Nyetimber, in Sussex, is among England's most ambitious producers
19 November 2020

Robert Joseph: English wine’s growth is unsustainable

It's been portrayed as one of the wine world's big success stories. But, says the veteran commentator, the bubbles could be set to burst

Words by Guy Woodward

Photography by Philip Lee Harvey

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One of the UK’s most experienced wine commentators has expressed concern about the long-term sustainability of the English wine scene on its current trajectory.

In an extended feature in the new issue of Club Oenologique magazine – published today – Robert Joseph suggests that the forecast growth may come too soon, and that some producers are in for a rude awakening.

Production has shot up in recent years. Between 2014 and 2017, England and Wales annually produced around 4m and 6m bottles of still and sparkling wine respectively. In 2018 production grew to more than 13m (of which 9m was sparkling). Nearly 5m vines have been planted in the last two years, and the growth shows no sign of slowing.

While much of this output has been critically acclaimed and favourably compared with Champagne, a certain dose of reality is needed. Pointing out that UK vineyards currently cover only 3,500ha – a tenth of the size of Champagne – Joseph says the problem with such comparisons is that: “UK vineyards produce, on average, less than a third as much wine as their French counterparts do in their weakest vintages. The climate here is more variable too, with harvests that can swing from a disastrous 600 bottles per hectare to a generous 3,600 – and while climate change is bringing warmer temperatures, it’s also increasing the variability.”

Bolney (left) and Ridgeview are among a clutch of self-funding, family-run wineries

Higher yields would bring their own challenges. Joseph quotes Justin Howard-Sneyd MW – former head of Waitrose’s wine department and now owner of a French wine brand and a small English one – as estimating that even if planting stopped now and sales continued to rise healthily, by 2028 stocks of fizz might be as high as 70m to 80m bottles – around 15 times as many as are currently being sold. “If planting continues – and a quarter of UK producers say that’s what they intend – a glut seems inevitable, along with a collapse in prices,” writes Joseph.

With that in mind, and given the need to lay down a substantial strategic reserve for off vintages, he expresses concern over sales climbing too fast too soon. “Banks are now ready to offer financing to English producers based on inventory, as they have traditionally done in France,” he writes, “but if Howard-Sneyd is right, this could involve warehouses holding seven or eight years’ stock.”

Many new growers have been defined by the scale of their ambitions: the UK competes with ultra-rich Napa for the amount of cash pumped in by wealthy individuals over such a short time, claims Joseph. “Leading names like Gusbourne, Hattingley Valley, Rathfinny, Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Coates & Seely all owe their existence not just to skill and enthusiasm, but access to financing. So Gusbourne, which cost Lord Ashcroft’s wine investment company £7m to buy in 2013, made annual losses of over £1.5m in 2017 and 2018. Last year, investors pumped in an extra £3.7m. Long-established, sizeable, self-funding family-run wineries like Ridgeview, Camel Valley and Bolney are the exceptions to the rule.”

Tamara Roberts, CEO of Ridgeview, points out that predictions of a glut are not new

Joseph spoke to Ridgeview CEO Tamara Roberts, who portrayed such investment as a doubled-edged sword. “If their motive is to create something big and bold, that’s not a bad thing… The marketing rubs off on the rest of the industry.” She also accepts, though, that “if you don’t need to make a return and you want to disrupt what’s happening, there’s absolutely a risk”.

Roberts points out there have been warnings about overproduction for more than a decade, and it hasn’t happened yet. She also says, however, that even in the UK, English sparkling wine is far more talked about than consumed. According to the latest report from trade body WineGB, approximately 5.5m bottles of English wine were sold in 2019. Of these, 67% were sparkling, and since a tenth of these went overseas, that only left around 3.5m bottles for UK consumers to drink – compared to 13m of Champagne and a whopping 110m bottles of Prosecco. “Waitrose may have a range, but other supermarkets have yet to follow,” bemoans Roberts. “And it’s a rare merchant with more than a handful of examples.”

Ridgeview is sold at Waitrose, but Tamara Roberts feels other supermarkets could be stocking more English wine

Joseph remains cautiously optimistic about the long-term viability of the industry, but is unsure of producers’ ability to maintain their current high price point. The smart money, he says, suggests that “in a decade or so – as the number of bottles produced every year increases and the range of styles and production methods broadens – a lot of English sparkling wine will be on sale for significantly less than its typical £30 today”. Good news for consumers, then, but perhaps less so for producers.

To read the full article, see the winter 2020 issue of Club Oenologique magazine, out now – see here for details

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