Picture of Denbies Vineyard - Image credit Helen Dixon
The English wine industry is growing and gaining world praise as a credible wine region. Sparkling wine seems to be the way forward for the industry with the majority of wine producers focusing their production on this style of English wine. So, what is next for this new world wine region, can it become a useful industry for the UK and how far can the English wine industry really go and can it be big business and compete on the world stage?
English wine - A brief history
The origins of English wine are up for debate. Some claim that the Romans first brought vines over in the conquest over Europe; how successful the Romans were at producing wine in England is unclear. The English wine industry as it now recognised can be attributed to a Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones GCVO CMG CBE MC (1896 – 1985).
Sir Guy was a celebrated army officer who served in both World War I and II. He was a British army officer and the Marshall Diplomat Corps in the Royal Households of George VI and Elizabeth II between 1950 and 1961 (Wikipedia).
The story goes that during the summer of 1951, Sir Guy was at home with his stepson discussing what to do with his retirement and specifically focusing on the field directly below the property. Sir Guy was an admirer of wine and keen Francophile having spent time in Paris as a diplomat, so his stepson suggested that perhaps he could plant an English vineyard.
Clearly taken with the idea, Sir Guy researched the prospects of an English vineyard, which included the practicality of planting vines on the South facing chalky slope surrounding his home in Hambledon in the South Downs.
The soil sample was confirmed to be suitable for the cultivation of vines and so Sir Guy sought further advice from friends at the renowned Champagne house, Pol Roger.
Not long after this he planted a number of different grape varieties in 1952 and went on to release the first commercial range of English wines under the Hambledon brand.
By 1984 the Hambledon wines had a strong, albeit small, loyal group of admirers and his English sparkling wine even won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits competition the same year (1984). His English sparkling wine has been served on the QE2, at British embassies around the world, The Houses of Parliament and even as far overseas as Japan and the USA.
On a Royal visit to Paris, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was reported to have served Hambledon’s English sparkling wine to the then President of France, Georges Pompidou, during a reception at the British Embassy.
The English wine industry
English wine is now demanding and turning over tens of millions of pounds and has gained worldwide recognition as an established and perhaps most importantly, as a credible industry.
A record 15.6 million bottles of English wine were produced in 2018 reported The Drinks Business.
Who would have thought that an English white wine (Winbirri Bacchus) made in Norfolk would win a Platinum Award ‘Best In Show’ at the prestigious Decanter wine awards? Or that the Royal family have a vineyard in Windsor Great Park producing English sparkling wines with Laithwaites?
These are sure signs of an established industry. So, the question remains, how far can the English wine industry really go?
English wine - Time for a change
In the past 30 years the English countryside, especially the fields in the South East of England, have gone from being apple orchards and general farm land to hosting rows of vines. If you’re driving through Kent, Sussex and many other counties on a hot summer day you can be forgiven for thinking that it resembles southern France.
A fair weather, marginal climate and seriously determined wine makers along with large investment have enabled the English wine industry to develop and grow. Indeed this is no longer ‘news’ to most people. Less well known is the levels of commitment and investment that has already been pumped into the English wine industry and continues to be.
English wine is big business
The governing trade body for English wine, Wine GB, has reported that around three million vines have been planted in England and Wales in the last 12 months. This is nearly double that of the volume planted in the previous 12 months up from one million in 2017.
The report stated that ‘most of the new vine plantings were believed to be the classic ‘Champagne’ or should that be ‘sparkling wine’ trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, indicating that English sparkling wine is the way forward.
Further evidence of continued growth and long term prospects can be taken from Chapel Down, one of the largest English wine producers, who are listed on the London Stock Exchange. In 2014 Chapel Down raised £3.95m in ten days through crowdfunding. Since then Chapel Down have also opened a bar in the fashionable King's Cross area in central London, sitting neatly next to some of the most well-known brands from around the globe.
Speaking to The Drinks Business Mark Harvey MD of Chapel Down said that ‘Our wine business is dead exciting at the moment and the demand for what we have is at an all-time high.’
The higher price that English sparkling wine commands, compared to English still wines, ensuring a greater return for the producer, means that the industry has been growing since the late 80s. It would appear that climate and ‘margin’ have met a suitable juncture.
Indeed, whilst English wine still has it’s sceptics they are dwindling, along with the cooler climate.
Image of : Denbies Vineyard
The value of the English wine industry
English still and sparkling wine is on average 10 -20% more expensive than it’s European rivals, which for the consumer is the main obstacle to overcome.
Why so? Quite simply, the grape yields have not grown to advantageous levels; demand for labour in the vineyards can at times be intense and the price of land in the south of England is high. This means the industry and any new English vineyards have a steep and expensive slope to climb.
The average bottle of English sparkling wine ranges from £30 to £60, which puts itself at the top end of most wine consumers’ price threshold. Especially when compared to its closest competitor from across the channel, this is within reach of the finest Champagnes.
Is it a fair comparison to include the two wines together? Or should we be treating English sparkling wine and Champagne as different products? Much like a Ferrari and an Aston Martin, they are both phenomenal cars but they are considered on their own merits.
Instead of comparing the two, perhaps a more succinct question could be ‘Is this a good example of a sparkling wine?’ It’s a difficult message for the English wine industry to convey.
English wine - Gaining awareness
The large buying power and the dominant presence of England’s supermarkets means that the consumer is often funnelled into familiar looking shelves with familiar looking wines from well-known regions. This along with discount signs and ‘bargain bin wines’ makes English still and English sparkling wine appear even more expensive.
The convenient shopping experience that the supermarket chains provide overtakes most consumers desire to seek out a new and more niche product. It is not just about price it is also about convenience.
Thankfully, the English wine industry is starting to gain a presence within the nation’s supermarkets and some of the top supermarket chains are now producing their own English sparkling wines, which is a sure indication of support for the industry.
Investing in the future of English wine
Many of the English vineyards are branching out to increase their turnover by providing catering options on site, hosting weddings and events, tours and experiences, even accommodation and of course wine sales at the cellar door.
This, and learning from its established rivals such as Australia and South Africa, who are known for providing wonderful catering facilities at the vineyards, should provide insight into what will make a successful future for English wine.
Speaking to The Drinks business Mark Harvey MD of Chapel Down said ‘If there’s 30 million bottles of Champagne, 100m of Prosecco and 170m bottles of sparkling wine, for England to be able to grow to 40m bottles by 2040 I feel is achievable.”
Tamara Roberts CEO of Ridgeview, who have held the title 'International Winemaker of the Year' commented in her Wine Talks British Business podcast that ‘the future for the English wine industry should be as a collective effort otherwise we’ll get lost’.
This is good advice for any industry; work together. Which of course could mean many things. With the forecast of increased English wine production and a 'togetherness' as an industry the indication is that English wine is looking to be a dominant and respected force in the wine world.