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English sparkling wine industry must adopt a coherent approach, experts warn

The English sparkling wine industry needs to adopt a more coherent approach to production and supply in order to grow sustainably, industry experts have warned.

A bespoke English sparkling wine vinyard planted with Pinot Noir at harvest time,

Following the announcement of a bumper crop last year, some industry experts db has spoken to have voiced concern over the potential lack of coordination in the fledgling wine industry.

Sales of English and Welsh wine rose 6% to a record 4 million bottles in 2018, according to the latest figures from IWSR published by the WSTA, with 2018 widely credited as a ‘game-changer’ for English and Welsh wine. The official figures released by industry body Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) showed a record 15.6 million bottles of wine were produced in England and Wales in 2018, beating the previous record of 6.3m bottles in 2014, and up significantly from the 5.9 million produced in the frost-ravaged 2017 vintage.

Last week Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) released the latest planting figures confirming that around 3 million vines were planted this year – around 690 hectares of vineyards,  boosting the land under vine by around 24%, which is double that planted in 2018 (1.6 million vines) and three times the 1 million vines planted in 2017.

However, following the publication of the sales figures, some industry figures took to Twitter to voice their concern about the possibility that sales were not keeping pace with production.

(Photo: Langham Wine)

Wine consultant and winemaker Justin Howard-Sneyd MW pointed out the shortfall and queried whether there was “a potential glut on the way”. Speaking to the drinks business he said that although he was delighted at the success of English sparkling wine, he was never-the-less alarmed about the number of vines being planted.

He pointed out that the current logic was for individual producers to expand and plant more vines, based on the assumption that they would be able to sell the wine at the end of the day for the price in the business plan, but that sales figures were not keeping up with the production. Furthermore, last year’s bumper harvest of 10-12million bottles of sparkling wine did not take into account grapes from vines planted since 2016 that would start coming on stream in the next few years, even if the average crop going forward was estimated to be a more modest 8m bottles a year.

“We need to be selling up to £8million bottles for that to feel comfortable. If that’s 6m home-grown and £2m exports, that’s a happy place to be, but there’s a lot of work to be done to get there,” he told db.

“The natural sale growth will keep growing in the Uk and abroad, but if it falls significantly behind the production curve, we will have a structural surplus which is bad for the market and everyone concerned.”

He argued that the industry was only just starting to put the data together to understand the situation that could inform good decisions and that industry body Wines GB should coordinate the understanding of the data “so we know where we are’.

“We need good decision-making and everyone being informed by the correct information so that good decisions can be made,” he said.

Strategic thinking 

Wine writer and expert Jamie Goode suggested on Twitter that the industry needed to adopt an approach more like that of the Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) who he wrote “cannily regulate volumes to be released to the market”, and that the English sparkling market needed to shift prdomniantly to non-vintage production.

Elaborating on the tweet, he explained to db that their strategy towards non-vintage Champagne acted as a ‘buffer’ against the peaks and troughs of fluctuating vintages and market conditions to keep the price high and sustainable as it matched supply with demand.

However, he added that he loved the idea of freedom from regulation. “It’s early days so we don’t want to put the brakes on growth, but we don’t want [over-production]. Can it happen? That depends,” he said, pointing out that there was time to “plan sensibly” for the new planted vines as it would take at least five years for the first bottle to be produced.

“We need a sense of the collective that works in everyone’s interest,” he told db. “There needs to be a lot of hard work.”

He suggested ideas such as a levy that could fund the industry and its marketing better, or subsidise producers who wanted to go trade shows such as Prowein, as “exports will be an important part of the equation”. He also argued that the industry needed to move to a non-vintage model, pointing out that some English wines were coming to the market too young.

“If they have a non-vintage model, with time on the lees, then people need storage,” he added

Storage concerns

Storage is one of the biggest concerns for the English sparkling wine industry, according to Bob Lindo, co-founder and managing director of Camel Valley Vineyards in Cornwall. He attributed the economic success of Champagne  to storage and the ability of producers to balance production and demand with storage and managing cashflow, but said English producers were only just waking up the issue.

“The ability to store sparkling wine is absolutely paramount,” he told db. “There’s no reason to believe English sparkling wine is in over-supply, but people underestimate how much storage they need if they are going to have to maintain a long-term, viable sparkling wine business.”

Juggling the demands of storage and sales was difficult, he added and took planning.

“You’ve got to find the size that you can be comfortable with to be sustainable in the long term.”

“People think I’m being alarmist but there’s a natural inclination to pile in – people are looking to invest and it will attract growth,” he said, pointing out that you have to build a reputation and a customer base over time, “You can’t buy it, it’s not Sunny Delight,” he said.

“We want to stay scarce, we don’t want to be everywhere trying to compete with the lowest common denominator.”

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