Grape Britain

17 June, 2013

For a small island straddling the western coast of Europe, England has a habit of punching above its weight on a global stage.

It is the financial capital of the world and has an economy that dwarfs far larger countries, its military might is felt across the Earth, its language is internationally ubiquitous and it is a pioneer in industry, healthcare and education.

It introduced the world to Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Darwin, Newton, Lennon, Churchill, Brunel and James Bond and continues to churn out leading lights in every field imaginable.

And as raucous pub-goers love to remind us, it won two World Wars and one World Cup.

The drinks industry is no different as English beers, ciders and spirits are enjoyed across the globe, and Diageo, the world’s biggest drinks business, hails from its fair shores.

But one area in which it has always come up short is wine.

For decades English wine was considered a bit of a joke. As commentator Jamie Goode puts it: “For most people, finding out that English vineyards can make drinkable wine is a bit like hearing that an 80-year-old millionaire has fathered a child – it’s probably not the performance that’s the object of attention, but rather that they can do it at all.”

But after forgoing the substandard off-dry whites made from German grape varietals and focusing instead on challenging the grand garcons across the Channel in Champagne at their own game with blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, England finally has a product it can shout about to the world.

Sparkling wine now makes up around half of the 3 million bottles England produces annually, and it has regularly trounced its French counterparts at prestigious awards.

English vineyard

After scooping a clutch of gongs this month, Simon Bladon, owner of Hampshire-based Jenkyn Place, said: “Our goal in 2004, when we replaced hop fields with vines, was to develop top quality English sparkling wines. I can’t believe how far we’ve come in less than a decade. This international recognition makes all that hard work worthwhile.”

And we have climate change to thank, as temperatures are now around a degree higher than they were in the 1980s in both the south of England and Champagne.

Mark Driver, founder of the Rathfinny Estate in Alfriston, Sussex, says: “Due to climate change Sussex is where Champagne was 30 years ago, and it has similar soil.”

While Champagne is now struggling, Sussex is thriving.

Sparkling wine was pioneered by Nyetimber and then Ridgeview and new vineyards are opening all the time – just this week Redfold Vineyard, Nyetimber’s new next door neighbour, launched its first sparkling wine into Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton.

Driver, a former fund manager, is the man, well, driving growth in the category.

He has increased the number of vines on the estate from 140,000 to 700,000 and aims to produce a million bottles a year by 2020, thus increasing England’s total output by a third.

It is music to the ears of Henry Butler, owner of Butlers Wine Cellar, who has taken a decision to avoid mainstream Champagne brands and push English sparkling wines retailing at between £22-30 instead.

Around 20% of English sparkling wine is exported as the likes of Germany, Japan and Scandinavia have discovered a thirst for the latest trendy English product, but there is a real opportunity for retailers to focus on provenance and sell wines produced within a few miles of their stores.

Butler says: “They work for us because the vineyards are nearby and people like the fact that they are buying local produce and most of them see that the price is justified.”

But sparkling wine production is by no means limited to Sussex and Hampshire, with producers stretching from Camel Valley in Cornwall across to Kent and up as far north as Leventhorpe in Yorkshire.

Much of its recent rise in fortunes can be attributed to the success of generic body English Wine Producers and its figurehead Julia Trustham Eve – dubbed by colleagues as the patron saint of English wine.

This group was flying the red and white flag at Prowein this year and recently brought together the great and good of the wine trade along with the Duchess of Cornwall to enjoy the finest wines England – and Wales – has to offer at London’s Vintners Hall.

“The attitude towards English wine has changed massively over the years,” says Trustham Eve. “Fifteen years ago it was not taken seriously. Now wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, hotels and catering companies are all keen to list English wine because their customers are asking them to.

“This is a vibrant industry with a great future. English wine has captured the imagination of trade and consumers – the story, the provenance and the quality. It’s so satisfying to see English wines taking its rightful place as a world player at last.

“Last year, with the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic celebrations, was a hiatus for English wines and a fantastic opportunity to highlight the message of quality. There was such a buzz with demand for English wine soaring and sales booming. It has left a legacy which will last for years to come.”

Retailers agree and are buying into the category with increasing fervour.

Simon Field, buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, says: “The quality stands up to the rest of the world and, in the case of some sparkling wines, exceeds its rivals.”

Trustham Eve says Waitrose makes up around 40% of English wine sales among the multiples, and its wine buyer Ken Mckay MW adds: “Our customers are able to find a British sparkling wine that will suit any occasion or palate and often the quality of the wines is better than a French Champagne.

“We’ve even started making our own at our Waitrose vineyard in Hampshire and will be producing our first bottles in 2014.”

Despite all the positives there is always a worry the erratic English weather could put a dent in the producers’ ambitions – Nyetimber was forced to scrap its entire harvest in 2012 – and Driver admits to obsessively checking weather reports.

But Nyetimber communications director Chrisian Holthausen says: “That wasn’t an English wine problem – 2012 was a tough year for France and Italy too.

“We are all very confident 2013 will be better.

“The accomplishments of English sparkling wine to date have been wonderful but there’s a lot more to come in future.

“We are known internationally now and selling in Japan and we think the category will continue to grow in the UK off-trade too – we are very optimistic of that.”

At this rate England will soon be making better curries than the Indians and more efficient cars than the Germans.

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