English Wine In 2013
English Wine Week 2013, marks a week of celebration of our homegrown, award winning wines, which now compete with confidence on the world stage, in terms of wine competitions, and awards. Organised by the English Wine Producers Association, which represents over 75% of the UK’s total wine production, restaurants, supermarkets and wine shops throughout the country are using this national promotion, to let their customers know more about English wines, and promote awareness and confidence in these wines. Tastings, special offers and in store guidance are just some of the ways that retailers are getting behind the once quiet, but now increasingly high profile, revolution that is the English wine industry.
The patriotic Jubilee and Olympic celebrations of 2012 could not have come at a better time for the fledgling English wine industry. Often seen as quirky, niche, and initially viewed benignly as a form of cottage industry, 2012 saw English wines propelled on to the world stage, featuring at highly publicised State Banquets, and numerous other glittering occasions, held to mark this uniquely British year. Suddenly the British public woke up to the fact that England can and does, in increasing quantities, produce world class wines, with sparkling wines, claiming the lead role in this voyage of discovery.
Until the late 2000s, English sparkling wine had always played a support role to the main English wine focus, which was on still, mainly Germanic, aromatic, dry to medium white wine; even then the market was tiny, with quality variable, prices high, and consumer awareness low, and relatively negative. however during this same period a number of now firmly established and iconic English sparkling wines began to be noted and recognised in blind tasting competitions around the world – Nyetimber, and Ridgeview were three of the pioneers in this category.
The rise to success of English sparkling wines began in the mid 80s. Whilst sparkling wine had been produced, mainly from Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner in the mid 70s, it was the release of the Nyetimber 1992 Blanc de Blancs, which revealed the sheer potential for Sparkling wines made from classic Champagne grape varieties. Stuart and Sandy Mosse had bought the Nyetimber estate in West Sussex in 1988, having originally looked to purchase land in the Champagne region; enlisting the help of winemaker Kit Lindlar, they planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grapes that hitherto had produced only highly acidic still wines, with English summer temperatures not hot enough to fully ripen the grapes.
The analogy with, and links to the Champagne regions are several – obviously the grape varieties are the same; however what is less known is that the soils of the Sussex South Downs, are very chalky and heavy, and thus similar to the soils of the Champagne region. Add to that the climate – whilst the Champagne region generally benefits from hotter temperatures than southern England in the Summer, it is still the most northern wine producing region in the world, and the average temperature is not dissimilar across the year. Champagne produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines that are highly acidic, and almost unpalatable, as still wines, which then transform into magical, liquid gold, with depth, complexity and style, when put through the secondary fermentation process. The same is now true of English sparkling wine.
The early success of Nyetimber led to further experiments, with Ridgeview, in East Sussex, the second estate to focus , almost exclusively on producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based sparkling wines. From the early success of awards within the UK (including IWSC English wine of the year), the wines gained note and were spotted by UK winewriters, who began to put them up in blind tastings against well established Champagne brands… the rest, as they say, is history, with Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Camel Valley putting their wines up on the international scene and beginning to outshine Champagne at blind tasting competitions around the world. Suddenly the English wine industry realised that they could produce award winning wines, at prices, which whilst not at the cheap end of the market, truly reflected the quality in the bottle.
This early success achieved considerable national press column inches, and TV interview debate, however, whilst the Industry was convinced of the high potential, the average UK wine drinker, and Champagne drinkers in particular, were yet to be convinced. The increased focus in wine merchants around the country, the launch of English wine week, and the committed support from the UK wine press slowly started to build the fan base and persuade sparkling wine drinkers to trust in our own country’s production.
2010 saw English sparkling wines outsell still wines for the first time, and they now account for over half of the country’s total wine production. The tide was turning, but it was the momentous year of 2012, that English sparkling wines finally came of age, in the eyes of the English public.
2012 saw record sales for English sparkling wines, helped by patriotic fever… and the fact that what’s good enough for Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011, and the Queen’s Jubilee, must be pretty high quality stuff. The Royal celebrations and the national pride in the Olympics fuelled the success and sales of English wines, and English sparkling wines in particular last year. Support from wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants across the country put these wines directly in front of wine drinkers, via promotions and wine tastings, and sales rocketed. So far 2013 has seen record sales for English sparkling wines, in the first 4 months of the year.
In the last 6 years, England has won trophies for the World’s Top Sparkling Wine no less than 9 times, and remarkably, higher than any other country. This year, Vineyard plantings have doubled since 2004, with the majority focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and increasingly Pinot Meunier, the 3rd grape variety, used in classic Champagne production. In 2012, around 3 million bottles of sparkling wine were released for sale; by 2015 this will be 5 million, with England producing one eighth of the total production of Champagne. Based on current sales, it is forecast that by 2015, English sparkling wine sales will be only 25% lower than total imports of Australian sparkling wine.
There is a firm place on the world stage, and on our wine shop and supermarket shelves for English sparkling wines. But what of our other, still wines? The acclaim and recognition for the sparkling sector has undoubtedly rubbed off on the still section of the market, with consumers gaining increasing confidence and trust in the quality of these wines. There are now 124 wineries in the UK, covering 419 vineyards, with new plantings every year. The majority of the vineyards are based in the South of England, with Sussex and Kent, particular favourites – Ridgeview, Chapel Down, Nyetimber and now Gusborne, in Kent, lead the pack here; The warm, balmy south west is also now yielding some of the very best of English wines, led by the multi-award winning Camel Valley winery. But there are an increasing number of vineyards in the Midlands, and now extending to the far north, with the country’s most northern vineyard, Yorks Heart Vineyard.
Denbies Winery, in Surrey, leads the way in terms of size and production, with Chapel Down and Three Choirs, two other examples of wineries producing considerable volume on a commercial scale. Many others are tiny, boutique wineries, producing on a scale, which only permits sale in their locality of region. Even more producers own vineyards, who sell their grapes to more established wineries.
Supply and demand has been an issue for English sparkling producers, largely due to the vagaries of the weather. 2010 saw a bumper year, with over 4 million bottles produced, however 2008 had produced only 1.3 million, and the poor Summer of 2012 also hit the industry, with some vineyards losing all their grapes and many not producing at all – possibly the worst year to have a shortfall of production, given the record increase in sales the previous year.
The top 2 grape varieties planted are now Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, accounting for almost 40% of total vineyard plantings. There is a little red produced, mainly from Germanic grapes, such as Dornfelder, grown in the warmest of the regions, such as Kenton Vineyard in Devon, but these account for only 10% of total production.
In terms of still white wines, the styles are fresh, crisp, and vibrant, still using predominantly Germanic varieties such as Seyval Blanc, Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Ortega and Madeleine Angevine, but produced to make generally dry, zesty, crisp whites, which are fresh and aromatic. Some Rose is now also being successfully produced.
It is still early days for our blossoming home wine industry, but the success of the last 2 years has been phenomenal, both in terms of sales, but also in recognition and raising awareness amongst wine drinkers. English Wine Week 2013 continues to drive this further, as more and more of the English public are introduced to the world class wines that we are now producing on home turf.