Surprising English wine

5 Jul, 2018

Wine made in England is fast gaining fans. Even the French are moving in. We look at the burgeoning industry and the factors that have caused this shift.

England is not the first country that comes to mind when thinking about wine. However, with record sales reflecting major growth, international awards and French Champagne houses planting vines on English soil, it would appear there’s an altogether more promising future in store.

The latest industry figures show there was a 16 per cent growth in turnover in 2016, taking it to a record £132 million. That rise has almost doubled in the past five years as the industry, which has historically struggled on these shores, finally starts to gain momentum. The rise in quantity and, more importantly, quality of the wines being produced represents a marked change from the days when English wines were the butt of many jokes. It was actor Peter Ustinov who quipped that his idea of hell was, “Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine”. So what has brought about such a change in fortunes?

“It’s largely based on the success and quality of sparkling wine,” says John Worontschak, director at Litmus Wines. But it isn’t as simple as that, as many who have tried to produce quality wine in England have discovered. In order to make world-class wine, several factors need to align. Chief among these is a subtle rise in temperatures as a result of global warming, which has given England a later growing season. It has also made certain grape varieties more viable, especially pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, which are all used for sparkling wine. Teamed with that is the improvement in knowledge and expertise of local producers, which can’t be rushed.

“To make good sparkling wine you need experience,” says Peter Richards MW. “Finally we have had a long-enough time working with these varieties in this country for people to start getting some experience and in-depth knowledge.” As is often the case, experience is learned the hard way. It was the failures of the past, notably planting for still wines instead of sparkling, that paved the way for current successes with an array of sparkling wines that hold their own against Champagne.

This has been made possible, in part, by the money invested in an industry that was for a long time seen as little more than a hobbyist pursuit, but is now widely accepted as a viable commercial venture. Previous investors have been put off by the time it took to see a return on their money, if at all, but this view has slowly changed. In recent years, the likes of Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Camel Valley wineries have spearheaded a growing marketplace. There are now more than 500 vineyards throughout England and Wales.

A vineyard in Sussex
When you consider that large parts of the North and South Downs of Kent and Sussex (pictured above) are blessed with a prime terroir for sparkling wine, it’s easy to see why producers are excited by the future. “We are starting to see a huge amount of interest from the wine world and that’s exciting because there’s been a lot of planting over the past five years and, in the next five, we are going to see even more growth in the industry,” says Frazer Campbell, CEO of Chapel Down.

The success of English sparkling wines at home and abroad has not gone unnoticed in France, with two leading Champagne houses planting vines in the south of England in recent times. Champagne Taittinger has begun planting a 100-acre vineyard at a cost of £4 million. It is the first investment in the UK from a Champagne house and the intention is to produce a range of premium English sparkling wines. “We have been very impressed by the quality of English sparkling wine, and we believe the combination of chalk soils, climate and topography of our site in Kent is ideal for producing quality sparkling wine,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger. “These attributes are perfect for grape growing, and very similar to the terroir in Champagne.”

The knock-on effect from the success of sparkling wines is that an increasing number of still wines are now being produced in England that are also performing well internationally. Winbirri Vineyard in East Anglia recently won the prestigious Decanter Platinum Best in Show medal for its 2015 Bacchus. “I think in the next 10 years, [white grape] bacchus is going to become the jewel in our crown as far as English wines go,” says Lee Dyer, Winbirri’s head winemaker. “It has the potential to be for England what sauvignon blanc is for New Zealand. I think it’s going to be our best-known wine style.”

For all the optimism and bullishness among producers, there is still work to be done to secure the long-term success of the industry, notably cracking the export market. The most recent figures show that only 250,000 bottles of wine were exported in 2015, from more than five million produced, although the goal is to increase that to 2.5 million by 2020. “I think exports will be vital,” says Peter Richards. “If you look at the projected growth in production, that’s not all going to be sold here, so export markets are essential for the long-term future of English wine. If you look at the model of great classic British products that have done well abroad, they are brands that speak for quality and heritage, and I think our wine will slot right into that mould.”

Of equal importance, and arguably higher value than exports, is a focus on vineyard tourism. It makes perfect sense, given the strength of the English tourism sector and proximity to London of several of the leading wine sites in the country. This hasn’t been lost on the vineyard owners, who have added restaurants, cafes and even accommodation as they look to become destinations for wine lovers.

While the future of Great Britain remains unclear with the pending exit from the European Union looming large, it’s a different story for the nation’s burgeoning wine industry, which could inadvertently benefit from Brexit. It would mean less reliance on the Common Agricultural Policy, and as such, farmers will be seeking more profitable, long-term crops, with viticulture potentially providing an interesting opportunity. The past 10 years have already seen a 135 per cent increase in vineyard plantings, according to the English Wine Producers trade body. This makes it one of the fastest-growing agricultural products in the UK and that trend looks set to continue, as does the rise in prominence of the wines produced in England.