Denbies is one of the largest and most successful producers in England. It owns the biggest single vineyard, accounts for around a 12th of total production and has won several top awards at international competitions.
Thirty years ago it was a cattle farm, but a friend of owner Adrian White pointed out the potential of the soil, which was connected to the Champagne region millions of years ago and enjoys the same terroir.
At the time English wine was predominantly a cottage industry with a reputation for inconsistent quality and chaotic pricing, but White invested heavily in the equipment and expertise needed to produce wine that confounded the stereotype, using grape varieties suited to the soil.
Today Denbies employs 120 people and supports many more jobs in the supply chain. It receives 350,000 visitors a year and has two restaurants, a hotel and a cinema. It produces more than 500,000 bottles a year, is stocked in all the major supermarkets and in 2011 it won the best rosé award at the IWC, beating 367 wines from 21 countries – a win that earned it a visit from the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
Since then it has continued to scoop top awards and has made more inroads into retail.
Chris White, Adrian’s son and general manager at Denbies, told OLN: “Winning international awards every year and to be in every supermarket – I don’t think anybody could have predicted that. It has taken my father by surprise – a nice surprise.
“The amount we invested here 30 years ago was not a small sum. The high-profile events that English wines and Denbies wines have been used for is another sign of the quality of the product.”
Production will spiral in the years ahead as new players come into the market. Estates such as Rathfinny – which will become one of Europe’s largest vineyards – will soon be able to produce wine, while Champagne giant Taittinger is also muscling in.
When asked if the market can continue to flourish, White said: “I believe the industry will continue growing. If you look at the UK consumption figures for sparkling wine, they are huge. The demand for the style of product we are producing is already there.
“We have a very strong home-grown market. The English wine industry produced 6 million bottles last year, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. We have a very strong domestic market and we are exporting as well.
“You look at Prosecco, Cava and Champagne and we are still very small and there is a lot more we can do. In the long-term future there could be a glut in the market but we are well off that. As long as there is a responsible industry attitude to it and people monitor the quality of production, concentrate on winning awards and keep up the reputation, it will continue.”
He added: “As we continued to grow and develop the vineyard and the styles of wine and the English wine market really matured we started to expand into the supermarkets and the on-trade. We have been doing that a little more aggressively over the past 10 years. Year on year we have seen pretty exciting increases.”
White added: “English wines are winning international awards and a few more serious players are coming into the industry. Because there are bigger companies such as ourselves we are a lot more honest in what we can grow, rather than trying to be all things to all people.
“We cannot consistently make full-bodied reds and the sweetest wines in the world. Some years we can produce a fantastic Pinot Noir. People are understanding the terroir and becoming professional and taking it seriously.
“It’s going from strength to strength. The growth of the industry and the bullish investment being made shows the belief that people have. Taittinger coming in is a coming of age for the industry.
“England is becoming well known for sparkling wines but we produce award-winning still wines as well.
“As long as the price is right and we have entry-level wines so it’s not just for connoisseurs and we have various wines that suit different consumer requirements it can be a success. The challenge is to produce enough.”
Up until recently, 65% of Denbies’ sales came from direct sales from its estate and to weddings, parties and events it supplies, such as Ladies’ Day at Epsom racecourse.
But the balance has now swung in favour of selling through the trade, with just over half of sales coming in the retail trade and restaurants. Big new deals with Lidl and Waitrose helped to swing that pendulum.
“That skews the percentage quite dramatically,” said White.
To ensure that it can meet demand from retailers and provide the quality and volume they need “come hell or high water”, Denbies buys grapes from various producers, some as far away as Essex. It is also replanting areas and expanding the vineyard.
“We work very closely with the supermarkets and buyers as we are producing for them,” said White. “If they have confidence in the product they are putting their names to they will commit to a volume and it will give us the economies
“We are unique in that we like to work with our customers to ensure we produce a quality and style of wine that they are looking for, rather than producing it and then trying to sell it. We work with the key winemakers at Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s. They come just after harvest. In English wine that’s unique.”
There are now more than 420 English vineyards and just 135 wineries, leaving a heavy reliance on those with wineries to produce wines for their neighbours, which is a part of Denbies’ business.
It supports a number of jobs, and is a perfect illustration of why wine deserves a fairer deal in the next Budget, rather than watching cider, beer and spirits get a duty cut while it sees duty raised.
White said: “A lot of artisan producers and microbreweries and other industries have duty benefits, which we have never had. We do feel a little bruised by that, especially because we have done it all on our own. Other people have had government support and we do feel a little bit unloved. The taxes we pay are pretty eye-watering, We spend nearly £500,000 on wine duty alone and that doesn’t include VAT. We could hire more people and produce more and sell more if we had that support.”
Retailers are seizing the wine week
Wine retailers are gearing up for English Wine Week by increasing their ranges and showcasing unusual grape varieties. Both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have massively boosted their ranges of English Wines, while earlier this year Lidl announced it would sell English wine for the first time.
Waitrose, the supermarket that has long boasted the widest range of English and Welsh wine, announced this spring it would be expanding its range by a quarter, having seen sales rise by 22% year on year.
Waitrose wine buyer Rebecca Hull MW said: “We have been tasting tirelessly to unearth the very best English wines and share them with customers. Many of these wines come from small beginnings and we are really proud to be so closely involved in the industry at such an exciting time.
“From rich reds to delicious dessert wines, the UK can now offer a home-grown wine for every occasion, which is something to be proud of.”
Ten of the new wines are making their debut in a multiple retailer. The additions include 12 new English sparklers, among them Leckford Brut 2013 vintage fizz, which comes from Waitrose’s own vineyard.
An ice wine from Nottinghamshire, fizzes from Buckinghamshire and Herefordshire and a white from Staffordshire will also join the range, and these mark the first time these counties have been represented in the Waitrose range.
The expansion is, for the most part, happening via the Waitrose Local & Regional scheme, with wines stocked in branches 30 miles or less from their vineyards. However, the whole range will also be available nationally via the Waitrose Cellar website.
Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer has announced it will have 20 new English wines available, boosting its range to 37 across 14 English counties.
M&S wine buyer Elizabeth Kelly said: “While a wealth of both great sparkling wine and wines made with Bacchus available, it is encouraging to see producers experimenting with other varieties. We are excited to be launching a Pinot Blanc from Stopham and the Elgar Promenades Dry White, an interesting blend of Phoenix, Madeleine Angevine, Huxelrebe and Siegerrebe from Lovells Vineyard in Worcestershire.
“We have also managed to secure a small parcel of Pinot Gris from Denbies, which is made in the vein of the traditional Alsace style but with that trademark English acidity running through it,” Kelly added.
Since March Lidl has joined the battle for a share of the burgeoning English wine market. The German discount supermarket now stocks three Broadwood’s Folly wines made by Denbies in Surrey.
Head of BWS Ben Hulme said: “The English wine industry is growing and is something we as a retailer are keen to support.
“So we are excited to have partnered with Denbies to stock three delicious English wines: a white, rosé and a sparkling.”
This year English Wine Week runs from May 28-June 5, but English Wine Producers, the marketing association for English wine, is encouraging a focus on it throughout May.
To start the month EWP will be returning to exhibit at the London Wine Fair, bringing together established brands and new producers from across the country.
New EWP members include Sixteen Ridges (Herefordshire) and Lyme Bay Winery (Devon), which will be showing for the first time, alongside Chapel Down, Denbies, Hush Heath, Hattingley Valley and Exton Park.
The English Wine Producers annual trade tasting takes place on May 9 in London and English wine will feature at the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton from May 26-28.
Julia Trustram Eve, marketing director of English Wine Producers, said: “This is a phenomenally exciting time for English wines.
“Our activities throughout May are part of a long-term drive to highlight and reinforce the strong message of quality growth and investment in our industry, and the exciting prospect of much more to come.
“Playing host to the international wine community at the symposium at the end of May gives us a unique opportunity to show just why England is now one of the world’s most exciting wine regions.”