Chris Wilson is a journalist-turned-winemaker. He was – and still is – a wine journalist, but turned to winemaking, completing a few vintages around the world and taking a BSc in viticulture and enology at Plumpton (Sussex, UK), before starting an urban micro-negociant winery in Cambridge.
The location of Gutter & Stars is a windmill just out of the city centre. It’s a smock mill built in 1847, and Chris has the lower floor, which makes for a functional small winery with nice cool ambient conditions. [I thought that Chris was living here with his family, Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style, but alas this isn’t the case.]
He began here in June 2020, two years ago, in the middle of COVID lockdown. The timing was actually pretty good: with nothing going on, he was able to focus on the first vintage, which was around 2000 bottles made from purchased grapes. And as a journalist, he understands how media works, and was able to get a lot of coverage for this debut wine, which was a 2020 Bacchus. It was followed up by a Chardonnay, which also turned a lot of heads.
There are a few small negociant operations in the UK now, and there’s a more-or-less friendly competition for good quality grapes. Fortunately, you can still buy good grapes, although it’s easier in abundant years like 2018 than in tricky, short years like 2021. Relationship management is important here.
Inside the winery there’s a small 50 litre press (he gets most of his whites pressed at Flint in East Anglia), a selection of barrels (used, from Pouilly-Fuissé in Bourgogne – these are a bargain at less than €100 delivered), some stainless steel tanks, a large plastic blending tank, a plastic egg, three bins for bottle storage and a rustic desk where Chris does all his writing work. He also has a line-up of the bottles that have been released to date, showing the beautiful label artwork.
Chris also used to work in music journalism, and the wines are all named with a musical reference. The label art comes mainly from artist friends, and he’s also designed a few himself.
I stopped in to help with bottling, and also to try my hand at waxing. The wine we bottled was a skin-fermented Bacchus from 2021, and we managed to get 150 bottles done before the wine ran out. The bottling line is a simple 4 head filler. The bottles are flushed with nitrogen and then filled, and sealed with a Diam. They are then waxed, which has to be done by hand, and is a very satisfying job unless you have a large number of bottles to do.
Chris shared some of the costs of bottling wine. It costs 28 p for a DIAM cork, 27 p for a bottle, 15 p for the label, and 40 p for the wax (this is enhanced by the need to buy a minimum volume, and the fact that not all is used). It’s a about a pound of dry goods a bottle. He’s currently making around 2000 bottles a year, but this will rise in 2022 (grape contracts permitting), and he sees the ceiling as being about 6000. Beyond this he’d need to hire someone and the business model would have to change: currently it’s mostly direct sales.
Gutter & Stars Rip it Up Bacchus 2021 England
This is the orange wine we bottled: 28 days skin contact in plastic egg. Floral expressive aromatics of elderflower and peach as well as some mandarin. The palate is pure and intense with citrus and grapes with a nice pithy edge and some bitter hints. Has a nice savoury twist. This may develop further; tasted on the day of bottling. 92/100
Gutter & Stars Bacchus Strange News From Another Star 2021 England
Named after a blur track. This comes from missing Gate in the Crouch Valley, Essex. Picked October 16, TA 8.47, pH 3.04. Four barrels, old oak. Lovely fruit here: ripe pear and table grape flavours with texture and depth, covering the considerable acidity. Real intensity of flavour here with a broad spectrum of flavours. Impressive especially considering the tricky vintage. Nice finish. 91/100
Gutter & Stars The Good Mixer Blonde on Blonde Blend 2021 England
Bacchus and Ortega from Yew Tree vineyard in Didcot, Oxfordshire. All barrel, no chaptalization, 3.3 pH. Ripe aromatics of pear and peach with some apple notes. The palate is bright and textural with lovely depth and a hint of nuttiness. Real depth here, partly enhanced by 5% botrytis. 91/100
Gutter & Stars Daylight Upon Magic Chardonnay ‘Long Player’ 2020 England
This is a second release of this 2020 Chardonnay, and this lot has had extra time in barrel (this is a barrel sample as it isn’t yet bottled). This is refined and pure with amazing texture and some subtle woody nutty notes meshing well with pear, peach and fine spices. This is really impressive. 93/100
Gutter & Stars Play It Cool Chardonnay 2021 England
This is from a half-sized new barrel. Chris had just 200 kg of fruit. There’s lovely bright fruit but also some spicy oak. Very impressive but the oak is intense. Potentially really good: we’ll see! I can’t rate it right now.
Gutter & Stars Shadow Play Pinot Noir 2021 England (barrel sample)
Very pale red pink in colour, almost like a rosé. Beautiful sappy spicy peppery nose is quite explosive. The palate has lovely concentration and texture but also real elegance. Really mouthfilling and expressive. Very fine green hints but everything works. I’m so impressed by this wine! 94/100