How has English sparkling wine jumped from being a joke to becoming one of the hottest fizzes on the planet? It’s a question Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s leading experts on bubbles, is often asked by producers in other countries. These are people who have spent decades trying to make an impression on the market and are concerned about how their prices have dropped, he says. Meanwhile, English fizz commands ‘prices they can only dream about’. It’s not jealousy, he adds, but curiosity mingled with admiration. ‘They want to know how we did it.’
One response has been to say, ‘We’re British. God gave us ideal conditions, and we simply got on with it,’ and presume that everything that has been achieved is merely an overture to the operatic success that is our national due. No one expresses this rose-tinted outlook better than Oz Clarke in his new book English Wine, which is not so much a book as a wonderful love letter to an industry he’s watched grow from a tiny seedling over the decades.
The alternative is to take a level-headed look at how the industry has evolved and to consider how serious the opera is going to be and the size of audience it is going to command. No one is better placed to do that than Tamara Roberts, CEO of Ridgeview, one of the country’s longest-established wineries. Last year, she and her family celebrated the 25th birthday of the business launched by her father Mike and mother Chris in 1995, close to the East Sussex village of Ditchling. Unlike many other English producers, the Roberts family weren’t farmers with a spare paddock, or wealthy businessmen with a few million pounds to spare. From day one, Ridgeview had to be a profitable enterprise with long-term potential for growth and a return on its investment.
One of the first points Roberts makes is that, even in the UK, English sparkling wine is far more talked about than experienced. According to the latest report from the 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 nearly 27m of Champagne and a whopping 110m bottles of Prosecco. So, it’s hardly surprising that English fizz isn’t easy to find. ‘Waitrose may have a range, including Ridgeview, but other supermarkets have yet to follow. And it’s a rare merchant with more than a handful of examples,’ says Roberts.
Production on the rise
This is about to change. Between 2014 and 2017, England and Wales annually produced between around 4m and 6m bottles of still and sparkling wine respectively. In 2018, production shot up to more than 13m. Of these, says Stevenson, 9m had bubbles.
A further 1.6m vines were planted that year, followed by 3.2m more in 2019. Today, vineyards officially cover 3,500ha – still only a tenth of the size of Champagne – but all these UK figures are approximate because, unlike most other wine regions, in Britain nobody is really keeping close count. For Roberts, this is ‘one of the biggest problems for our industry. There is no official data collected, and business decisions are swayed by who you talk to rather than hard facts.’ Most people rely on viticultural consultant and English wine veteran Stephen Skelton MW, who publishes harvest reports and other news on his englishwine.com website. ‘But’, Roberts continues, ‘even he would have to admit that he couldn’t be 100% accurate, because he has to do the investigative work to find new growers who’ll tell him what they are planting.’
Fortunately, many new growers have been hard to miss, thanks to 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. 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 in 2017 and 2018 of over £1.5m. 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.
While acknowledging that the heavily funded operations can ‘skew the market’, Roberts believes that ‘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, and a lot of good has come from it.’ However, she also accepts that ‘if you don’t need to make a return and you want to disrupt what’s happening, there’s absolutely a risk’.
For some in the industry, ‘disruption’ could include a move to simpler, quicker and cheaper production methods. English sparkling wine has built its reputation and success on using the same methods and grapes as Champagne. What happens when it is made from a different grape variety and carbonated – as Chapel Down is doing with its well-received Sparkling Bacchus?
Taking on Champagne
The problem in competing with Champagne 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.
Some estates are a lot more productive than others. Skelton estimated that in the extraordinarily bountiful 2018 vintage, three quarters of UK vineyards produced less than enough wine ‘to maintain a viable and sustainable business’. Grapes like Bacchus produce higher yields, and it makes a lot of sense to carbonate the wine you make from them – the same process, essentially, as is used to make Coca-Cola – and get the wine on to the market quickly, with a price tag of £15 or so.
‘It’s a really tricky area the industry is trying to navigate,’ Roberts says. It’s too late to lay down laws on how English fizz should be made, she adds, but ‘labelling will have to be very clear’. Even then, she asks, ‘How do you trust your reseller not to put wines made by different methods next to each other?’
Roberts believes productivity will improve as more wineries grow the right grapes in the right way in the right places. Unlike some English producers who have put all their eggs in one basket by investing in a single chunk of land, Ridgeview follows the Champagne model of sourcing grapes from a number of different growers.
Higher yields would, however, bring their own challenges. Justin Howard-Sneyd MW – former head of Waitrose’s wine department and now owner of a French wine brand and a small English one – estimates that even if planting stops now and sales rise fairly 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.
With that in mind, and given the need to lay down a ‘substantial strategic reserve’, Stevenson is wary of annual UK sales going above 3.5m bottles in the next two to three years, though he thinks 10m or 12m a year would be manageable in the longer term. Banks are now ready to offer financing to English producers based on inventory, as they have traditionally done in France, but if Howard-Sneyd is right, this could involve warehouses holding seven or eight years’ stock.
Roberts points out that people have been warning about overproduction for more than a decade, and it hasn’t happened yet. As volumes grow, English wine producers will, for example, be able to supply UK hotel groups that they cannot handle today. Smaller estates like Peter Hall’s brilliant Breaky Bottom will have no problem selling everything they make to loyal local fans. Exports will grow too, but Roberts acknowledges that achieving the industry’s target of 20% of sales overseas may not be as straightforward as some gung-ho producers seem to imagine. ‘Domestically, the competition is Champagne. In America and in the monopolies of Scandinavia, it’s more competitive. The sparkling wine sector is phenomenal. And you are up against grower Champagnes at really keen prices.’
When the English sparkling wine industry regularly produces 10m bottles, it will be roughly the same size as Trentodoc and Franciacorta – established regions that, even with a global network of Italian restaurants and delicatessens and a huge generic promotional budget, still struggle to hit that 20% figure.
Too many English producers’ business plans, Roberts says, are based on planting vineyards and making wine, without focusing on how they are going to get people to buy it. The philosophy often seems to be based on the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams – ‘If you build it, they will come’ – rather than on commercial reality.
Marketing is a dirty word for many winemakers and enthusiasts, who prefer not to think about the inconvenient truth that around a quarter of the cost of any bottle of well-known Champagne has gone into advertising, sponsorship and glad-handing. Roberts freely admits that UK wineries that aren’t able to spend at least that much will struggle.
English wine will still be a success story, especially for estates like Ridgeview, but a rather different one from what we have seen so far
Taking all this in, the tone here is rather less celebratory than most other articles on English sparkling wine. Quality is no guarantee of success – as plenty of restaurateurs have discovered (and anyone who saw Sony’s Betamax lose the battle to VHS will recall). And winning the first set does not mean that you will win the match – just as this year’s US Open tennis championships so excitingly demonstrated. English sparkling wine has done brilliantly, but as Skelton says, ‘Recently, I have seen more grapes being offered for sale than ever before. The storm is on its way, for sure.’
No doubt there will always be hobbyists who don’t need to turn a profit from making wine, and it’s true that we’ve only scratched the surface of wine tourism in this country – there will be plenty of small estates happily selling bottles of fizz along with cream teas and local pottery.
However, the smart money 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. It will still be a success story, especially for estates like Ridgeview, but a rather different one from what we have seen so far. And those foreign rivals will still be wondering how we’ve done it.
This article first appeared in the Winter edition of Club Oenologique magazine, published in November 2020