English wine is sitting pretty
One million vines are being planted across England in 2017 to meet soaring demand for homegrown bubbly and still wines from grapes such as Bacchus and Pinot Noir. That is enough to fill Hyde Park, and the names of the producers planting the vines gives cause for excitement.
There can be no better stamp of approval than famous Champagne houses admitting how exceptional the English terroir is and crossing the channel to get involved. Taittinger is planting a 69ha vineyard in Kent this month in partnership with UK agency Hatch Mansfield, while Champagne Pommery has partnered with Hattingley Valley. Meanwhile, existing producers are expanding their estates and newcomers are jumping on the bandwagon.
“We reckon we have the largest amount of plantings this year we have ever had,” says Julia Trustram Eve, the dynamo behind English Wine Producers. “It’s paving the way for the future. We won’t see any of this for eight to 10 years.”
It will take that long for the vines to start yielding the sort of award-winning wines England is becoming famous for. That fame is encouraging others to try to muscle in, and it should continue to grow if new producers maintain quality and the industry pulls together to ensure it remains a category associated with luxury, rather than trying to compete at the lower end. The signs so far are heartening as the industry makes the right noises about driving value rather than volume.
“There is real energy continuing to come into the industry,” says Trustram Eve. “It’s an industry undoubtedly attracting talent and skills. The focus and direction and where they want to take it is exciting.
“Over the past 20 years we haven’t seen it plateau. It has been a steady growth and we are now seeing another big stride forward and the upwards trajectory is continuing.”
The Wine & Spirit Trade Association has thrust English wine – along with gin – on to the frontline in its battle to secure a fairer duty rate for the UK drinks industry and avoid punitive legislation. The spirits category has MPs in Scotland onside as Scotch is so important to their constituencies, and the same is true of beer in Burton and cider in the West Country. The WSTA is trying to show how important wine production – not just distribution – is also becoming to the UK economy.
“The industry is working closely together to turn the attention on to English wine in the corridors of power,” says Trustram Eve. “The wine industry is the fastest growing agricultural sector at the moment and that’s a very strong message to take to government. It’s fantastic to be working with such a strong organisation as the WSTA.
“A UK Vine Association and English Wine Producers Brexit document highlights the many opportunities Brexit can afford this industry and some of the challenges and things we want them to be aware of. Now more than ever we have this great opportunity post-Brexit for growth and exports.”
Denbies chief executive Chris White agrees that Brexit represents an opportunity for English wine. “With the growth of wine production the price of wine will become even more competitive with that of imported wines,” he says. “This is being seen already with the devaluation of the pound. We believe tariffs of imported wines are only going to increase so the demand for home-produced products will increase proportionally.”
But Langham Wine Estate owner Justin Langham is unconvinced and believes the industry will simply continue its steady upwards trajectory. “I personally don’t think Brexit will bring the changes some people are suggesting,” he says. “What we may experience for a period is a lower exchange rate, which will give us an advantage both when exporting our wine and competing with foreign wines in the UK. Having said that, most English wines are selling on quality and demand is unlikely to increase dramatically with a small price advantage.
“Should there be more of a so-called hard Brexit, where tariffs are placed on imports and exports, this should give a more advantageous scenario for domestic consumption, but will of course hurt exports.”
A challenge for retailers is knowing which English wines to stock, given the influx of production across the country. When asked why retailers should plump for his wines, Langham says: “Few other English wine producers make all their wine from their own grapes. The majority buy in a large proportion from around the country. By only using our own grapes, we know what goes into each bottle and our wine has a unique flavour we feel is attached to our vineyard and the Dorset terrior.
“The vineyard has everything you could wish for – chalk soils, south-facing slopes, shelter provided by mature woodland, a high number of sunshine hours and an extended growing season.
“Small volumes and attention to detail result in honest wines that reflect their roots. All this hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed with the wines being awarded a string of national and international awards.”
Asked the same question, White at Denbies – which produces more still wine than sparkling and supplies a range of branded and own-label offerings – says: “The size of the vineyard and our policy on quality and consistency allows us to guarantee supply of premium wines without annual price fluctuations.
“We are able to work in partnership with certain retailers to create bespoke products.”
Producers have convincing arguments when explaining their credentials, but the market only looks set to become more competitive going forwards. They know a thing or two about making fizz, those Champagne houses. All that spells great news for the consumer, and for the retailer.