English sparkling wine has won several medals at prestigious international competitions and regularly beaten Champagne in blind tastings of late.
Last year the industry produced just 6 million bottles, so it is still in its infancy, but new vineyards are springing up all the time and production will increase rapidly in the years ahead.
Richard Balfour-Lynn, owner of multi-award-winning Hush Heath Estate in Kent, told OLN: “It’s still small, but over the next couple of years production is going to grow and you will see a number of wineries that will discover how difficult the industry is, how difficult growing grapes is. If they aren’t producing good enough quality they will suffer. The risk is that
it will diminish the perception of quality.
“Protecting quality is important for English sparkling wine. Letting standards slip is the biggest risk. There is more [production] coming on and people are getting carried away. A lot of countries and regions end up with a wine lake pretty fast if everybody jumps on the bandwagon too quickly.”
Hush Heath was founded in 2002 with the aim of producing a top-quality pink sparkling wine on a par with Laurent-Perrier rosé and Billecart-Salmon rosé.
Balfour-Lynn entered the first vintage, 2004, into the IWC with modest expectations – and ended up with a gold medal. “We have a terrific microclimate,” he said, when asked how he pulled it off. “We grow very high quality grapes. Stephen Skelton [MW, winemaking consultant to the industry] says we probably grow the best grapes in the UK and I think we do. Everything is done by hand. Everything is done immaculately.
“We always produce very clean and precise wines. Nothing goes out that I don’t like drinking.”
Balfour-Lynn believes the premium players should group together under the English Wine Producers generic banner and strive to ensure minimum standards are maintained, but he admits that EWP doesn’t have the power to force newcomers to protect quality.
He also thinks the idea of a Sussex Protected Designation of Origin is “daft” because the public is just getting used to English sparkling wine and the PDO is a distraction.
Instead he believes brands themselves must be developed. “Camel Valley, Ridgeview, Nyetimber – they are producing quality wines and people recognise those names,” he said.
“Champagne used to stand for a certain quality and now it doesn’t, so people talk about individual growers and houses and I think we will do the same thing in England.
“We are where Champagne was in the 1800s. Don’t grow too quickly because that pushes the price down and then the quality goes down.”
Hush Heath produces 100,000 bottles a year and may eventually get to 150,000, but Balfour-Lynn does not want to compete on volume.
“I definitely don’t want to be one of the biggest,” he said. “I want to be one of the best in terms of premium product.”
Listings at Waitrose, Majestic, Marks & Spencer, Harrods, Selfridges and various independents suggest the retail trade is backing him, while Tesco has just gone nationwide with Hush Heath for its Finest range.