Putting British wines on the map

English winemakers have been given a welcome boost following the launch of the training initiative Wineskills last week.The scheme, which is funded by the EU and DEFRA, and managed by Plumpton College, has been set up to offer grape growers and winemakers practical workshops, monthly master?classes with international speakers and a mentoring scheme designed to “ensure the sustainable growth of the industry”.

The funding bodies will invest £1.5?million over the next five years for industry?training, and subsidies for course fees are available for those professionally?involved in wine production.

Chris Foss, head of wine at Plumpton College, explains: “Wineskills is directed at providing quality training to the UK wine production industry, which, at present, is only a small part of the market.

“However, with our climate becoming more suited to grape growing and customers displaying an increased demand for local produce, English and Welsh wines are becoming increasingly important.”?Julia Trustram Eve?, of English Wine Producers?, puts the current value of English wines in the off-trade in the region of £19 million. She says: “With ongoing growth in volume, sales are forecast to grow to £100 million by 2015 – this is because of the increasing volume of sparkling wine that will be coming on to the market.”?Acreage has increased considerably in the past five years, she adds. “Officially 1,106ha are recorded, which represents a 45% increase from 2004? to 2008.

“In his latest book, UK Vineyards Guide 2010, Stephen Skelton MW? records a total of 1,270ha, which represents an increase of

50%. Skelton lists 439 vineyards in total: 415 in England, 18 in Wales, two in Scotland, three in Ireland and one in the Channel Islands. We believe there are a few more still, and there will be more vines planted this year,” says Trustram Eve.

Mike Paul, former managing director of Western Wines, will advise on business management and marketing for Wineskills. He believes the English wine industry is in “a good place” given its “premium price position, plaudits for its sparkling wines, and that demand broadly exceeds supply. The competitive advantage the industry holds over every other supplier to the UK market – particularly the New World –? is that it’s local to the market”.

But he warns: “There needs to be a greater understanding of the benefits of marketing and the industry continues to derive the maximum benefit from working together to ensure the generic brand or umbrella continues to add real value.”?Despite increasing the industry’s marketing know-how there are still concerns over quality and the ability of English producers to operate in such a margin-strapped market.

Richard Verney, general manager at Oddbins, says quality remains an issue: “We’ve just listed two new English sparkling wines, the single vineyard Pinot Meunier from Nyetimber, which retails for £28.99 and Ridgeview Cavendish 2007, at £19.99. We are very happy with the results we have seen so far but I’m still to be convinced about any of the still wine offerings I’ve tasted.

“Often the boutique vineyards sell their wines through the cellar door and there are only a small amount of producers which can offer us the sort of volumes we are after.

“I think there is a market for high-?value, high-quality products. That has got to be the focus, because of fixed costs such as the high cost of land and labour. But there is a market there – and it’s a growing market.”?Other retailers agree even if there is a better level of training, the high production costs still make it a hard sell.

Mike Rogers, owner of Philglas & Swiggot, which also stocks Nyetimber sparkling wines, says although he welcomes the news that winemakers are set to benefit from the money set aside by the EU and DEFRA, he isn’t confident it will make any “fundamental difference” and thinks the industry needs to become more responsive to the UK’s tough commercial environment.

He explains: “That includes making the right wines style-wise, at the right prices, with the right packaging and branding and having a grown-up and competitive distribution network in place.

“I would love to sell English wines, but first of all they have to prove themselves able to compete alongside the world-class wines that we have on our list.”?Independent retailer David Motion, of the Winery in London, says: “We used to stock Clay Hill from Lamberhurst until Carole Lamond and Nick Rogers stopped selling their wine commercially. Right now we don’t stock any English wine, although it is something we would like to explore at some point.

“Having seen how challenging it was for friends making wine in Kent – what with the weather, deer, duty and so on – people who seriously want to make wine in the UK need to have a compelling story, luck and very deep pockets.

“The biggest challenge is controlling costs. Land and labour costs are high, and with duty and VAT, English wine is automatically forced into a higher price bracket where competition is thick with quality. Having said that, there is potential in the marketplace, particularly for sparkling wine.”?Rogers says: “Over the past 19 years we have had personal visits from owners and winemakers from wineries all over the world. We have had contact, including phone calls, fax, email and personal visits, from around one English wine­maker per decade.

“On a number of occasions, we have taken a day off and driven to Kent, Sussex or Hampshire and endured the dubious pleasure of tasting wines out of plastic thimbles, against the semi-twilight background of some Jacobean barn, only to be informed, on asking where we might buy the wines for our three London shops ‘well, you know where we are’.

“I don’t think it would be totally unfair to conclude that the English wine industry needs to raise its game.”?Motion agrees: “In the past few months, we have seen a massive raising in the profile of Plumpton. But by contrast, more could be made in the marketing of English wine. We receive 50-100 exploratory emails every day from growers in France, Italy, Spain and Argentina, and in the past 10 years we have been approached by just one English grower.

“Making wine is one thing, marketing and selling it is equally important.”?Ultimately the team behind Wineskills at Plumpton is confident that by instilling these new skills they can cut expenditure elsewhere and generate new demand for British wine. Foss? adds: “Gaining a greater understanding of wine production and marketing will allow the UK producers to cut costs of production while still maintaining quality.”