English wine – especially the ESW sparkling versions that represent 68% of annual production – is one of the success stories of the global industry. From a standing start in the 1970s, it is now on track to produce 20m bottles in five years' time – the figure Franciacorta hit in 2021 and 2022.
By 2032, according to the estimates in WineGB’s latest report, continued planting at a rate of 400ha per year will have allowed it to overtake the Italian region, with a total of 25m bottles. If yields were to improve more significantly than in recent years, the UK could credibly be producing 35m bottles by 2035. For context, this would put it within spitting distance of the annual production of Chablis, one of the world’s most famous regions.
English sparkling wines regularly win awards in international tastings, often beating Champagne, and British critics rarely fail to applaud them in public. Privately, the story is a little different. One of the country’s most respected writers is not alone in saying that there isn’t a single bottle of English wine in their cellar. The sommelier at a Michelin-starred London restaurant is more enthusiastic, but says there “are only a small number of English wineries that I’m prepared to list”.
Marks for effort
Some of the frankest public comments have come from Henry Jeffreys, author of the newly published Vines in a Cold Climate: the People Behind the English Wine Revolution.
Asked in an interview by The Buyer to give a school report on “English wine’s progress to date”, he replied “In the last 10 years I’d say B+ for effort… There’s still an awful long way to go. If you compare English wine to, say, France, then the picture doesn’t look quite so rosy. There’s still a lot of wines that are just a bit odd or underripe or much too expensive.” Talking about the still wine that represents around a third of the annual production, Jeffreys said, “About 40% is good for England, 10% is actually good and 50% I’d really rather not drink.”
If these words will be unpopular with some, they will be far more palatable than an opinion column headlined Admit it, English wine isn’t worth it published by the Spectator, a highly influential weekly magazine generally associated with the more nationalist, pro-Brexit side of British politics. Written by Andrew Cunningham who has apparently taught English at some leading schools but has no claim to any expertise in wine, it is basically a letter of complaint about the cost of English wine.
Cunningham who says he has tried it, “usually whenever the prices [of leading examples] are reduced” in the nearest supermarket, has only sampled one red example, which he compared to cough medicine. English whites, he acknowledged are “much more pleasant”, but “all seem to be priced at £20-plus. For that kind of money you’re into Champagne territory.”
The Spectator has form when it comes to English wine. In December 2022, it published a piece headlined ‘A Sceptic’s Guide to English wine’ by Zoe Strimpel, a weekly columnist for its sister publication, the Sunday Telegraph. Strimpel began by saying she “never buys wine from the British isles” and continued that “Almost anything else has always struck me as both better value and nicer to drink”. For this piece, she had challenged a retailer specialising in English wine to change her mind and was introduced to four wines she liked; one she hated – “reinforced my preconceptions about English wine… both sharp and flat… no better than an average Cava” - and three she thought overpriced.
Need to build domestic sales
Articles like these, in publications with far wider readerships than any devoted to wine, may matter to English wine producers as they seek to build a domestic fanbase. WineGB sales statistics show a reverse last year of the previous 2019-2022 growth pattern. While 12.3m bottles were produced, only 8m were sold. This year, unless mildew takes its toll as it is doing elsewhere, there are likely to be between a million and two million more bottles produced than in 2022. At a time when the UK economy is flirting with recession, and with inflation and interest rates breaking recent records, will more Britons be in the market to pay Champagne prices for English wine? If not, another 5m bottles could be added to the 10.6m shortfall in sales since 2019.
Need to build exports
But what will happen after that, as production continues to grow by over a million bottles per year? Exports have now grown to 7% but that is still far behind Franciacorta’s 10+%. Italian producers can call on over 60,000 restaurants and a host of Italian delis in the US alone, and significant numbers of potential Italian distributors in almost every other market in the world. Trentodoc sparkling wine producers now share some of the limelight enjoyed by the Ferrari fizz that is sprayed around the F1 podium at the end of every race. And that region only has 13m, often critically highly-rated - bottles to sell.
English wine has no such glitzy brands, and few established routes to market. Shoppers in other countries have no more reason to buy a good sparkling or still wine from the UK than one from Austria, Argentina or Australia or a long list of other countries.
Clouds of confusion
Within the UK there are other clouds on the horizon for an industry that has, until now, built its reputation on producing sparkling wine from the same grapes, on the same chalky soil and using the same methods as Champagne.
The soil was the first of these pillars to topple, as it became clear how much excellent ESW is produced on non-Champenois-style greensand. Then came the launch of lower-price Charmat English fizz made from Bacchus and other non-Champagne grapes. The most prominent proponent of this move has been Monaco-based, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Dixon whose plans for 'English Prosecco' have centred around the planting of nearly 650ha of vines and the construction of a £30m winery and visitor centre in an officially designated 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'. Dixon who raised industry eyebrows by calling his enterprise Kentish Wine Vault - using the same KWV initials as one of the best known wine businesses in South Africa, has now seen a government planning inspector acknowledge local opposition by refusing permission for the winery. But there seems little doubt that his torrent of non-Champagne-style fizz will soon hit the market.
Mark Dixon's enthusiasm for Charmat is not shared by everyone in the UK industry, and there are some who question the arguably disproportionate influence he and a small number of other hugely wealthy investors have had on this young sector. There are few, if any, other regions that owe as much of their growth to huge injections of cash from individuals with little or no history in the wine industry.
Using Charmat to make sparkling wine is cheaper than even the most automated classic method, but there is an even less costly way to put bubbles into it - as Chapel Down, one of Britain’s biggest wine brands illustrated by adding a carbonated effort to its range.
The leading UK retailer Waitrose currently offers its customers a choice between Chapel Down Sparkling Bacchus (‘Brut Aerated Semi-Sparkling Wine Obtained by Adding Carbon Dioxide’) for £19.99 ($25.70) or, for just £2 more ($2.57) - after a £7 ($9) discount, a Champagne-method Chapel Down Classic NV or a bottle of Charles Lecouvey Champagne. Between the two prices, at £20.99 ($27) sits Waitrose's own highly regarded Champagne. Which to choose?
As if this were not confusing enough, as part of its 'proposed package of reforms to retained EU law relating to wine' the UK government has now put forward legislation to “allow our businesses to add value to imported still wines” by “turning [them] into sparkling wine in Great Britain.” How will what might well be $0.75 / litre Spanish bulk white be labeled once British bubbles have been injected into it? The UK is, after all, the country whose 'wineries' have legally fermented imported grape concentrate by adding water and yeast and successfully sold the result as 'British wine' under English-sounding brands like Three Mills and Old Westminster.
It is worth noting that all of the WineGB figures quoted in this article are based on a survey of 91% of the UK industry. None are verified or official, so, unlike Champagne, there is no way of being certain how many hectares have been planted or how much stock is being held. As veteran consultant, Stephen Skelton MW, noted on social media "Even though the UK wine production industry pays around £55m ($70.7m) in direct taxes... [the government] appears to have no interest in compiling accurate data to help the industry plan the unchecked expansion that is taking place."
Looking at all of this, an experienced brand manager might wonder whether even the most momentary strategic thought had been given to the British sparkling - or still - wine sector.
But they might also question the wisdom of an entire industry treating Kevin Costner’s 'If you build it they will come' line from the movie Field of Dreams as a workable business plan.