The ‘Cloudy Bay moment’ has a fine ring to it, and when it was coined by Britain’s leading viticultural consultant, Stephen Skelton MW in reference to the early successes of Nyetimber’s English fizz, it struck a chord.
English Sparkling Wine (ESW), it was implied, might be set to follow in the globally successful footsteps of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
I love good ESW and would naturally love to see it get the recognition it deserves around the world. But, as someone who was around during the days when New Zealand was only beginning to switch from Müller Thurgau to Sauvignon, and who remembers tasting the first vintage of Cloudy Bay in Marlborough in 1985 before its winery had a roof, I have to point to a few key differences between the two country’s wine industries.
- Time has moved on. The wine world is a lot more competitive and quick to respond than it was nearly 40 years ago when the first Marlborough Sauvignons were released.
- The New Zealand of the 1980s when Cloudy Bay produced its first vintage was going through a huge agricultural revolution, following a period of crisis and oversupply. In 1983, for example, 6,000 tonnes of surplus sheep meat had to be turned into fertilizer. The new Labour government had devalued the currency in 1984 and removed generous subsidies from sheep farming, and encouraged a shift to dairy and viticulture. For an agricultural nation like New Zealand, this was part of a national effort. In the UK, by comparison wine is still a marginal activity.
- The reputation of New Zealand wine may have benefitted from the reputation of Cloudy Bay, but the mass of early sales were made by Montana (now rechristened Brancott) which belonged to the giant drinks corporation Seagram, whose ownership of a broad range of spirits brands, Mumm and Perrier Jouët Champagnes and Barton & Guestier Bordeaux wines, provided instant global distribution. (Seagram, also usefully owned Oddbins, Britain’s dynamic, multi-award-winning chain with over 200 wine shops.)
- Montana, and then Villa Maria, Hunter’s and a long list of other New Zealand wines were all cheaper than the Pouilly Fumés and Sancerres with which they competed. By contrast, being competitively priced has never been a feature of ESW.
- From the outset, Like Australia’s Chardonnays which had a similar success at the time, New Zealand Sauvignon tasted appreciably different. Indeed, it redefined the way that many people expected and wanted wines made from that grape to taste.
- In 1989, Simon Loftus , the well-respected head of Adnam’s one of the UK’s top regional merchants declared New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to be the finest in the world, a view that was shared by the critic Auberon Waugh who wrote that "It's very difficult to be the best in the world at anything, but New Zealand has achieved that distinction with Sauvignon Blanc." No one has so far seriously suggested that the UK makes better sparkling wines than Champagne. Merely that its top wines are comparable with fine efforts from that region. (Admittedly a high achievement but arguably not unique to the UK).
- Producers in France and elsewhere were so threatened by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that, once they had realised how popular they were, they made wines that were effectively copies of that style. There is no sign of that happening with ESW.
- The early Marlborough producers focused heavily on export - to the UK which was already enthusiastic about New World wines from Australia. Both countries’ industries rode the same wave, at a time when Europe was offering British consumers little that was innovative to compete with them.
- But the domestic market - in both Australia and New Zealand, thanks to the trade agreement between them - was also very receptive to these wines. Wine shops had whole sections devoted to local wines. In the UK, ESW is still often represented by a small number of highly-priced bottles. I live in Hampshire, close to a number of vineyards. My - excellent - local independent merchant stocks just five examples of ESW - from three producers. By comparison, it has 32 sherries and 11 New Zealand wines, only two of which, interestingly, are Sauvignons.
- Finally, and maybe most crucially, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has always been highly profitable. Vineyards can be heavily mechanised (not so easy for quality fizz), yields are generous and, with no need for oak maturation, sales can be made within months of the harvest. ESW suffers from low and very varied yields and needs at least a year of processing and ageing, and often longer.
Can ESW succeed? Of course some parts of the industry are already very successful businesses and others are following in their footsteps. Many of the investors behind ESW have extremely deep pockets and no need to see a return on their investment for a very long time. Tourism will help. So, yes, I’ve no doubt that English fizz is here to stay and will develop a strong niche in the vinous universe. But will it enjoy the same kind and level of global recognition and profitability as New Zealand? Not for a long while yet.