It’s a wet Bank Holiday Monday, so I though I’d reproduce an article on English wine first published by Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2011.
English humour has often travelled well. Monty Python and Benny Hill were exported worldwide to the delight of local audiences. English wine was also considered to be highly amusing. In 2008 it was reported that Prince Charles had converted his Aston Martin to run on wine from a Wiltshire vineyard (in fact, it was bioethanol fuel distilled from surplus wine).
Today, however, there is less joking about English wine – and particularly its sparkling wines. There has been an unofficial Royal seal of approval for English fizz. Chapel Down was allegedly drunk at (or after) the wedding of Prince William and Catharine Middleton. The Queen served Ridgeview Fitzrovia Sparkling Rosé 2004 at the state dinner to honour the visit of President Barack Obama. A vineyard has been planted in Windsor Great Park with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And if all that weren’t enough, Royal approval of English wine was confirmed when the Duchess of Cornwall became President of The United Kingdom Vineyards Association.
Even when the jokes were coming thick and fast, English sparkling wines were winning awards, which have generated much positive PR. “A lot of our sparkling wines, particularly those that have succeeded in blind tasting competitions, have more than proved that for their price they more than match Champagne” says Julia Trustram Eve, Marketing manager of the English Wine Producers association.
Guys and dolls
The modern English wine industry was established by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, who planted a vineyard at Hambledon in Hampshire in the early 1950s, apparently the first commercial vineyard to be planted in England since the Middle Ages. More vineyards and wineries were created through the 1960s and 1970s, typically by retired major generals with little practical experience of viticulture or winemaking.
By the 1980s, though, the industry was increasingly professional and becoming more attractive to outsiders. The Anglophile Americans Stuart and Sandy Moss purchased Nyetimber in 1986. On the advice of the Champenois, they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines in 1988. The first commercially available vintage (1992) was released in 1997 and awarded a Gold Medal and the trophy for Best English Wine at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge. “The Nyetimber effect”, as Trustram Eve calls it, was the catalyst for more English sparkling wine to be made from the classic Champagne varieties.
It wasn’t just professionalism that enabled a sparkling wine industry to develop, though. According to Stephen Skelton MW, viticultural consultant to several English wineries, “The weather and climate change has made English sparkling wine possible. The double fermentation of sparkling wine helps acidity but there’s no doubt that we can now ripen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Conditions for growing grapes have got better – higher daytime temperatures, warmer nights and longer growing periods have meant higher sugar levels. We’re growing varieties that we could only dream of when the first vineyards were planted post-war. Chardonnay was tried and it just wouldn’t ripen.”
Producing good quality, reasonably priced still wine relies on affordable land and plenty of sunshine, neither of which are in much supply in England. At any rate, English vineyards are closer to Champagne than to Germany, from where so many English vines came. Michael Roberts of Ridgeview says, “Sparkling adds value to the product. We don’t have enough added value in still wine.”
On the spur of the moment
The show-success of English sparkling wines has caught the eye of some noted wine industry dignitaries. Christian Seely, the English-born Managing Director of AXA Millésimes (which owns Château Pichon-Longueville, Château Suduiraut and Quinta do Noval, among others) formed a partnership with former banker Nicholas Coates to make sparkling wine from two vineyards in Hampshire using what they unofficially call “Méthode Britannique”.
When the wife of the distinguished writer Steven Spurrier bought a farm in Dorset in 1987 he “realised there was a lot of chalk in the soil. I asked the Chablis producer Michel Laroche to come and see it and he took some soil samples back to Auxerre and pronounced them fine for Chardonnay. The summer of 1987 was a washout and I forgot about the idea until a few years ago, when it became plain to me that some of the lower part of the farm was perfect for vines.”
Spurrier presented a dossier to Jean-Claude Boisset and family at Vinexpo in 2007. They became interested in a joint venture and suggested planting the best ten hectares of Spurrier’s land with vines from Pépinières Guillaume (vine supplier to Bollinger, Pol Roger, DRC and others). Boisset would then distribute the wines worldwide.
The first 12,500 vines were planted in May 2009, from which the first crop will be harvested this year. So far 20,000 vines have been planted on five hectares, with the remaining five to be completed next year. Ian Edwards at Furleigh Estate will make the wines.
“My inspirations are Pol Roger and Ridgeview”, says Spurrier. “I plan to make a blend of not less than 30% Chardonnay and not more than 70% Pinots and a Blanc de Blancs, probably 2/3 and 1/3. The wines will be as elegant as possible.”
Despite the Spurrier-Boisset partnership, however, only one Champagne producer (Pierson Whitaker) has actually bought a vineyard in England. Michel Chapoutier has expressed interest in making (still) English wines but according to Skelton “a lot of (overseas) people have expressed interest but nobody has actually done it yet.”
Trustram Eve adds, “We’re aware that there’s been interest expressed by one or two Champagne houses. It’s tailed off because of the recession but they want to invest in the future here in the same way that they have invested in other parts of the world. I believe that land here is a tenth of the price of land in Champagne – so it represents good value for money!”
The Price is Right
Spurrier has high ambitions, then, but there still remains the challenge of selling English sparkling wine at a price the same as, or at least close to, that of Champagne. “They seem happy to pay around £25 at the moment for the top English sparkling wines”, comments Spurrier. “I must admit that this surprises me but I think there is more demand than supply at the moment.”
Susanna Forbes of the website DrinkBritain.com says, “Once people have made the effort to get to a winery, they seem to have more of an understanding about size of operation, so they are not too surprised that it’s not two for a tenner. English wine seems to be doing well in positioning itself nearer to Champagne than to Cava or Prosecco.”
Roberts admits, “(In the early days) we didn’t dare put ‘English’ on the label because it was a negative marketing move. But after a wonderful decade of publicity the perception now is that it’s very good value. A typical price still beats a BOGOF, discounted Champagne. Pricewise we’re not really competing with Champagne.”
Skelton comments, “We can produce good sparkling wine from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The question is whether it can be done economically, which depends on costs of production and retail prices. At £10 it’s not worth doing. At £30 it makes a lot of money. So somewhere between those two figures you can make money. Purchasing land is obviously a major cost. We don’t have an economy in which you can buy grapes like they do in Champagne. Most producers here have to buy their own land at £6,000-10,000 per acre. But in Champagne it can be any figure you want up to €10 million per hectare. English grapes cost a third to half the price of Champagne grapes. Production costs – fermentation, rémuage, dégorgement, bottling and so on – are not markedly different to Champagne.”
English wine is taxed like any other (imported) wine. “There’s nothing we can do to avoid taxation”, admits Trustram Eve. “We’re not lobbying for it because it’s not something that is going to move. But a £25 bottle of English sparkling wine is more than comparable in quality to a bottle of Grande Marque Champagne at £35-40.”
Cellar doors of perception
The easiest and most profitable way to sell English wine is at the cellar door, as Forbes explains: “Cellar door sales means less takings going to the middle men. With the small production volumes that most wineries deal with, it makes them vital to the English wine industry. Equally importantly, it builds a strong fan base, which is why wineries that don’t really need to open are doing so. Similarly, newer operators who already sell out swiftly and have built a good reputation have ambitious visitor centre plans as part of their winery growth projections. This physical connection is all the more important with the relatively high prices being charged.”
“Profitability hangs on retail prices”, says Skelton. “But volumes are minute and very little wine is sold on the market away from the vineyards. This will increase as the new plantings come into production but who knows what will happen to the price? Is it going to be a substitute purchase for Champagne or will it be an entirely new market?”
According to Trustram Eve. “Our (planted) acreage since 2004 has nearly doubled, most of which has been planting of traditional sparkling wine varieties.” Increased plantings implies increased production but many of these new plantings will not be bottled for several years yet. “We have had some pundits talk about over-production”, she adds, “but we are and will be producing a fraction of what Champagne produces.”
England has successfully exported muffins, cricket, Tony Blair and various members of the Royal Family but is the world ready for English sparkling wine? “Exports are starting and it is a sector that is going to grow”, says Trustram Eve. “Some is exported already to the Far East, to Scandinavia and to America but there’s a lot of potential for new labels coming onto the market.”
According to Michael Roberts, 40 million bottles of Champagne and 60 million bottles of sparkling wine are sold in the UK annually so “we’re trying to find a home for 5 million bottles.” Ridgeview exports to Finland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Estonia, Switzerland and Ireland. Roberts says, “Yes, we see an overseas market for English sparkling wine. There is less resistance to the word ‘English’ overseas than there is in England. It’s a very valid brand.”
Skelton, however, is less convinced by the need or desire to export: “I don’t see much of a market overseas. We have a massive market so why would you go overseas with all the expenses involved? Would you rather spend two weeks touring America trying to sell English wine or get more visitors to your vineyard and work out a way to increase your price?
Diamonds are forever
With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics coming in 2012, hopes are high for English sparkling wine. The industry continues to grow and, through employment, land management and regional tourism, is contributing to the rural economy. Spurrier thinks that the future is “very strong, provided that only Champagne grapes are used and the quality is kept high.”
Ridgeview has trademarked the “MERRET” name for “English Quality Sparkling Wine”. With Nyetimber, Ridgeview is working on defining quality production parameters that English sparkling wine producers will be encouraged to sign up to. It is named after Christopher Merret who, according to the British wine writer Tom Stevenson, wrote of how “gay, brisk and sparkling wine” was being drunk in London more than 30 years before sparkling wine was first made in France and nearly 70 years before the first Champagne house was established.
“It needs more than a generic name to differentiate it from wines not made from Champagne varieties or not made by the Champagne method”, says Roberts. “I want to create a name for when wines have gone through a very stringent process and to encourage people to use the name. It will be a licensed trademark rather than something that has gone through the European Union to become a formal appellation.” He has done this, he says with typical English scepticism towards the EU, “to avoid bureaucracy.”
“Sparkling wine is without doubt the flagship of the English wine industry”, says Skelton. “It opens doors, generates interest and provokes the feel-good factor.” Now all they need to do is win some medals at the Olympics.