September 7 will be an important date for the British wine industry as it will be the first opportunity the sector has had to come together and celebrate not only the latest wines, styles and innovation across the domestic wine scene, but also, for many, it will be their first formal tasting since March 2020. Here WineGB’s head of marketing, Julia Trustram Eve, looks back at an eventful year behind the scenes across the British wine industry and just why everyone in the sector is so excited about being able to show what they are doing at RHS Lindley Hall on September 7.
There has been much for WineGB to celebrate over the last 18 months which makes its trade tasting on September 7 even more significant than normal.
Can you give us an overview of English wine sales over the last 12 to 18 months and how it has performed during the lockdown.
Sales of English and Welsh wines overall increased by 30% last year – mainly due to a healthy rise in retail and cellar door sales – including online of course. Customers really did seem to turn to ‘local’ and proved loyal to producers who had to close their tourism operations and switch to online and collection only sales. Retailers saw their sales of GB wines increase: Waitrose, Majestic, Marks & Spencer and The Wine Society reported significant sales increases over the prior year.
Any areas that have really stood out for you?
We have had some great vintages in the last few years – 2018 and 2020, in particular, stand out where the fruit was fantastically ripe and high in quality. The resulting still wines are proving just what we are capable of producing in this country. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have come into their own as single varietal still wines, and Bacchus along with other aromatic blends are other great examples of the fresh, crisp style that we produce, and are selling really well.
It’s also great to see a wider variety of styles coming out of Britain today such as pet nats, charmat, orange wine, wine produced in qvevri and amphorae, demonstrating to the trade and the wine buying public just what potential we have as a quality wine producing region. This year there are also some canned wines coming on to the market.
As ever, our Classic Method sparkling wines continue to prove their world-class credentials boasting another tremendous year of competition wins and accolades. Newer producers now coming on to the market are adding to the vibrant mix of styles, vintages (and non-vintages). It’s gratifying to see how our sparkling wines are featuring ever more on wine lists, and wine shelves.
Have you seen a big rise in demand in online and do you think the lockdown has helped the sector become more digitally first focused?
Some producers reported that when lockdown started and they switched to selling online, their sales grew significantly. The equivalent to, or surpassing their Christmas sales. Adapting to digital commerce has undoubtedly enabled sales to grow, and vineyards have responded positively to this platform as a means of connecting their wines with an even wider audience of consumers who are online-savvy.
How did exports do?
Exports inevitably took a hit once lockdown started. However, now that restrictions are lifting, future market development in key overseas markets is underway, led by our key exporting producers and working closely with DIT (Department of International Trade) and the government’s Food is GREAT campaign. Despite the market challenges presented by the pandemic, our exports have increased year on year, and in particular the Norwegian market has exploded, with sales up by 300%.
It meant you were not able to host any in person events or tastings – was that a problem or did you make up for it online?
Some of the activities that producers adopted in place of in person events were inspiring. We saw online vineyard tours that attracted far bigger audiences than they could accommodate ‘in real life’, bringing new fans and customers along the way. Producers hosted online wine tastings and worked with trade partners which engaged a wide audience.
Producers at all levels really grasped the mettle and now embrace digital marketing and sales and all the opportunities that come with it. Of course, nothing beats the face to face interaction, which is why we were so keen to go ahead with our trade event in September.
Yes, you are about to bring the sector together for your first industry event on September 7 – how important is this tasting for you?
Really important. Both for our producers and the trade and press alike. We’ve been blown away by the positive response to our hosting a tasting again. Whilst restrictions are legally lifted we are working closely with RHS to ensure that we provide as safe and comfortable an environment as possible for our visitors and exhibitors alike. (Click here to find out more and to register to attend).
What can we expect – can you pick out some of the key themes?
Many will know that a focal point at our tastings in the past has been our ‘free pour’ table. This year we are limiting this focus to just five themes plus a dedicated area to highlight our category trophies in this year’s WineGB awards. Importantly our focus is on the exhibiting producers themselves and their wines. Producers of all sizes and from around the country will be on show.
You have a specific focus on Classic Method sparkling white wines aged for minimum 36 months on lees – why is that?
There is still much to discover with our Classic Method sparkling wines and we wanted to illustrate some of the ageing potential of these wines. Some will be more at the premium end and what better way than to line them up side by side to compare and contrast the different styles of our ‘houses’.
What do you hope to be able to show with your themed tastings for Classic Method sparkling rosé?
We’ve seen a growth in the number of Classic Method rosé sparkling wine offerings and with Christmas not long away we thought there was no better way of celebration than these wines. Rosé throws out so many different styles, from the paler style to some that are more geared towards food. They deserve a time in the spotlight.
You are also shining the light on more left field styles of English wine like pet nat – can you explain what we can expect there.
One thing this industry can confidently boast is innovation and some of our producers are producing some extraordinarily noteworthy wines of all styles. Pet nat has grown so much as a category. It is also a chance to shine a light on some of our incredibly talented winemakers – including many smaller producers.
Do you think the fact there is now such a diverse range of English wines shows how the sector is maturing to allow for greater experimentation?
Absolutely. Our Classic Method sparkling wines, as the hero style have – and continue to – lead the way for our industry with an ultra-premium reputation and price positioning. A strong driver for our Classic Method strategy has always been to use the halo from this style as a way to highlight the growing diversity and increasingly varied positioning of all wine styles produced from Great Britain. As the industry has grown in size, reputation and confidence it has naturally led to more developments in winemaking.
You are also having a big push around sustainable winemaking – what should the sector be aware of there?
This is a really positive and proactive area of development for us which lies at the very heart of our industry. There are now a total of 61 members signed up to the SWGB Scheme which includes some of the largest producers to smaller operations and contract winemakers. The members of the scheme currently account for around a third of the area under vine in the UK.
Of these, 24 have now had either or both their vineyard and winery certified, and the first fully certified wines have now just been released. Given that the scheme membership was only formally founded last year, this is tremendous progress and we are seeing more members adopt more sustainable practices in the vineyard, winery, packaging and distribution.
There will also be a chance to taste some of the stars from your WineGB awards – can you give us an overview of how the 2021 event went, any highlight and key themes from that?
Whilst Classic Method sparkling wines remain the hero style of the industry, other wine styles achieved awards success. Still wines in particular shone through as well as some of our Pet nats and canned wine. A Gold medal was also awarded to a wine produced in amphora. A national competition such as this allows for all sizes of producers to be assessed alongside each other. One of our category trophy winners this year for example is a 1-acre vineyard in Northamptonshire (Stoneyfield Wine). We are fortunate to have such stellar judges, led by Susie Barrie MW and Oz Clarke.
All of them remark how the wines just get better and better each year – that’s quite something from some of the leading names in the wine trade. We’ll be announcing the Top winners (Supreme Champion; Top Still and Sparkling and the regional winners) at the tasting itself.
If you had a magic wand what would you most like to see more buyers paying attention to and listing in specialist indies and premium on-trade?
Thanks to our many fans in the trade we are seeing more and more GB wines listed, but let’s get them more in the spotlight. Recognising the expanding variety of styles and available wines, more variety on shelves and lists; looking at seasonal offerings and linking in with local vineyards. In the on-trade it would be great to see more by the glass offerings from England and Wales – a chance to encourage more consumers to discover more of our wines. They are a great talking point – we are proud to proclaim that menus are sourced from local ingredients. It would be great to see the same reflected in a British wine selection.
Any thoughts on the harvest this year in terms of size and quality and diversity?
As we have been reading from around the world, vintage 2021 is proving to be challenging for different reasons, and UK is no exception. We saw a very cold spring and are eagerly hoping for more warm dry days to push them to full ripening. For a region of our size, it’s always important to focus on quality rather than push just for quantity. Given how much diversity there now is in our winemaking styles, we can only anticipate more to follow. We’re not expecting a large harvest but can balance that with more hectares coming into production each year.
Do you have plans for export and trade fairs in the year ahead or taking it one month at a time?
As trade opens up again our exporting producers will be collectively focusing again on those markets that are starting to grow, namely the US, Scandinavia and Japan. The plan is to return to ProWein next year and engage in inbound visits from key trade and influencers from focus markets. The UK trade of course remains our most important priority and we will be looking at the best avenues to engage with the UK wine trade community more. We have a few plans in the pipeline – more about that at a later date!
- To find out more and to register for the WineGB press trade tasting on September 7 at RHS Lindley Hall then click here.