In focus: The future of English sparkling wine

Gusbourne’s Charlie Holland

Pressure on sales

Tamara Roberts, CEO of Ridgeview in Sussex, agrees. “I’m sure most producers are a bit guilty of releasing wines a bit too early,” she says. “It’s very difficult to predict sales when you’re a new industry, and suddenly it’s taking off and you don’t want to let your customers down. There’s definitely a pressure on sales.”

With 15.6m bottles due to hit the market in the coming years, when the 2018 vintage matures, last year’s harvest will ensure that English wines are increasingly available for purchase.

While some, such as Denbies in Surrey, which has contracts with the likes of pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon, supermarkets Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Co-op and discounters Aldi and Lidl, have already solved the supply issue, other producers feel that 2018 will be a breakthrough year.

Nick Wenman, owner of fellow Surrey vineyard Albury Organic, says: “The demand for our wines is significantly higher that what is normally available. After the 2018 harvest, it will be nice not to have to turn away so many potential trade customers.”

Roberts of Ridgeview agrees, believing the key to the 2018 harvest will be the increased availability of English wines.

“The visibility of the category will be much more important, perhaps in more mainstream places that might not have stocked English wine before because of the lack of volumes,” she says. “Like anything, if you see it you’re more likely to buy it. If you hear about it and don’t know where to get it, then of course you’re not going to be buying it.”

Emma Rice of Hattingley Valley in Hampshire explains that after two frost-ravaged vintages, the volumes secured in 2018 will help the flow of stock.

“The 2018s probably won’t need as long on the lees because the grapes were so ripe,” she says. “It will give us a cushion. The good thing about sparkling wine is because there’s such a long time between harvest and selling the finished wine, you can stagger the release of the wines. As long as you can afford to keep them sitting on their lees, they can last almost indefinitely.”

The quality of grapes from 2018 has led many producers, such as Bolney, Hattingley, Albury Organic and Black Chalk, to prepare a special release showcasing the grapes from that year. Most wineries have also taken the opportunity to boost their reserve wine stocks.

Sarah and Mark Driver of Rathfinny

Simpson of Simpsons Wine says 2018 will help her fledgling estate to get on its feet. “For us it’s important to build up that reserve wine stock to ensure consistency in our products, to aim for a house style, and to ensure that no matter what happens climatically, we can still blend to style,” she says.

While mostly positive responses can be drawn from 2018, the year did highlight one of the industry’s most pressing issues: the lack of winemaking facilities. With ambitious planting schedules chalked up in recent years, the dearth of wineries needs addressing.

Producers such as Ridgeview, Black Chalk, Bolney, Hambledon, Camel Valley, Denbies and Simpsons have planned or have built new winery facilities to process and store greater volumes of wine. But for some, this proved too late. With a severe tank shortage, some producers were forced to throw away fruit, while others were left with the stress of calling in last-minute supplies.

Under pressure

Ruth and Charles Simpson were able to count on their contacts in France when UK suppliers told them to join the lengthy queue. Having ordered additional tanks and another press, Ruth says: “On a couple of occasions we’d literally say, ‘if tank number x doesn’t arrive tomorrow then we’re going to have to stop picking’.” Thankfully no such measures were needed.

Hattingley’s Rice jokes: “There were several occasions during harvest 2018 where I had to be talked down off the edge of a tank.” Having co-ordinated the processing of almost 700 tonnes of grapes, hiring 120,000 litres of extra tank space and ordering a press that was used on the same day on which it was delivered, it’s evident the pressure she was under.

Industry veteran Bob Lindo, owner of Camel Valley, believes the sector must grow with caution. “People need to keep an eye on levels of production. There are no planting limits, so eventually there’s going to be an oversupply.

“We only need to look at the lessons learnt in other wine industries: New Zealand is a good example. It had an oversupply, and people had to readjust. New Zealand wines all used to be around £9-£10 a bottle. They’re not now. New investors in English vineyards should be a little cautious and not get carried away.”

While 2018 did flag up areas for improvement, it was undoubtedly a success story, generating positive coverage for the industry in the national media. As 2018 still wines trickle onto the market, we’ll have to wait several years before the potential of the sparkling expressions can be assessed. The volumes achieved in 2018 will also allow English wine producers to increase their foothold in the export market.

Only around 4% of all English wine is exported to 27 countries, with key markets including the US, Scandinavia and Japan. As supply increases and prices potentially get more competitive in the UK, this could be an interesting area of growth.

Sussex wine estate Rathfinny has already set itself the target of selling up to 50% of its production to overseas markets. Having launched its first sparkling wines in the UK last year, it has since launched in Hong Kong and has plans to enter the US market by 2020.

“The increased volumes in 2018 will allow us to address a wider market,” says Mark Driver, co-owner of Rathfinny. “However, we need to put this into perspective. Of the 15.6m bottles produced in 2018, about 10m will be sparkling. This makes England the equivalent of a modest Champagne house, producing less that 3% of the total wine produced in that region. We’re still a very small wine-producing nation.”

World scene

With as many as 40 million bottles expected to be produced in Britain annually by 2040, Spriggs of Nyetimber is confident that vintages like 2018’s will help English sparkling to assert itself on the world scene.

“2018 was a milestone for Nyetimber and the reputation of English sparkling wine,” she says. “It will offer us the quality and quantity to increase the awareness and reputation of wines produced in this country. It proves the potential of England as a serious winemaking nation, rather than just a cottage industry.”

While it is small, the industry has big plans. WineGB predicts that in the next 20 years, the UK wine industry will create between 20,000 and 30,000 jobs, providing a sizeable boost to the economy. By 2040 the industry could generate an additional £658m in revenue annually through tourism – a far cry from the “waste of time and money” Rayner described in 2008.

This feature first appeared in the April 2019 issue of the drinks business. 

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