The Only Way Is Essex: Danbury Ridge


You can take the boy out of Essex, but you can’t take Essex out of the boy. I left the county years ago and considered returning as a newly married couple, at least until my wife saw it with her own eyes. Enquiring whether she would consider settling there, I didn’t catch every word of her reply, though the last five were ‘not’, ‘over’, ‘my’, ‘dead’ and ‘body’. Spousal reservations aside, it will always be where I was born and bred, despite its shortcomings:  

1) The landscape is flat and less eventful than John Cage’s 4’33”. Aesthetically, it seems laminated in a dull ochre tinge for reasons explained forthwith.

2) The landscape induces geographic claustrophobia with the North Sea to the east and the estuary to the south. Orc-filled marshland to the north and to the west, Basildon, a post-war dystopia built to make other citizens of Essex feel less unfortunate. Seen Escape from New York? Like that, but with annoying accents.

3) According to a poll, people consider the Essex accent the third most annoying after Cockney and the Queen’s English. Cross the Essex border, and the letter “H” vanishes, “TH” becomes “F”. You might overhear, “Fanks for the ‘alf bottle of ‘aut-Brion”, assuming a bottle has ever been drunk there…which I doubt. Unless it was stolen.

4) Essex’s gift to gastronomy is jellied eel. ‘ideous. No fanks.  

On the other hand, I cannot ignore Essex’s virtues…

1) It might not be a picture postcard, but painters like John Constable captured its beauty in oils. Growing older, I appreciate the solitude of its desolate wind-swept marshes and plumed migratory wildlife.

2) Basildon might leave much to be desired, but it gave us Depeche Mode.

3) The citizens of Essex have a self-deprecating sense of humor that can leave you in stitches. Plus, there’s a sense of community that you don’t find elsewhere. My Essex mates remain the gold standard.

4) Essex might be a gastronomic wasteland, but it boasts over-performing Indian restaurants, Rossi’s ice cream and the chicken and chestnut pie at The Pipe of Port, eulogized here on Vinous.

5) It has the longest pier in the world, 1.33 miles, despite burning down twice and a couple of distracted captains navigating their ship through the middle. Luke Skywalker, Salma Hayek and Usain Bolt have all walked up to the end (true). 

6) It has the same terroir as Pomerol.

7) There is known to be…

Hold on a minute. It has the same terroir as Pomerol??? You’re ‘aving a laugh, aren’t ya? No, it’s true. If you’re sniggering at the back, read this article and the evidence presented. We often talk about viticultural limits being redrawn. Here’s one.

Co-owners Janine and Sophie Bunker, pictured at the winery.

The Good Life

Danbury Ridge popped up on my radar when fellow scribe, dapper Douglas Blyde, poured their maiden 2018 Pinot Noir blind at Brat restaurant. I did not stand up and hail the “new Romanée-Conti,” but even as a person with a patriotic-free persuasion towards dry English wine, I had to doff my cap and reconsider my skepticism. It took another couple of years before I finally drove around the M25 to visit the estate, inspect the vineyard, taste recent vintages and entertain the hitherto preposterous idea that parts of Essex might contain A-grade terroir.

Of course, I am familiar with this part of the world. My family came here during the summer holidays and picnicked at Danbury Lakes. I returned in my thirties with friends. There’s a photo of us all on a famous fallen trunk, so revisiting Danbury is a trip down memory lane. The winery does not accommodate tourists like Nyetimber or Wiston. Parking the car, my immediate impression is that it is modestly sized and looks spick and span with its manicured lawn. It’s no corrugated shed in the middle of nowhere. The upper floor reception-cum-tasting room is spotless: a large interior window overlooking the barrel cellar from aloft. Even before sitting down to chat, it is obvious that this is a serious estate where serious money has been invested, not just here but throughout the entire winemaking process from vine to bottle.

Michael and Heather Bunker founded Danbury Ridge, which is currently run by daughters Janine and Sophie, who welcomed me together with head winemaker Liam Idzikowski and consultant John Atkinson MW. “My parents come from Southend-on-Sea,” Janine Bunker explains. We’d met briefly last year at my book launch when their pre-prandial Chardonnay won admirers hitherto oblivious to Essex’s viticultural potential. She is plain-speaking like many from this part of the world, perhaps still blinking with surprise that life diverted her in a vinous direction, having initially followed her father’s footsteps in finance. “We left to live in Hong Kong and returned briefly to live in Leigh-on-Sea. We bought the house in Danbury in 1987 and, over the years, were offered more pieces of land to buy, renting out fields to a farmer to grow arable crops. That was the status for a long time. My parents fell in love with growing their own produce and making food from the land, very much like The Good Life*. They have an amazing Victorian garden with 150 types of fruit and vegetables. They hardly ever need to go to the shops.”

*A beloved 1970s English sitcom about a middle-aged suburban couple that quit their jobs and turn over their garden to live off the land.

“In 2012, some family friends came to walk their dog. Their daughter worked for Sixteen Ridges [a Worcestershire winery]. Walking around the fields, she asked whether he had thought about planting vines. It planted a seed of an idea in my father’s head. He won’t do anything without a serious amount of research, and over the following year, we did a year-long feasibility study. We already knew that the fields had a warm microclimate because the family that leased the farm said it wasn’t suitable for arable crops [no different to parts of Bordeaux centuries ago – just research the etymology of Trotanoy].”

John Atkinson MW explaining the terroir of Essex. I must confess that it was a bit surreal seeing him pointing to places where I grew up.

“In winter, when we were growing up, other people in the area would have snow, but it was always warmer and drier here,” Sophie continues. “After the feasibility study by viticulturist Duncan MacNeil, we found that every box was ticked. But winemaking isn’t an exact science. It could have gone wrong. The first 12 acres planted was the Octagon Block in 2014. There were four grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Bacchus [the latter subsequently pulled out and replaced with Pinot Noir from Dijon clones]. There was no winery at the time, and the plan was just to sell grapes. Clones were chosen for their loose bunches and those that retain acidity, but we serendipitously planted clones for still wine production that could achieve ripeness. Therefore, we could see the potential for still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

“At the time, [head winemaker] Liam Idzikowski was buying in our fruit,” Janine Bunker tells me. “The first harvest was in 2016 and sold to Lyme Bay Winery in Devon. But the fruit was too ripe to make sparkling wine. John Atkinson came to see Liam when the fruit was coming in at Lyme Bay…”

Idzikowski interjects to tell me that Atkinson was his lecturer at Plumpton College and quips that he was the only one who would listen.   

“When he saw the Danbury Ridge fruit,” Janine Bunker explains, “he ripped out his own vines in Rutland and joined Danbury Ridge. At the time, the only other winery in Essex was New Hall Winery [see my Written In The Stars article]. Wineries such as Camel Valley were buying fruit from them. At first, the Pinot Noir was to be used to make a still Rosé, but it was too good. So, we put together a rudimentary winery with a de-stemmer and got together some barrels to finish the fermentation. You could see the potential in the resulting wine, even though 2016 was not an easy growing season. I began to consider the viability of still winemaking in Essex when that is the intention [i.e., not as a byproduct of sparkling wine]. Samples were sent to our family for us to try. Honestly, we were blown away. We didn’t think it was achievable. My dad has been into wine forever, and he began thinking that if we can produce grapes of this quality, then it is a foundation to build something more, to create wine from grape to glass. We needed a winery. Liam said he would join if we built one and construction began in 2019.”

Liam Idzikowski is a former amateur jockey who gave up his stirrups for secateurs. He’s been at Danbury Ridge since its inception. “Making wine in England wasn’t what I set out to do,” he says. “I had made wine in California [Williams Selyem] and Australia [Tyrells]. But to make Pinot Noir in England? Those opportunities don’t come along often. But all the trends, the rainfall and soils etc., indicated that it was possible.”

“The ethos of my family has always been that if you do something, then do it properly,” Janine Bunker explains. “The winery reflects our household beliefs. Liam was heavily involved in its design, ensuring that we had the best equipment, sourcing barrels from the best coopers and so on to realize the potential. It took six months to build. Sophie and I had never been in a winery until we built one. We faced a steep learning curve without a project manager. We went to Coquard to see the press and cooperages. Later, we visited Clos Rougeard in the Loire. We took our 2018s with us, and the winemaker laughed when we told them we made wine. Liam brought out the bottles, and the winemaker asked where he could buy it.”

“Two-thousand and eighteen is our first vintage,” Idzikowski says, “even though it was not made on-site. It was vinified at Lyme Bay Winery and the barrels returned to Danbury for maturation. En route, one of the lorries had nearly crashed with all the barrels inside. The barrels just rolled around inside as they weren’t on racks. When we lifted the lorry’s shutters, it looked like a game of Jenga. The 2019 was the first vintage that was vinified in the winery. Our second vineyard, 12 acres, was planted in 2017 and then another 5 acres in 2018.”

Winemaker Liam Idzikowski out in the Octagon Vineyard.

The Vineyard

When it comes to experts on geology and pedology, I’ve met few who have the scientific knowledge of John Atkinson MW. To quote the man himself, he can occasionally come across like the “ancient mariner”; that is to say, once he is onto his favorite subject, he’s difficult to stop, and within a couple of sentences, you’re submerged in technical minutiae beyond, even most professionals’ knowledge. Untangling the deluge of information and counsltuing a dictionary is necessary, but it is worth paying attention because you learn a great deal. Atkinson himself never suspected Essex coveted such promising terroir and signed off one of his informative e-mails with a wry: “Who would have thought there would be so much to say about such uneventful countryside?” 

As intimated in my introduction, Essex contains patches of smectite or blue clay, the ‘magic potion’ that gives Petrus its uniqueness. To be clear as later explained, not every square meter of Danbury Ridge resides on blue clay like the aforementioned Pomerol. A more accurate comparison would be adjacent Pomerol estates that part-occupy the so-called ‘buttonhole’. Even so, it still constitutes top-grade terroir that has the potential to create wine from the top drawer. Moreover, blue clay is not all that is needed because any vineyard, including the aforementioned Pomerol, must include the other part of the equation, gravel.

Danbury Ridge comprises several vineyards spread over southeast Essex with their own specific soil types. Essentially, the soils degrade from gravel to clay as you head east from the winery. Ergo, the gravel bed in the 1.2-hectare Polo Vineyard is between 2 and 11 meters in depth. The 4-hectare Octagon Vineyard is a gravel croupe à la Médoc with periglacial topsoil deposits of silt, sand and gravel over two-meter-deep compacted sand and gravel of illite London Clay. Sleipnir Vineyard is 4 hectares of deep, predominantly illite clay. The 7-hectare Spar Hill Vineyard’s highest elevations are smectite, with illite composing lower reaches. Lark Hill (7 hectares) near the village of Canewdon is due to be planted this spring and already shows immense promise in terms of shrink-swell potential and 65% clay content, and 1.5-hectare Dengie, which is river-terrace gravel over smectite. Smectited clays maintain their structural integrity at high saturation levels relative to other clays. They, therefore, tend to produce higher elevations and landforms because they’re more resistant to fluvial erosional processes.

The titular ‘Ridge’ is not affectation. “It refers to the ridge of gravel between Danbury and Tiptree [familiar to those that love their strawberry jam],” Atkinson explains, and I advise readers to watch the video I took of his explanation here. “The ice sheet ended around here, so there are up to 11 meters of sand and gravel. We find that in September when it is 25°C or 26°C, we gain sugar very quickly. September is a proper month for ripening here, whereas elsewhere, you can get 70-80mm of rain. In addition, this whole area has inlets of water, and these limit convection [not unlike the Gironde Estuary that regulates temperatures in the Médoc]. The sun doesn’t warm the body of water, even so sunshine hours here are 1,850, where they are 1,650 in London and 1,500 in Cambridge. This just gets you over the line.”

“Originally, I was excited by the gravel, and that works well when you have dry autumns as the stones become hot,” Atkinson explains. “But in 2019, when it was wet, while Chardonnays can regulate water very well, Pinot Noir struggles to ripen. However, there are no issues with clay soil as it is impermeable, so you don’t suffer any dilution. What we find with London clay is that its mineral structure makes it difficult to get water in and water out. Smectite [vineyard]has more water-retaining ability and cracks internally so that roots can penetrate, and it also swells and seals the surface. Polo  [vineyard] is a bit like a sprinter in terms of the growing season. The clay allows us to have a long regulated growing season, and [that can be exploited] because we have a longer hang time. Depending on the year, we have the sprinter and the long-distance runner.”

Regarding viticulture, there has been a great deal of work in terms of rootstock and clonal selection, with some decisions made empirically. Low yields are a prerequisite at Danbury Ridge. One question that might be nagging away if you’ve read this far is this… If the soil profiles are blessed with similarities to Pomerol, then why does Danbury Ridge cultivate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, not Merlot and Cabernet Franc?

“I would love to grow Cabernet Franc,” Atkinson confesses, “but I suspect levels of light aren’t sufficient to lower pyrazines. Merlot is probably the same fate. We may be as warm as Burgundy in the 1990s, but the maritime influence retards phenology by two weeks relative to continental mid-latitudes, so we’re always working under a lower amount of light regime.” 

Atkinson does see a parallel with Bordeaux in terms of evapotranspiration. He asserts that it is 30% less in Essex than in Bordeaux; however, precipitation is also around 30% less.

I’ve seen countless wineries, but few were as spick and span as Danbury Ridge. Notice the Bucher press on the right-hand side.


“The Chardonnay is Coquard-pressed into barrel. The Estate wine is pulled out of barrel and immediately replaced by wine from the follow-on vintage. The heavy lees are recycled, and there is one bâtonnage. The Pinot Noir is de-stemmed, though clone 105 is so fragile at harvest that in 2021, we threw in some whole bunch. The de-stemmer is very gentle, but you can end up with slush on the sorting table after long hang times. Stem character tends to become exaggerated under Diam [the first time that I have heard this view], but it resolves after about 18 months. The wine is fermented in Nomblot unlined fermenters, with a twice-daily pigeage once fermentation has started. When the cap starts to sink, we press it off for approximately 21 days. It spends 12 to 14 months in barrel, 30% to 40% new, and we do like the support of the François Frères ‘MT’ barrels. The malo is completed in barrel usually by the following spring. Both the white and red are naturally clarified.”

The Wines

The pertinent question is: How good are the wines exactly? Tasting almost every wine produced at Danbury Ridge, both their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have already attained a level above anything I have tasted from this Sceptred Isle. There is certainly a Burgundian slant to their Pinot Noir, intermixed with perhaps Dundee Hills in Oregon or Martinborough in New Zealand, though I wager that it requires more vine age for us to see its true identity. As yet, it is not an exemplar of mineralité. But it has an attractive dark berry fruit profile, fine tannins and decent length; moreover, it conveys a sense of character. It is a wine that you want to get to know, not another Pinot Noir from an unorthodox part of the world. Interestingly, I felt the bottle I opened in New York showed more red fruit character than in Essex, though it still won admirers from my colleagues around the room. Recent vintages demonstrate a little more elan than the first; 2018 is somewhat of a work-in-progress, perhaps reflecting deeper know-how and the vines ‘settling in.’ Though dabbling with whole bunches, I think that a few stems might enhance complexity depending on the growing season, but that is something that must be discovered by praxis. The Chardonnay is clean and pure with ample weight/presence, perhaps reminiscent of cool-climate Sonoma rather than Burgundy, a little lemony/lemon verbena in character. Like the Pinot Noir, vine age will imbue the wines with greater mineralité and tension. What both red and white convey is a sense of pedigree. Served blind, they could easily catch someone out.

Final Thoughts

In terms of visibility, Essex is playing catch-up with other viticulturally established counties such as Kent, Hampshire or my current home of Surrey, amongst others across the belt of southern England. Considering that it was commonly known and scientifically proven that it is the driest, sunniest part of Britain, this seems strange because it should have led the charge when the English wine industry was establishing itself as a global player to be taken more seriously. Instead, almost by stealth, Essex became the source of high-quality fruit blended into some of the country’s best-known sparkling cuvées, their source often kept under wraps. Was that because producers feared a loss in reputation? Its image hampered Essex: the punchline of a joke, not helped by its own tendency for self-ridicule. Mea culpa. I penned the introduction not only to tickle ribs but also to convey the context into which the novel, to some oxymoronic idea of ‘Essex fine wine’ is being born. I suppose English wine is synonymous with sparkling wine and still wine was unsuited to such an inclement climate? Few considered still wine to be serious.

Attitudes are changing and changing rapidly. In Essex, Danbury Ridge leads a solitary charge…for now. Statistically, there must be vineyard land awaiting discovery. Why else would Kendall-Jackson buy 26 hectares in the Crouch Valley in 2023 specifically to make still wine, not sparkling? Even Burgundy producers are sniffing around, and trust me, it’s not because of its notorious nightclubs. It will be fascinating to see the expansion of vineyards and whether it will alter consumers’ perceptions towards domestic still wines, home or abroad. Let’s be realistic: propitious terroir is limited to a small enclave of the Essex countryside. It’s not going to be reinvented as the nouveau Côte d’Or, and to that end, watch out for opportunists coasting on its newfound reputation just as many châteaux do in the less-esteemed parts of Pomerol and Burgundy. There is much debate about global warming redrawing the lines of viticulture. Winemakers will inevitably seek more northerly latitudes in pursuit of cooler growing seasons, and the quality of Danbury Ridge is a testament to the fact that quality can be achieved, even with vines that have not reached double-figures in age compared to Burgundy’s centuries of viticulture. It is one of countless examples of the frontier being shifted, and indeed, during my visit, Atkinson commented that temperatures in this part of Essex are where Burgundy was in the 1990s. Food for thought.

It remains to be seen whether wine can still be as commercially successful as sparkling wine in the UK. Don’t overlook that the success of Danbury Ridge is a combination of numerous factors, not just propitious terroir, that will limit expansion. At the moment, they lead the way with the terroir, winery, money and know-how to realize capabilities where it matters – in the glass. One can only speculate the potential once they reach 25 to 30 years. Then, join me for a glass of 2050 Octagon Vineyard Premier Cru with jellied eel down the end of the pier, listening to Depeche Mode. We could even go to a reopened Tots afterward.

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