by Matt Walls

English wine: too much of a good thing?

Sitting in the October sunshine, chewing on the corner of my baguette, I wonder how many others have witnessed this timeless scene: pickers working their way up rows of vines, loading their baskets with bunches of grapes. But this isn’t Sancerre, it’s Sussex, and the baguette was from Greggs. There are now 135 wineries across England and Wales, and, as you read these words, many are harvesting the grapes of another good vintage.

At the last count we had 1,884 hectares (equivalent to 2,645 full-size football pitches) of vines planted in the UK, but if current trends continue this will double within the next seven years. This is sure to have serious ramifications for those involved. I asked some figures at the forefront of the industry what was likely to change if and when this comes to pass. The answer is just about everything – from wine styles, to pricing, to distribution, to export and, perhaps more ominously, the total number of producers. Just what are we going to do with all this extra wine?

The most obvious answer is to increase distribution in the UK. Waitrose already stocks 100 different lines, and represents 60% of English wine sold in supermarkets. English wine buyer Becky Hull MW has noticed the upsurge in availability and says she is aware of “a massive sea-change for the industry – so much more volume is becoming available.” Thankfully there is demand; their year-to-date sales are up 93%. “We’re trying to make more space,” she says, “but the shelves aren’t elastic… more retailers are going to have to back English wine seriously, not just a token gesture.” The key will be price. “Customers are prepared to pay a bit more for local provenance, to feel part of their local community” she says. But English wine “needs to compete for that ‘everyday drinking’ slot.”

Still wines are cheaper to produce and faster to get to market than sparkling wines; if oversupply of grapes does become an issue then a proliferation of inexpensive still wines are sure to follow. As the industry develops, we’re likely to see increasing diversity of style. Mike Paul is a consultant to the English wine industry and he thinks “we’ve hardly started yet. If you look at table wine there’s an awful lot that’s going to happen.” We’re even making dessert wines now; Waitrose has just listed a sweet Ortega from Denbies in Dorking.

But Ian Kellett, founder and MD of Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire points out that currently when it comes to English wine “the action’s all happening in fizz”. So far the French have been the main beneficiary of our unquenchable thirst of premium bubbles; last year we imported 33 million bottles of Champagne. Many of the bigger English producers are banking on local drinkers switching allegiance. Kellett predicts that over the next 10 years English sparkling will take a fifth to a quarter of Champagne’s market share. “Champagne will be hopping mad,” he says. Frazer Thompson, CEO of Chapel Down in Kent agrees: “I do expect the ‘value’ Grandes Marques to see some erosion by English Sparkling wine” with the possible result of some even exiting the UK market.

At the moment, most English sparkling wines are priced at the same level as Champagne, around £20 to £35. Some, such as Julia Trustram Eve at trade association English Wine Producers, predict that we’ll see more prestige cuvées being launched. Others, like Kellett, think that in time we’ll also see £10 bottles of English sparkling wine in Aldi and Lidl: “It’s close to certain we’ll see these types of product in the market,” he says.

As production increases more and more producers are looking to export. There are no official figures, but Trustram Eve says that exports currently account for considerably less than 10% of production. Since “these are still very early days”, she says, 20% would be a sensible aim. Looking forward seven to ten years, Mike Paul would like to see this reach 30%: “if there is a big oversupply, the pressure [on prices] is going to be downwards; that’s why export is so important – it’s a safety valve.” He adds that English embassies and high commissions should be pressed into serving English wines at receptions as a matter of course. Mark Driver, joint owner of newcomer Rathfinney Wine Estate near Beachy Head in Sussex is even more bullish, with an export target of “50% from day one”.

Red Johnson (son of wine writer Hugh Johnson) is CEO and founder of The British Bottle Company, whose business is the export of premium British drinks. “We are seeing a lot of interest,” he says, “people genuinely enjoy the wines” but awareness of English sparkling wine outside the UK is still low. Another challenge is that “the technical infrastructure doesn’t really exist yet – there are no refrigerated containers leaving the UK at the moment”. But the main issue is price. His experience in export markets is that “people don’t believe they will be able to sell it for the same prices as Champagne,” so in general a price that sits slightly below Champagne would be advisable.

Just as plantings have been growing steadily, since 2009 we’ve seen an average of six new wineries being established every year. A number of people I spoke to think that this is too many for the UK wine industry to support. Thompson at Chapel Down certainly thinks so. “A lot of the entrants that we’ve seen have been enthusiasts. There needs to be scale players… there will be consolidation,” he says. “Only the strongest will be able to survive.” Others like Driver at Rathfinney are more sanguine. Over the next ten years he predicts that production of English wine will in fact exceed official forecasts, growing from the current 4.5m bottles to around 12-13m bottles in a good year. “We’ve gone from a stage when you could wander around and sell your wine at any price you wanted,” he says. “Now you have to work a bit harder.”

Paul Pippard has certainly been working hard. Earlier this year he moved with his wife Alice and their 2-year-old son Ossie to East Sussex after selling their London home and using the proceeds to buy a plot of land. They’ve just finished planting a 2.5 hectare vineyard called Beacon Down. “We’ve stuck our neck on the line with all the expenditure” he says, but you can tell he’s thrilled to be chasing his dream. But for him, and dozens of other English families that have chosen the same path, the dream may require a little more stiff upper lip than they may at first have imagined.

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