In focus: The future of English sparkling wine

Last year’s impressive vintage showed that the UK wine industry – especially its sparkling output – can hold its own on the world stage. Phoebe French speaks to major players and finds out why 2018 was a game-changer in Britain.

“I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine,” quipped the late English actor and broadcaster Sir Peter Ustinov. In 2008, food critic Jay Rayner used similarly inflammatory language, this time bringing music into the equation.

“English wine is like Belgian rock or German disco: a waste of everyone’s time and money,” he sneered in an article on cheese and wine pairing. It might seem odd to start a feature with two derogatory comments, but to understand the story of English sparkling wine, it’s essential to recognise its humble beginnings.

In just over a decade, the English wine industry has transformed from a largely hobby-driven endeavour to a sector dominated by qualified professionals, building a reputation based on quality and newfound expertise.

There are now more than 500 commercial vineyards in Great Britain. The area under vine in England and Wales has increased by 160% in the past 10 years to reach 2,888 hectares, with a further two million vines due to be planted this year.

Of the wine produced in England and Wales, 71% is sparkling. Once the object of derision, it has attracted major investment from former banking executives, politicians and two of Champagne’s leading houses – Taittinger and Pommery.

With much of the vineyard area lying north of the established 30-50 degree latitude limit, viticulturalists and winemakers operating in England use techniques such as careful pruning, green harvesting and malolactic fermentation to ensure they achieve optimum phenolic ripeness and balanced acidity. Frequent frosts, low temperatures, prolonged cloud cover and inopportune rainfall can make wine production a struggle. But in 2018, it was a different story.

‘Everything went right’

“There was nothing particularly outstanding about 2018, it was just that everything went right,” says Chris Foss, head of wine development at Plumpton College, England’s viticulture and oenology education centre.

“In 2017, we were decimated by spotted winged drosophila – what the frost didn’t get, the fruit flies did – it was awful. In 2018 they didn’t come; they don’t like the hot dry weather. Last year, I had a student who was studying downy mildew, but we didn’t get any at all as there was no rain. It’s really sad when you read his project.”

Ruth Simpson, co-owner of Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent, agrees. “Everything was possible in 2018, it was the perfect year,” she says. “For us, 2018 is the game-changer year because it means we finally have some decent volume after only producing around 22,000 bottles in 2016 and 2017.”

Mike Wagstaff, owner and winemaker at Greyfriars Vineyard in Surrey, says: “In England you also find that big years correlate with very ripe years because we’re a lot more sensitive to the weather. We had an extraordinarily ripe harvest. To put it in context, last year we produced 202 tonnes compared with 125 tonnes in 2017, and normally we would expect between 100 and 125 on average, so we were up by 60%.”

Nyetimber’s Cherie Spriggs

For Nyetimber in West Sussex, 2018 also proved a milestone year. “From the 2018 harvest we will produce more than a million bottles for the first time, and this record amount will help us meet growing international consumer demand, as well as increase our stocks of reserve wine, “ says head winemaker Cherie Spriggs.

While the sparkling wines will take several years to mature, Sam Linter, managing director and winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex, says she could smell the difference in 2018.

“I noticed when I was walking through the winery when the wines were fermenting that the fruit aromas were more intense than we’ve smelt before, not massively so, but they were. We’ve had some good vintages but this was the best we’ve seen, and we’ve been around for over 40 years,” she says.

The warm spells around budburst and flowering, the lack of severe frost, and the prolonged dry spell over the summer months and throughout harvest resulted in a record year for English wine. According to the official figures from Wines of Great Britain, 15.6m bottles were produced in 2018, beating the previous record (6.3m bottles in 2014) by 9.3m bottles.

One of the criticisms that has been levelled at English wine over the years centres on levels of acidity. With a more marginal climate than the likes of Champagne, English sparkling has a leaner style, meaning a good knowledge of acidity-management techniques is an essential requirement for those making wine in the country.

Greater consistency

Bolney’s Linter accepts that acidity can be a challenge, but says the accumulation of knowledge in the industry has led to greater consistency and balance.

“We’ve moved away from unbalanced wines, but the criticism we had in the past, certainly in the early years, was fair,” she says. “I always see criticism as an opportunity, and a lot of us have done the same. We looked at it, we’ve learnt from it and we’ve improved what we’re doing. We’ve looked at where we plant, cropping levels and canopy management. English wine is always going to be fresher, crisper and more linear. That’s our style, and I think that’s great.”

Charlie Holland, head winemaker at Gusbourne in Kent, shares Linter’s outlook, adding that winemakers should use England’s higher acidity levels to their advantage.

“Acidity is a dirty word in the mind of the wine consumer,” he says. “But for me, acidity is one of the most important attributes of a wine; it’s what brings a wine vibrancy, freshness and helps it to age gracefully.

“We have to look at what our strengths are in England, and one of them is that we have higher acidity than some areas of the world that produce sparkling wine. We need to embrace that and show that off. It should be a positive story.”

Jacob Leadley, winemaker and owner of Black Chalk, who doesn’t have a physical winery but sources grapes from Hampshire, agrees. “We must remember that acid is a big part of the joy in English wines, and as the industry grows we are finding ways to work with acid and celebrate rather than fear it. Fresh, fruit-forward wines with depth and complexity from lees ageing is a style that I feel English sparkling wine can and should be a world leader in,” he says.

With large volumes of grapes with phenolic ripeness and acidity in perfect harmony, will the 2018 vintage help winemakers to showcase the country’s true potential? For one thing, the added volume will ease the pressure to release wine, often at a stage when the producer doesn’t believe it’s ready.

Linter explains: “It can be challenging in England in terms of financing – the cash required to lay down stock is huge. We always sell out of our wines, and we’d really like them to have more bottle age than they do. Now we’ve got an excess of stock we can really start to build up the reserves.”

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