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English wine – here for the long run or flash in the pan?

When it comes to food and drink we have a lot to be proud of here in the UK.

We have fantastic livestock. Our craft beer scene is booming. We are the envy of the world when it comes to gin. And you can even now find organic vodka being made in Highgate in north London!

But, what about English wine? Is it something of which we should be proud and actively promote? Or are we setting ourselves up for a fall?

According to English Wine Producers, an organisation representing wineries in England and Wales, there are currently 124 wineries in operation. In terms of style, approximately 60% of the wine being made is sparkling, 30% white and 10% red and rosé. Average annual production over the last five years is 2.58 million bottles.

Now that you have the stats, let’s turn to the question of whether the wine is actually any good!

The short answer is that England is no different from any other wine region – you can find the good, the bad and the ugly. England is certainly making its fair share of good and excellent wines but quality can vary considerably from producer to producer.

Another issue is the weather, which can have a profound effect on quality. To put it in perspective, 4.04 million bottles were produced in 2010 compared to 1.03 million bottles in 2012. That is a huge swing in volumes and is an unhappy reminder at just how bad our summers and autumn can be.

In terms of style, there is no doubt in my mind that the future success of England’s wine industry – both at home and abroad – exists in the sparkling category.

That is not to say that still wines don’t have a future. Quite the opposite. I like the fact that many English wineries are championing cool climate white grapes like Bacchus and Ortega which consumers cannot readily find elsewhere. But, generally speaking, I still find the wines too expensive relative to the quality (and especially if you consider that they are not subject to any import duty). It’s an issue that needs to be addressed if these wines are going to shrug off the ‘novelty buy’ mantle.

But, when it comes to sparkling wine, the early signs are present that we could be dealing with something world class. It is encouraging to see winemakers using high quality grape varieties that have been tried and tested for centuries on sparkling wine production. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are by far the most planted varieties, making up 40% of the plantings.

The climate in the South of England is similar to Champagne – it is only on average 1° to 2° Celsius cooler. The soils in Sussex and Kent (where many of the top vineyards lie) are predominantly chalk and limestone which are similar to many areas of Champagne. But, there is also soil variation. For example, Bluebell Vineyard Estates in Sussex boast soils of sandy-loam over sandstone bedrock which is similar to those of the famous Montagne de Reims region of Champagne. Perhaps there is a future for terroir driven Champagne method sparkling wines?
Another plus for English sparkling wine is that it is vintage dated, unlike the vast majority of Champagne which is blended to make a non-vintage, house style. Some may see the variation from year to year as a negative but for me I am in favour of the character and individuality that is achieved by making the wines from a single vintage.

So, that’s the argument in favour of why England is able to produce high quality, complex sparkling wine. Let’s now consider the challenges. As previously mentioned, quality and yield is highly dependent on weather and, as we all know, the weather in England cannot be trusted.

The English wine industry has positioned its sparkling wines in style terms alongside Champagne, arguably the world’s most recognisable and iconic wine region. As the competition goes, that’s a big deal.

Sitting under English sparkling wine in terms of quality and price is Prosecco. This approachable, affordable, easy drinking category is massively on trend at the moment at a time when sales of Champagne are dropping. Plus, like Champagne and Cava, it is produced in a country that is famous for its winemaking abilities.

Reputation is so important for wine consumers and this is not something that can be built overnight. Although the UK wine trade likes to make noise about English wine, the reality is that a fair chunk of the country is not actually aware that we even make wine, let alone ready to go out and purchase a bottle. The same goes for potential customers abroad.

But, whilst these challenges may be considerable, I strongly believe that they can be managed, paving the way for English wine in the mainstream market.

Buying local is on trend and the quality is there to justify the price. The issue is that consumers need to feel comfortable making the switch. Fundament to this is for English wineries to gain more listings in the multiple grocer sector. A greater number of regular listings of English wines in the big supermarkets will give shoppers a degree of comfort that these wines have entered the mainstream and, as such, are genuinely viable alternatives to Champagne.

This, in turn, should filter down throughout the off- and on-trade and together with increased marketing initiatives – like English Wine Week – start making the wines more commercially appealing.

As a Sussex lad myself, I grew up just a stone’s throw from the likes of Breaky Bottom and Rathfinny (soon to be the largest winery in the UK) and am genuinely excited about the how far the English wine industry has come in such a short time. I’ll continue to fly the flag and remain ever the optimist that in years to come English wine can challenge Champagne crown as the greatest sparkling winemaking region.

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