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English Wine Week: Sparkling still on top

Published:  22 June, 2023

Yesterday (21 June), a panel of English wine’s heaviest hitters convened at 67 Pall Mall, chaired by Harpers’ columnist Guy Woodward, to discuss the trajectory of our homegrown wine and its standing on the world stage.

It was just one of several events to take place to celebrate English Wine Week, an initiative that has infiltrated mainstream media thanks to the likes of Chapel Down going incognito in Champagne, or Lyme Bay offering £2.67 vineyard tours via retail partner Aldi

The first English Wine Week was launched in 2006 when Laura Rhys MS was a sommelier struggling to convince consumers of the merits of English sparkling, “it was like I was a dentist”, she said, noting how far the English scene had come in such a short space of time. Now, Rhys, a brand ambassador for Gusbourne Estate, can legitimately pitch the Fifty-One Degrees North, Gusbourne’s new prestige cuvée (and the most expensive English wine on the market at £195), against the likes of Dom Perignon, Ferrari Trento Doc and Moët & Chandon.

Few would have predicted English sparklings' phenomenal rise two decades ago, last year, the UK enjoyed a record year at the Decanter World Wine Awards including 50 wines for Best in Show (all sparkling), further illustrating the category’s standing on the world stage.

As ever, with the topic of English wine, the elephant in the room was climate change, and whether it is a net benefit for the UK wine industry. According to WineGB, hectarage has more than doubled in just eight years and quadrupled since the turn of the millennium. The increase in plantings has also coincided with the UK’s ten warmest years on record, which have all occurred since 2002. 

The average growing season temperature (typically between April-October) in UK wine regions is currently estimated to be 14°C – an increase of 1°C since 1981(International Viticulture and Enology Society data). As a result, climate change could well create opportunities for more varieties and wine styles in the UK over the next two decades, particularly Pinot Noir. 

Before 2004 the dominant grape varieties grown in the UK were cooler-climate tolerant Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc and Müller-Thurgau, however, the story in 2022 painted a different picture. According to the latest Wine GB figures, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Bacchus respectively represent 31%, 29%, 9% and 8% of the total planted area.

In 2022, total production was up by 36% YOY to 12.2 million bottles (91,323hl), of which 68% was sparkling and 32% still. Over the last five years, UK production has been consistently ⅔ sparkling and ⅓ still, with 80% of plantings coming from Champagne varietals. However, with more favourable conditions for still wine seemingly on the horizon, should UK wine still hang its hat on the sparkling category?

Tom Hewson, author of Tim Atkin MW’s English Wine Report said: “In a word, yes, because I think the majority of the grapes grown in English vineyards are more suited to sparkling wine styles, and I think what we’ve seen in the last few years is similar to what happened in the late 90s when we started to realise we could make sparkling wine out of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in this country. 

“Within the last five years, we’ve similarly realised we can make still wine out of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and to be honest, the amount of vineyards in the UK that are growing still wine grapes of that quality is still probably in the low hundreds of hectares in the UK, which is the equivalent of one village in France worth of vineyard area.”

In the UK we produce 12 million bottles a year, Dom Perignon alone produces roughly 5 million, and it is this scarcity that contributes to the high price point of English wine.

To this point, James Lambert, MD and head winemaker Lyme Bay Winery said: “It costs a lot of money to produce wine in the UK, we are a marginal climate, and as such yields are variable. I think you have to make a choice, you have to realise very early on you are not going to be able to compete on price with some of the other major wine regions.”

With the issue of still wine, it is more about curbing consumers' expectations, an English red is never going to be comparable to Bordeaux and Burgundy, but then again, by what standard would you take an English still red over anything else in the world, particularly in the £20-£30 price range?

Truly great British brands normally break through the glass ceiling once they finally gain recognition on the world stage like Aston Martin, Burberry, The Beatles and, arguably, English sparkling. By contrast, you can count the number of world-renowned prizes English still wines have won on one hand. 

Hewson said: “Let’s be honest, today, if you’ve got £20 to spend, England might not be the absolute best way to spend it, and I think that’s equally the case, perhaps, with sparkling wine, but I don’t think that’s really the point.”

He continued: “It isn’t really the point with anything we buy, because we’re interested in the story, the individuality and the character of it, and if we pay a 20/30% premium to find that, it’s not a flat market, I don’t think we should get too hung up [on price] unless it goes completely out of control.”

This is the kind of statement more likely to fly in the quarters of St James’ Room in 67 Pall Mall, than, say, a Wetherspoons pub. Everyone has a price point, and it’s one of the biggest challenges English wine faces, particularly in a still category that produces mixed results. Stories and intrigue might be enough for other ‘hype’ products like clothing and jewellery, but for a perishable good like English still wine (with typically poor ageing credentials) the liquid itself needs to come to the fore.

Some might argue that English wine can compete in the £20 bracket, which is a smaller consumer bracket and a more captive audience than the under £6 category (the majority of UK wine drinkers), but this is only on the basis that it has a good ‘story’. If English still wine is going to compete in this country at the aforementioned price point then the fact that it has been sourced from Sussex or has a funky label is not enough. For that reason, English sparkling will continue to be the flagship for UK wine for some time to come, because the liquid in the glass compares favourably to its Champagne contemporaries.