England's finest

10 April, 2015

The British have bestowed many wonders upon the world: chocolate bars, penicillin, football, TV, the worldwide web, David Attenborough, cricket, bulldogs, the theories of Darwin and the plays of Shakespeare to name but a few.

It may also have spawned Simon Cowell, Katie Price and Alcohol Concern, but they’re a small price to pay for all the marvels to emerge from these isles.

But one of the great discoveries Britain doesn’t often get credit for is sparkling wine. In 1662, physician Christopher Merret first recorded the process of adding sugar and molasses to wine to make it sparkle – several years before Champagne’s founder, the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, began producing bubbly.

The French had it their own way for centuries, introducing the world to such iconic luxury brands as Moët & Chandon, Laurent Perrier and Taittinger, and leaving Britain as the world’s leading importer of Champagne.

But in recent years the English have been fighting back, taking up Merret’s legacy and beating their French counterparts in countless blind tastings with English sparkling wines produced on chalky soils similar to those across the channel.

It is no longer the preserve of independent wine merchants in the south of England – supermarkets stock a range of English wines and it is exported to 13 different countries.

Sales of English sparkling wine were worth around £80 million in 2014, and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs expects retail sales to hit the £100 million mark this year.

Sainsbury’s says it has enjoyed a 32% rise in sales of English sparkling wine in the past year, while Waitrose, which stocks 34 lines, says sales are up 55%.

Chris Wisson, senior drinks analyst at Mintel, says: “Previously seen by many as being inferior and inconsistent, English wines are increasingly winning international awards and forging a credible reputation.”

Liberty Wines founder David Gleave says: “Our overall UK sales of English wines to the off-trade are up 29% by volume [MAT 28/2/15], with total off-trade sales of our English sparkling wines up 19% by volume for the same period. Nyetimber continues to lead in terms of volume sales – its classic cuvée is our top-selling English wine – while Hattingley Valley sparkling wines have increased by 200% by volume.

“Success is not restricted to sparkling wines as sales of our Stopham Estate still wines are up 152% by volume.

“We expect consumer demand for English wines to continue to grow during 2015. As plantings mature and producers achieve higher quality year on year, English wines are no longer seen as a novelty and south east England is emerging as an increasingly reliable source of exciting sparkling and still wines that appeal to something other than patriotism.

“While production is still relatively small and remains at the mercy of the English weather, as in 2012, the excellent vintage in 2014 is likely to result in record sales this year.”

Even the Queen is getting in on the act. Champagne was snubbed for the first time ever when Her Majesty smashed a 15-litre nebuchadnezzar of sparkling wine from Sussex producer Wiston Estate on the bow of the new P&O Britannia to officially launch the UK’s largest ship last month.

Rebecca Palmer, buyer for Corney & Barrow, Wiston’s distributor, says: “Wiston’s wines are delicious and fine and the decision to choose Wiston for such an important ceremony is incredibly exciting, not just in recognising Wiston’s excellence but also in championing the potential of the entire English sparkling wine scene.”

But a storm is brewing over the formerly convivial industry as a row looks set to erupt over what to call the product.

For some, the three words – English, sparkling and wine – are perfect, stoking patriotism, screaming luxury, conjuring up vivid, sensual connotations and evoking the rolling hills of England.

But others are unconvinced, calling for a name such as Champagne, Prosecco or cava, and such leading lights as Stephen Skelton MW, communications guru and pork scratchings supremo Rupert Ponsonby and the Duchess of Cornwall have waded in.

“Everyone ought to put their heads together to find a new English name for sparkling wine,” says the duchess formerly known as Camilla Parker-Bowles. “I don’t think sparkling sounds good enough – it ought to have something with more depth. That’s my good plan: to find a new word for it. If anyone’s got any ideas I’d be thrilled.”

Ponsonby suggested naming it Winston after Winston Churchill, but Skelton railed against plans to change the name in a protracted ding-dong on OLN’s letters page.

The debate is now set to intensify after a group of Sussex producers aimed to effectively turn the county into an appellation, or what’s known as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status across the EU.

“We think Sussex is a great name,” says Jamie Everett, chief operating officer at Rathfinny, who came up with the idea. “A traditional old county with a lot of quality producers. If you were in a bar somewhere else in the world, you could say: ‘Can I have a glass of Sussex, please?’”

Famous producers such as Ridgeview, Stopham and Bolney have joined the consortium bidding to make Sussex a PDO, with Stopham owner Simon Woodhead saying: “It’s effectively a brand new appellation. PDO does not sound very consumer- friendly but this is not just about labelling. It is about raising the bar when it comes to quality. It is an obvious next step as we are producing some excellent wines in this county.”

But one leading producer who will not be raising a glass of Sussex to the idea is Frazer Thompson, chief executive at Chapel Down, which has vineyards in Kent and Sussex. He brands the idea lazy, pointless and counter productive.

“I think the Sussex appellation is a very bad idea,” he says. “If you have an appellation you get lazy.

“If you ask consumers to name a brand of Prosecco, they can’t. We went out and asked 85 consumers and not a single person could. You then produce a product that’s only as good as the weakest, cheapest link. The wine only becomes as good as the worst Sussex producer.

“I don’t want to be in an industry that doesn’t back strong brands.”

He adds: “Sussex is just a political boundary. There’s more similarity between the white cliffs of Dover and the white cliffs of Eastbourne than one part of Sussex and another.

“It’s a lazy shorthand and I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t understand the rush to have this shorthand. It’s not being driven by the consumer.

“It’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s going to be fraught with problems and I don’t see it benefiting anybody, apart from people who own land in Sussex.

“Appellations are based on an agrarian society. It’s protectionist policy for farmers and that is not required whatsoever in the UK.

“I could make one of these Sussex wines, but I won’t. It’s a banker’s idea and it deserves to be scrapped. We won’t be participating in it.

“Do you end up with 47 different appellations for one product that some bloke in Birmingham doesn’t give a flying fuck about?”

Thompson likes the name English sparkling wine because it is easy to say and does exactly what it says on the tin.

If it is to be changed, it has to mean something, according to Thompson. He quite likes the idea Ridgeview had of changing it to Merret, in honour of the physician who invented bubbly, but says English sparkling wine is perfectly good.

Gleave at Liberty Wines agrees that the category does not need PDOs.

“We aren’t convinced that English wine is yet ready for an appellation system,” he says. “Producers will sell first on their name, second on quality, which will underpin their name, and third on the variety or style. Any appellation will be a distant fourth in the consumer’s decision-making process.”

Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager for English Wine Producers, takes a diplomatic stance.

“The Sussex appellation is still early days, but it’s a reflection of how excited people are in the English wine industry,” she says. “The thinking behind it is to raise the bar a little on the basic parameters of quality and production. It’s interesting to see clusters of people trying to improve the quality of the wine they are so passionate about. It shows how collaborative producers are now.”

Trustram Eve is encouraged by the recent performance of English wine – sparkling and still – but says the best is yet to come.

“We are at a very exciting stage in the development of the English wine category,” she says. “There is more wine coming on stream, both in volumes and in new brands that will come out over the next few years. We just started working with a Hampshire producer called Exton Park that should release its first wine at our tasting on May 11.

“The new producers are primarily across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, but stretching right the way out to the south west, across the board.”

Thompson at Chapel Down believes English sparkling wine is giving Champagne a battering in its largest export market and says the Champenoise should be worried.

“It’s been a fantastic last year and there is no reason to think it won’t continue,” he says. “In a world which demands more and more English wine – particularly sparkling wine – getting a big harvest was important. We had our biggest harvest ever and we are capable of making 1 million bottles this year. The quality was awesome in places and exceptional everywhere else.

“There have been some exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. We aren’t too far from France and global warming has helped it on.

“It’s not without issues: there are a lot of producers now and the market is potentially quite crowded.

“But I think Champagne is getting a hell of a run for its money. There are Franciacorta wines of fantastic quality that are giving Champagne a battering too.

“Champagne is associated with occasions that are becoming less relevant to the UK consumer. Sparkling wine has been about the development of Prosecco.

“All occasions can feel a little bit more special and luxurious. That accessibility has allowed it to make every occasion special. Champagne has been shoved into an only-for- special-occasions box.

“On a special occasion why wouldn’t you want to drink something English? That’s why everybody is feeling bullish.”

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