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%.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
English wine: The facts
2018: 15.6m bottles (estimate)
2017: 5.90m bottles
2016: 4.15m bottles
2015: 5.06m bottles
2014: 6.30m bottles
2018: 2.6m bottles (+186% vs 2017)
Area under vine:
The area under vine has risen by 160% in the past 10 years to 2018. In 2018 the area grew 13%, the equivalent of 1.6m vines, or 405ha. 2m vines will be planted this year.
Number of vineyards/wineries:
2018 total: over 500 vineyards. 80 wineries were opened in 2017, up from 64 in 2016, and more than double the 36 that opened in 2013.
Exports of English and Welsh wine doubled in 2018, and the wines are now exported to 40 countries. The main export markets are the US and Scandinavia which received 65% of wines exported in 2018.
On average, only 4% of English and Welsh wines are exported, but in 2018, exports totaled around 8%.
71% of wine produced in England and Wales is sparkling. The most planted grape variety is Pinot Noir (31.5% of total acreage) followed by Chardonnay and then Pinot Meunier.
The UK wine industry is predicted to create 30,000 new jobs by 2040. Volumes are expected to reach 40m bottles by 2040. By 2040, wine tourism is expected to generate an additional revenue of £658m.
All figures have been sourced from WineGB.