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Published:  23 July, 2008

The English Wine Group plc recently defied lingering scepticism about the future of English wine to raise 500,000 and gain a listing on OFEX, the off exchange' for smaller companies. Christian Davis takes a tour around Kent, Sussex and Surrey to see how the big four producers are aiming to persuade the British to buy English

Jane Austen, arguably England's greatest female author, could have been writing about English wine. Sense and Sensibility? Pride and Prejudice? Persuasion? Who knows; maybe there were vineyards near Bath around the turn of the 18th century, growing some Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, an agricultural throwback to the Romans, who went for their baths nearby. Perhaps Northanger Abbey had a vineyard. Mr Bennett would have been an old-style English winemaker: insular, locking himself away in his library to pore over David Bird MW, Stephen Skelton, and not forgetting Jancis. Mr Darcy would have been a visiting, horse-riding Burgundian or Bordelais winemaker, and the irksome, thorn-in-the-side Captain Wickham an iconoclastic New World winemaker, or an acerbic wine writer. Today, it is not easy being an English winemaker, making the best of the vagaries of the English summer. In foreign parts a winemaker is a prestigious figure, an agricultural alchemist, bestriding the local farming community, commanding respect. But the likes of New Wave Wines' Owen Elias, Denbies' Nick Patrick and Ridgeview's Michael Roberts are more likely to be figures of bemusement and curiosity, shuffling around the South Downs in green wellies on a cold winter's day. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, English wine is being taken seriously. Most of the major multiple retailers now list English wine and the fact that the English Wines Group, aka New Wave Wines, went to the City at an extremely difficult time, with the Iraq war looming, and managed to raise 500,000 shows that even the most sceptical of investors has looked at the figures and likes what he sees. Stephen Skelton, in his definitive book, The Wines of Britain and Ireland (2001), writes: Leaders of the industry are producing still wines with a distinctly New World slant and sparkling wines that are as good (yes, really) as those from Champagne. If English and Welsh wines are to stand on the shelves alongside those of the rest of the world, they have to be of the right quality and available at the right price.' He adds: It is a testament to today's growers and winemakers that every major supermarket and every major high street wine merchant (at least in their branches in the southern half of the country) stock at least one home-grown wine. The greatest challenge facing the industry today is that of persuading more buyers, both trade and retail to buy our wines. The best of our wines are now genuinely world class and deserve a place on the nation's tables,' concludes Skelton in the book's introduction. More recently, Skelton gave Harpers his view of the current English wine scene: The strong are getting stronger and prices are creeping up, as some of the growers stop dumping wine at giveaway prices,' he said. I think buyers realise that at 2.99/3.99 growers cannot make any money - in the past buyers would take it, come back for more and then get pissed off when there wasn't any. We're [producers] not into BOGOFs and "6 for 5".' Skelton reckons that viticultural practices and winemaking skills are improving all the time, but the main difficulty for English wine producers is trying to increase yields while maintaining quality. To that end, the UK Vineyards Association is working to get more fungicides and insecticides listed as permitted sprays. Down in Tenterden, Kent, Frazer Thompson, managing director of New Wave Wines, is breathing a sigh of relief that the company's efforts to raise some capital went well, in the circumstances. The company was hoping to raise 1 million in the City (see Harpers, 21 February), but the day its offer went live the war against Iraq began. If we had failed, it would not just have been us which felt a chill,' says Thompson, who left a senior position as a global marketeer at Heineken to take a stake in English Wines. The company is one of England's big four', along with Denbies, New Hall and Three Choirs. Claiming to account for approximately 50% of commercial English wine production, mainly through its Chapel Down and Curious Grape brands, English Wines' aim is to increase production from 500,000 bottles to 900,000 bottles by 2008. To offset any dependence on the multiple retailers, with their slim margins, Thompson is looking at taking the group into pub ownership. It already runs The Swan at the Vineyard, at nearby Lamberhurst, and it is in talks with Enterprise Inns to take the Horse & Groom at Rootham Hall and the 1066 at Battle, in East Sussex. We are trying to give this business "three legs to the stool",' Thompson explains. If English Wines is to grow, we need other avenues and have to look for other profitable trade channels. If we get, say, 30p from Tesco we are not going to make a great deal of money, so we cannot rely on the supermarkets or specialists such as Thresher. We make 3 by selling through our shop, but we can get, say, 8 by selling it in the pub. If you offer English fizz at 12 or 13 a bottle, or 2.50 a glass, what would you rather have - a lager, or a real alternative?' Here speaks a man who ran Whitbread pubs in the north of England, developing the Brewers Fayre chain, and then marketed the likes of Stella Artois and Heineken. There is such a lot of interest in wine - unlike beer and spirits - and there is still such a choice, which is good for the consumer,' he says. But the real issue is persuading consumers to buy English. It appeals to "patriots" and to epicureans, but being English can add a lot of interest and value,' says Thompson. We can make crisp, fragrant whites and classy fizzies. Reds are more difficult, but there is a lot of interest - our Epoch 1 sold out in three months. You can argue about the price of them, but it would disturb me if someone said the quality was no good.' While New Wave Wines grows only 15% of its fruit, thus spreading its risk, Denbies, the largest single UK vineyard, in Dorking, Surrey, not only grows all its own fruit, but also sells the majority of its wine from the company's impressive visitor and hospitality complex. (Last year the centre welcomed 300,000 visitors. Its internal sales rose by 30% and wholesale sales increased 207%.) Kelly Winward, Denbies' sales and marketing manager, says that it lost its entire Mller-Thurgau crop in 2002 (frost is a major problem in the area around Box Hill) and has had to make its best-selling Surrey Gold using Reichensteiner instead, along with some Ortega and Bacchus. We try to concentrate on selling as much as possible ourselves,' she says. We sold 65% through here, with the shop, restaurants and a lot of functions. The supermarkets take 25%, as much as we can afford to let go, and the rest goes through mail order and to local trade.' Denbies provides Sainsbury's with its 3.99 Chalk Ridge, and also gets regional listings with its Coopers Brook and Surrey Gold. It is not really feasible under 4, but it got us a position with Sainsbury's. It works for them and it is good for us,' says Winward. Denbies is also listed by Waitrose and its Flint Valley has recently been signed up by Somerfield. But Winward laments the fact that English wines are often put in the same section on supermarket shelves as Eastern European wines. In his book, Skelton refers to sparkling wine producers as the one really bright star on the horizon', but that was a few years ago now. Without doubt, traditionally made, bottle-fermented sparkling wines have been the standard bearers for English wine. The likes of Nyetimber and Ridgeview are serious sparkling wines, packaged exactly like Champagne for a good reason - they are as good as most, if not all, non-vintage Champagnes. Cheaper sparklers from the major producers are value-for-money alternatives to New World fizz and the likes of Cava and Asti. Nyetimber has recently changed hands: with Stuart and Sandy Moss now gone, the estate is owned by songwriter Andy Hill, who, believe it or not, is best known as part of the writing team behind Bucks Fizz (he also penned that other famous vigneron' Sir Cliff Richard's hit, Peace in our Time'). Guy Smith of Bibelot, which has recently taken over the agency for Nyetimber, reports that 2002 was possibly the highest quality harvest ever seen at Nyetimber, due to the Indian summer', but quantities were tiny'. New winemaker Peter Morgan has gone for extended ageing on the lees, as practised by Champagne's grandes marques'. He says: The extended lees ageing adds another layer to the primary fruit-driven elements. There are floral hints [acacia] to go with and lighten the yeasty notes and the biscuit and brioche characters. The ageing shows through very much as improved, fuller body but with an elegant structure. The acidity has softened, but still provides the backbone for vintage quality,' says Morgan. The price of the superb 1995 Nyetimber has broken the 20 barrier. Skelton certainly reckons that Nyetimber was previously being sold too cheaply. At Ridgeview, just north of Brighton (88 miles from Champagne, which makes Reims closer than Luton), Michael Roberts is equally serious about his winemaking, employing an oenologist, Pierre-Yves Bournais from the Institut Oenologique de Champagne, and regularly sending samples to the institute for analysis and advice - which he stresses he does not always take. He tries to work by CIVC (Comit Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) regulations, because, as he says, why re-invent the wheel?'. Ridgeview's 12 hectare (6.5ha planted) south-facing vineyard on a limestone ridge with alluvial clay has a longer growing season than Champagne, according to Roberts, with budburst occurring a week to ten days earlier and harvest a week to a week and a half later. With Roberts and his small team concentrating on the premires tailles for the cuve, the rest of the juice is discarded, as they do not have the manpower and storage facilities to keep it. But Roberts is talking to Customs & Excise, with a view to getting a still and making an eau-de-vie, or grape juice and brandy Pineau'. Producing 30,000 bottles a year, Roberts' main customers are the Direct Wines operation (Laithwaites and The Sunday Times Wine Club) and Waitrose, then regional independents such as Laytons and La Rserve. Roberts likes to put the estate's flagship Bloomsbury, Cavendish and Knightsbridge special cuves and the Fitzrovia ros up against the likes of Mumm, Lanson and Veuve Clicquot. We like to show ourselves,' he says. I would like us to be compared with Pol Roger. We are striving to achieve some of those sorts of flavours.' Ridgeview is not organic, but Roberts keeps intervention to a minimum. Pruned canes, for example, are kept for a year and then composted and applied. Davenport, in nearby Rotherfield, East Sussex, should be certified organic in June, having undergone its three-year conversion period. Will Davenport, the Australia-born owner and winemaker, decided to go organic because he noticed that the fertility of the clay soils was declining. I still consider our wine to be primarily "English",' he says. The organic tag is very much a secondary factor.' How did an Aussie come to make wine in England? My first vintage [1990] persuaded me to stay because of the clear fruit flavours and potential quality that was obvious at the press. Thirteen years later, I have 12 acres [5ha] of organic vineyards and a winery that is geared to achieve that potential in the bottle. Our philosophy is to emphasise the terroir and hand-made quality of our wines, avoiding using chemicals, using natural yeasts etc., while also having the expertise and modern equipment to ensure that the wine retains the fresh, clean fruit of the grapes - a sort of blend of traditional and New World approaches.' Maybe Will Davenport is the vinous Captain Wickham, while Michael Roberts is a Mr Darcy, albeit a far more relaxed, approachable version, devoid of the latter's haughtiness. The last words go to Roberts: I believe that we produce a world-class product, not just a "niche" product. We are never going to be huge. I like to think of our wine developing, and developing a reputation for being rather exclusive and always good.'

Recommended reading: Stephen Skelton, The Wines of Britain and Ireland - A Guide to the Vineyards. Published by Faber & Faber (2001), priced 20.

English Wine Producers' St George's Day Tasting, 23 April The English Wine Producers' (EWP) trade tasting will be taking place, as usual, on St George's Day, at Vinopolis in London. The event also marks the launch of English Wine Week (24 May-1 June), which is sponsored by Food from Britain. There will be wines from 13 leading vineyards on the central tasting table, arranged in style order, with representatives from most of these on their stands. There will also be a separate 2002 vintage table to show the range of wines and characteristics of this most recent vintage, which was hailed by a number of producers as an excellent harvest. Regional vineyard association tables will be showing wines from a number of other smaller vineyards, displaying regional characteristics. The wines on show will have either Quality or Regional wine status, or have gained an award in the last two years (2001 and 2002) in either the UKVA's national competition, the International Wine & Spirit Competition, or the International Wine Challenge. In the case of the regional wine tables, wines that have gained an award in their own regional competitions may be shown. There will be other features to the event, to show the link that English wines have with regional food. Regional food groups such as A Taste of the South East and Heart of England Fine Foods, and a display of English cheeses will also be present. To highlight the commercial opportunities of wine and tourism, and to officially launch English Wine Week, there will be a seminar at 11am.

English Wine Week English Wine Week takes place over the last May Bank Holiday week, 24 May-1 June (school half-term holiday). Vineyards across the country will be opening their doors and holding special tastings (see EWP website: The English Wine Producers' association is producing tent cards and shelf danglers, so outlets particularly in regions where there are vineyards could get involved, linking in with a vineyard - perhaps holding in-store tastings. The association hopes that pubs and restaurants may hold English food and drink week'. Participating outlets will be listed on the EWP website. Julia Trustram-Eve of the EWP said: At a time when we look much more to domestic tourism, and focus more on what our countryside produces, English Wine Week is an ideal focus on the great wines that England produces.' For more information on English Wine Week, contact Julia Trustram-Eve on 01536 772264; e-mail:

English Wine & Regional Food Festival Bentley Wildfowl & Motor Museum, Halland-near-Lewes, Sussex, 6-7 September.

Wines to watch out for Nyetimber Ridgeview Denbies' Flint Dry, Rose Hill, Surrey Gold New Wave Wines: Chapel Down Reserve Sparkling, Bacchus, Pinot Blanc, Epoch 1 (recommendations based on availability and some random sampling)