All across England and Wales, vineyards are being harvested. Down winding country lanes come armies of welly-wearing conscripts wielding secateurs and buckets, ready to reap the rewards of our vines. Happily they come, their cheeks ruddy with pride. Half an hour later they’re crawling over muddy clods with lacerated hands, drenched in claggy juice and cold sweat, as if ploughing through an endurance race.
Perhaps soldiers heading for the trenches thought it was glamorous too. The reality of harvesting is far from the bucolic ideal that most people imagine, but at least this year the results look promising.
“Quality will be good to excellent,” says Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at Wiston Estate, adding that Kent and East Sussex have the best-looking fruit, though other regions, such as West Sussex, fared less well. Over in Dorset, “everything is in place for a fantastic vintage”, according to Justin Langham of Langham Estate.
Meanwhile, off-licences are preparing for Christmas – and this year, English sparkling wine should be a central part of everyone’s strategy. In the past 10 years, English sparkling has gone from a niche sold only to those in the know, to a growing trend, to a full-blown success story. Yet most wine drinkers still default to Champagne on special occasions such as Christmas.
That’s where retailers come in.
First – in case there is any doubt in your mind – there’s no question the best English fizz is as good, and often considerably better, than most Champagne at the same price. The question is not whether you stock any English sparkling, it’s how much – and possibly even how much Champagne to delist to make room. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a straightforward decision – choosing the right range for your demographic depends on many factors.
There’s a geographical consideration. If you have vineyards nearby – and assuming their wine is good – it should be on your shelves. Not only does it benefit the producers, it appeals to the trend of keeping it local. And if you can buy, you might get a favourable price, too.
You should ensure you’ve got the appropriate styles and tiers available. The classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier makes sense, and there is now a spread of prices on the market to suit every customer base. Then, including more specialist cuvées such as Blanc de Blancs or prestige rosés offers higher-priced options as an upsell.
Branding and packaging is important too. Having the right image is a vital part of creating a successful sparkling wine brand – some of the best English fizzes provide individual gift boxes for their bottles.
Long hours and tough competition can make November and December a daunting prospect for off-licences, which is why it is so important to stock wines you really believe in – and English sparkling is an ideal candidate. Besides, if you think Christmas retailing is exhausting, you should try picking grapes one day.