brought on by an intense period of volcanic activity, melted the ice caps. The resulting sea-level rise submerged much of the area we now think of as the Thames Basin, the warm water reaching as far west as Wiltshire.
The clay beds that sedimented over this shallow sea floor incorporated silt washed from the land, and volcanic minerals falling out of the atmosphere.
The brick facades of Downing Street and Kensington carry the dark stain of kilned silt, but it is the inclusion of volcanic minerals that is more significant for wine producers. London Clay swells as it gets wetter, rendering it impermeable, a useful property in wet autumns, as it minimizes the possible effects of dilution on the berries.
Estuarine Essex is smeared with a thick layer of London Clay, but at Danbury Ridge this tenacious deposit lies beneath a significant overburden of fluvial-glacial sand and gravel. It is this coarse aggregate, deep in some places, shallow in others, that makes Danbury Ridge so unique.
The test for cool climate provenance is boasting about warmth. Across Germany’s Rheingau, the pattern of winter snow melt reveals the ghost of the summer’s Grand Cru; whilst in foehn-affected Otago the afternoon peak of heat drives vineyard workers into the shade.
England has the bragging rights for being the coolest of the cool, but it is a hollow boast. Flavours develop late-on in grape ripening, not a problem for sparkling wines whose personality derives from layering the effects of maturity and ageing upon a neutral base, but the same blank slate is an inauspicious starting point for still Pinot and Chardonnay.
The Danbury Ridge mesoclimate comes into its own in late summer. Ripening does not stall with the autumn equinox. Natural woodland shelter belts, together with the light topsoil, magnify the effect of September sunlight. Every harvestable photon and joule nudges flavour a little higher up the register. The coupling of daytime warmth to seasonal coolness intensifies varietal character, whilst maintaining delicacy.
Love and marriage. Chardonnay and Pinot. If we take Champagne and Burgundy as our lead, the two varieties seem inseparable. When the fashion for White Burgundy took hold, Chassagne-Montrachet changed its spots, and growers ripped out Pinot Noir and replaced it with Chardonnay, giving the impression that the two grapes are substitutable.
Despite sharing some genetic material, the two vines are quite dissimilar, beyond the obvious difference in colour. In simple terms, Chardonnay is more responsive to climate, its flavours becoming more rounded and expressive with increasing warmth, while Pinot Noir is generally more responsive to differences in soil type, providing it is cultivated within a narrow and cool climatic range. Where Chardonnay gorges on high-summer heat, Pinot Noir flags.
Temperatures in the UK are rarely high enough to inhibit Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, so the extra heat units accumulated at Danbury Ridge become of a benign force within both the red and white wines, building flavour and softening acids. This trend is further magnified by a rigorous selection of clones.
The third grape grown at Danbury Ridge is Meunier, another Champagne import. Meunier lives in the shadows of Pinot and Chardonnay but it makes a soothing contribution to sparkling blends. It is a reliably early ripener, and as the first grape into the winery each autumn, is very much the herald of the harvest.