“The transformation in the English wine industry over the last 10 years has been nothing short of extraordinary,” is what The Buyer told The Daily Express this week as it was the latest national newspaper to shine the light on both the enormous success being enjoyed by English wine producers making wine today, but also all the investors, wineries and even Champagne houses who hope to make English wine even more successful in the future.
Dominic Midgley of the The Daily Express is an experienced food and drink writer and well placed to give this insightful analysis of the English wine industry in today’s paper. The Buyer, which gave Midgley its own views on the potential of the English wine industry, is happy to re-produce the article here.
When the former hedge fund manager Mark Driver decided he wanted to get into the wine business he didn’t mess about. He bought a 650-acre arable farm on the South Downs of Sussex in 2010 and proceeded to spend millions of pounds on vines, a state-of-the-art winery and the establishment of a visitors’ centre and restaurant.
Seven years on Driver has yet to sell a single bottle of wine but when the Rathfinny Estate releases its first vintage next year it will be on course to becoming the biggest vineyard in the UK producing one million bottles of sparkling wine a year.
His project is just one example of the sky-high confidence that permeates the English wine business these days. On Monday it emerged that the industry enjoyed a record year in 2016, with revenues soaring by 16% to £132million, according to Funding Options, an online business finance company.
This news comes less than two months after Winbirri Vineyards, a tiny producer in Norfolk which produces just 50,000 bottles annually, had won the prestigious Decanter award for best white wine produced from a single grape variety… in the world.
“The transformation in the English wine industry over the last 10 years has been nothing short of extraordinary,” says Richard Siddle, founder of influential drinks business website The-Buyer.net.
“It’s a story of good timing, the right skills, power and investment. It would make a good Hollywood pot boiler – albeit it set in the remote vineyards of Cornwall, Sussex, Surrey and Kent.”
Big names such as Chapel Down, Camel Valley, Nyetimber, Gusbourne and Denbies are among the largest of the 502 vineyards in England and Wales that produce more than 5million bottles a year between them, according to trade association English Wine Producers, and – with climate change a hot topic – some of France’s leading Champagne houses are already looking enviously north.
Desperate not to miss out on opportunities offered by an area that shares many of the same weather patterns, soil types and grape varieties as their own grand chateaus, they are are investing in vineyards in the south of England.
The French are coming
In May, Champagne Taittinger invited journalists to a digging party in a field near the village of Chilham in Kent to allow them to help plant the first vines in its 40-hectare £4million Domaine Evremond vineyard, named after Charles de Saint-Évremond, who is credited with helping to introduce 17th-century London to the habit of quaffing Champagne.
Meanwhile, another Champagne house Vranken-Pommery Monopole has teamed up with Hampshire winemaker Hattingley Valley to make a sparkling wine and has plans to acquire acreage of its own in the future.
“English wine has benefited greatly from the fact worldwide viticultural and winemaking practices have improved the world over,” says Siddle. “It is not only England that is now making high quality wine compared to 10 to 15 years ago.
“Across Eastern Europe, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Georgia and Moldova, and – in the New World – Argentina, Chile and South Africa, wine standards have been raised by winemakers and viticulturists better understanding how to work with different types of soils in different climates.
“The majority of our best English winemakers have worked in vineyards all over the world and learned what is best for winemaking in the UK. The top English wineries are attracting the best winemaking talent from around the world. We are also generating our own new generation of winemakers at our very own winemaking school at Plumpton College.”
World beating wine
One of those Plumpton-trained winemakers is Lee Dyer, 39, the man from Winbirri Vineyards who produced the white wine that swept all before it at the Decanter awards.
He grew up on his family’s salad-leaf farm on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park and it was not until 10 years ago, after spending 18 months in Thailand, that he discovered that his father had planted 200 vines to make wine for the family’s consumption.
At first he was a little sceptical of this amateurish Chateau Dyer but it wasn’t long before he came round to the potential of English wine and began scouring the continent for the grape varieties best suited to the English climate.
Today, there’s not a lettuce to be seen at Winbirri – named after the Anglo-Saxon “win” for wine and “birri” for grape – all of its 32 acres are taken up with a total of 52,000 vines.
Around 40% of them produce grapes of the Bacchus variety, and it was Dyer’s Bacchus 2015 that won the Decanter award.
“There were 17,200 wines entered into the competition from all round the world,” recalls Dyer. “It took quite a while for my feet to touch the ground. It made history didn’t it? For a still wine to win in a competition of this scale has never been done before by an English vineyard.
“In the first six hours after the award was announced I tallied up the orders and they equated to roughly ten years of production. One of the largest orders I had coming in that day was for 20,000 bottles but I turned it down because we want our stocks to last as long as possible.”
“I think in 10 years time Bacchus is going to be for England what Sauvignon Blanc is for New Zealand. I think it’s going to be our best known wine style.”
Chance for red?
Unlike many English producers, who take the view that the British climate is not as well suited to red-wine grapes as it is to white, Dyer devotes 40% of his acreage to red.
“The red wine market is a very large market,” he says. “You ignore it at your own peril. It’s not that we can’t make red wine in this country it’s just that it’s more time-consuming and expensive.
“If you match the grape variety to our environment then you just need a normal English year for them to be very ripe and able to make good red wines from. Because we’re a very youthful industry, you can’t charge more for a red wine than a white wine or people won’t try it because it’s too expensive.
“A bottle of our white wine is the same price as a bottle of our red wine but it costs me twice as much to make the red as it does the white. So you can see why a lot of people have neglected to go down that route. But I think it will pay off in the long run.”
Siddle cautions against over-exuberance, however: “News of a million more vines to be planted in the next year and a record number of new English wineries opening up rightly catch the headlines but in reality English wine is only a tiny fraction of all the wine we drink as a nation – around one to 2% of the total UK wine market. It it though the right one to 2% to have as it is all quality, premium wine mostly selling at £20-plus a bottle.”
He adds: “The future for English sparkling wine is particularly exciting. It continues to beat the rest of the world, including Champagne, in blind taste tests and can only benefit even more as production and scale increases.
“What’s more, global demand for Prosecco means prices are already rising and the gap between it and English sparkling will shorten over the coming years giving wine drinkers even more reasons to drink British.”