Thu 11 Oct 2012

English Sparkling Wine: The Future?

By

After the Jubilee and Olympic fanfare, English fizz is back in the news. This time, however, it concerns the decision by England’s biggest wine estate, Nyetimber, to scrap their 2012 harvest. The very summer in which its wines were served on the royal barge was so wet that the grapes did not ripen well enough.

Nyetimber

Nyetimber

Nyetimber are certainly to be commended for doing the right thing under difficult circumstances, and it must be stressed that their situation does not necessarily echo that in every English vineyard this year: other perspectives on the harvest have been far more positive.

It does however bring one of the many challenges faced by the industry into sharp focus after the PR success of the summer months. Last month, the great and the good of the UK wine trade convened to discuss this and other topics in a fascinating seminar held by the Institute of Masters of Wine at London’s Vinters’ Hall. The discussion began by noting that there is a sense of English sparkling wine being ‘on the cusp’ of greater exposure and appreciation.

A valid assumption, or are we still looking at the situation through Union Jack-tinted glasses?

Stephen Skelton MW knows better than most the difficulty posed by growing grapes in England, having planted in 1977 what is now Chapel Down. He emphasised that no other wine-producing country has a climate directly comparable to England’s, and at this time where Champagne associations come thicker and faster than ever, this plain fact should not be forgotten.

Certainly this fact is all the more pertinent given Nyetimber’s subsequent decision, yet the wider trend of climate change has had its advantages: in the time since Skelton planted Chapel Down, the potential alcohol of English grapes has doubled. The warmer nights are a particular advantage, as they give the vines more time to photosynthesise during the day. It is the variation in yield from year to year, however, that he sees as a problem: how can English producers grow grapes economically when the sword of Damocles appears so sharp?

Picking at Chapel Down Vineyards in Tenterden, Kent

Picking at Chapel Down Vineyards in Tenterden, Kent

David Cowderoy has been a part of the English wine industry since the 1960s. He focused on the rapid expansion of vineyards and the springing up of new properties as the cause for concern, having seen first hand the rapid shrinking of English wine in the 1990s. This was a hugely significant and exceptionally well-timed event: the collapse of Liebfraumilch ensured producers in England making similar wines either changed their game or stopped altogether.

Between 1993 and 2004, the area under vine in the UK fell by almost 30%. Without this reduction in quantity and subsequent focus on quality, he maintained that English wine would still be considered little more than a novelty by consumers.

The influx of new vines and producers brings enormous challenges. How will producers distinguish themselves from one another, for instance? The majority are small scale and making similar products (Champagne method, Champagne grapes and Champagne prices). Few retailers and distributors will have room for more than one or two such producers on their books, and (he asked us to pardon the pun) a bottleneck could well result.

Mike Roberts

Mike Roberts

‘The biggest danger to the English sparkling wine industry,’ said Mike Roberts (owner of Ridgeview and currently chairman of English Wine Producers), ‘is the industry itself.’ He maintains, understandably, that there is much that England needs to learn from Champagne: a greater stock of reserve wines is needed, for instance, and crucially, better farming procedures. The continued expansion threatens to undermine sustainability, by which we may also, of course, mean profitability.

This concern was shared by Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, global wine director of mail order company Direct Wines. England has 1,522 hectares under vines at present, and projected figures indicate that the figure will be over 5,200ha by 2025. With such a huge amount of market share in either cheap or bulk-discounted Champagnes, it is difficult to envision how this increase in production will find a solid market under the current circumstances.

One solution could well be to export, cultivating and taking advantage of the cachet England enjoys in many parts of the world as a ‘luxury’/‘heritage’ brand. And marketing represents a chink in the English sparkling wine industry’s armour. Particularly compared to Champagne, where on average 27% of big houses’ budgets are devoted to branding and marketing. Budgets and business plans in England simply do not account for anything similar at present.

We undertook a blind tasting of six sparkling wines at the seminar, ranking them in order of preference. The results were totted up and were as follows (1 being the overall favourite):

1. Roederer Brut Premier, NV (Champagne)
2. Nyetimber ‘The Netherland’, 2009 (England)
=3. Ridgeview Grosvenor, 2007 (England)
=3. Roederer Quartet, NV (California)
5. Cloudy Bay Pelorus, NV (New Zealand)
6. Brut Graham Beck, NV (South Africa)

As this and countless other tastings elsewhere show, while the future is strewn with challenges, the one thing that is not in doubt is the quality of English sparkling wine. Nyetimber, whose wine was actually my favourite in the blind tasting, have based their recent decision on the importance of maintaining this quality and integrity. The future is looking more interesting than ever.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Categories : England, Wine Tastings

Comments

  1. Jerry W says:

    Interesting topic!

    You may not agree, but my impression is that most “consumers” to this day still think that “English wine would still be considered little more than a novelty.” After all, where do we stand in volume terms, compared to say.. Uzbekhistan? Slovenia?

    I have drunk many English wines, and spoken to many wine producers over the years. I remember being told, rightly or wrongly, that in a good year, grapes are the most profitable single crop per acre that one can grow in England.

    In a year like the current one, not.. and one must hope it balances out overall. I do sympathise though.

  2. The nub seems to me to be the quality of the wine versus marketing spend in creating a brand. Champange generically has that. But to those who discern there is a lot of NV champagne best sprayed by racing drivers or mixed with orange juice. Creating a brand will require volume to work economically and higher selling prices. A personal favourite of many years is Breaky Bottom.

  3. Hugh says:

    As ever comparing English sparkling wine and champagne is done with usually only 1 or 2 examples of each, and a single vintage. Can we match champagnes consistency and are we offering good value at current price points. Consumers are not stupid and with volume, the price will need to be right (right not cheap). Costs doubtless mean we can’t compete with the new world on price, so quality is key, and we need to make sure we retain a uniqueness both in a consistent English style and flavor (terroir?), and some sort of consistent marketing approach. Export is key, as well as brand building, both for individual producers and the industry as a whole.

  4. Nick Beecheno says:

    I am the tours and cellar door manager at Furleigh Estate vineyard and winery in Dorset. Since planting in 2005 we have won a raft of awards including a silver in the Decanter awards this year, gold in the sommelier awards, best sparkling wine in the country for our Classic Cuvee in the UKVA along with four of the fourteen gold medals, not to mention winemaker of the year for our very talented Ian Edwards. I have people coming in for tastings and tours who are both amazed and delighted at the quality of our wines. I believe we have (despite the variability of the seasons) reasons for optimism as long as there are companies who can see further than the end of their nose, and concentrate on building a uk industry based on quality, because as we have proved it is very possible.

  5. Robin Smith says:

    Has anyone tried the new Gusbourne Guinivere – an English still Chardonnay? Had first bottle the other day and was amazed. Worth a look by the Society.

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