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How do we maintain quality as English sparkling grows?

Published:  19 May, 2017

The biggest recent headline for English sparkling wine (ESW) so far in 2017 has been the prediction that one million vines are going to be planted between the start and the end of the year.

This followed a string of similarly impressive headlines which came in quick succession, including former UK environment secretary Elizabeth Truss’ statement that the UK’s sparkling wine industry would endeavour to increase its export volumes from 250,000 to 2.5 million bottles by 2020.

There was also Hambledon owner Ian Kellett’s prediction in Harpers earlier this year that ESW will have 50% of the Champagne market within 15 years.

Whether or not the industry will hit those targets is something we have looked at more closely in Harpers’ May addition.

But the other pertinent question is how do we maintain quality as the industry grows?

Despite lower than average volume of 4.15 million bottles taken during 2016’s harvest, the ESW industry is undoubtedly in growth.

Alongside an increased presence at tastings and trade shows, volume and value sales are rising year-on-year and export optimism continues to grow.

Meanwhile, producers such as Rathfinny, Ridgeview and Hattingley Valley are focusing heavily on export markets.

Additionally, even those who are not yet exporting seem to be heading in that direction, whether they are ready to or not, (just talk to Langham Wine Estate in Dorset, where they have been pursued by buyers in Europe and S.E Asia, in the hope they can be persuaded into selling overseas).

“From our limited perspective there would appear to be a rapidly increasing awareness of English sparkling wine internationally,” owner Justin Langham comments.

At the moment, the English sparkling industry has managed to strike an enviably equal balance between price and quality, which, as Connoisseur Estates director Andrew Steel notes, means “there’s no entry level, which is brilliant, because there’s no discussion on price, just quality”.

One way in which interested parties are aiming to maintain this balance, is by the efforts gone into securing a number of PDOs and PGIs.

The ones currently being processed are PDO Darnibole, submitted by the Lindos at Camel Valley and also PDO Sussex - both of which have been approved by DEFRA and are now awaiting approval from the EU.

Among other things, both PDOs and PGIs set quality parameters by stipulating that only wines made using the traditional method can be called, “quality sparkling English wine”.

English (or Welsh) sparkling wine, with the exception of the “quality”, on the other hand, can also be produced by charmant method.

Quality ESW is where the majority of the sparkling producers in this country are focusing their attention, which makes sense.

It is undoubtedly where the long-term gains will be reaped, if producers and marketing departments can continue to avoid the road paved by Cava.

But legal protections only form part of the picture.

Chapel Down CEO Frazer Thompson believes that perception is equally important in the battle to maintain standards, pointing to the need for “high quality, highly desirable, widely available brands” as footholds for future success.

“We have seen the development of only two consumer brands in ESW of any scale or note: Chapel Down and Nyetimber,” he says.

“That’s largely a factor of scale, but also investment and time. We are the only two brands investing any serious money into marketing and the only two with serious distribution.”

In terms of enough suitable land available to produce quality ESW, he argues: “The whole of the North Downs, the majority of the South Downs and the Test Valley are the prime belts below 300 feet and on south facing slopes. There’s also good land elsewhere in Kent, Essex, Sussex and Hampshire and also for non-sparkling varietals.

“The amount of land under vine is certainly increasing. Whether it’s all in the right areas is a different matter. Unless it’s in Kent, Sussex or East Hampshire, it’s not likely to make much impact. That’s where the chalk and the climate is best. And in Kent’s case, the agricultural infrastructure too.”

The other variable which will affect EWS’s longevity at the top-end is the ability to guarantee a long-term supply of high quality fruit.

The frost which struck England and Champagne at the end of last month was a timely reminder of the impact the elements can have on the delicate balance of factors supporting the UK’s growing wine industry.

A carefully managed, long-term supply of fruit is absolutely essential to longevity, Denbies’ Chris White told Harpers following the frost.

If English wineries such as Chapel Down want to build brands to rival the top Champagne houses, effective managing of supply must be a priority.

“You can’t build brands by supplying a customer one year and not the next”, Thompson points out.

“We are producing wine at the margins. That means it’s unique and difficult to copy (which is great), and deliciously refreshing and distinctive. But it also means it’s subject to higher risks of weather events, so yields vary more than elsewhere.

“To build a long term industry, we need to be able to weather the weather through the build-up of stock – in particular reserve wines.”