English wine comes of age!
Why the speciality food and drink sector should take note and raise their stock levels.
Now is an exciting time for the English wine industry. There are currently 503 commercial vineyards comprising 133 wineries spread over 2000 hectares of land. The 2014 harvest produced a record-breaking 47,433 hectolitres, or 6.3 million bottles, a 42% increase on the previous year and, although 2015 saw a cooler growing season, an encouraging total in excess of 5 million bottles was still produced. According to English Wine Producers, hectarage planted in the UK has doubled in the last eight years and is set to grow a further 50% by 2020, producing around 10 million bottles.
Undoubtedly, sparkling wine has been the success story (66% of wine produced) with an increasing array of prizes in international competitions. In the latest International Wine Challenge (IWC) results, a record-breaking 120 medals were awarded to English wine producers, a 28% increase over the previous year, including ten prestigious Gold medals. Ninety-two of these awards went to sparkling wine, so it is no surprise that the traditional Champagne grapes occupy three of the top five most planted varieties and already two Champagne Houses have committed to making sparkling wine in the south of England. Additionally, the end of May saw the first time that the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS) took place on these shores, bringing together leading experts in cool climate viticulture, winemaking, business and marketing.
According to Julia Trustram Eve, Marketing Director of English Wine Producers, this event provided "a unique opportunity to show just why England is now one of the world's most exciting wine regions." So, given the increasing profile of English wine, what should the speciality food and drink sector do to take advantage of this growing phenomenon and keep up with demand?
Nick Fleming, wine buyer at Harrods, shares his thoughts: "Quality has improved considerably over the past few years, as vineyards mature and winemakers understand the terroir. With confidence in English wine regions attracting the attention of Champagne Houses, this has had a positive effect on the market, allowing for increased investment and futureproofing." Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop's Andre Birkett describes the importance of stocking and promoting English wines. "We started stocking these back in the 1980’s and now sell wine from four different English vineyards with two more in the pipeline. Furthermore, if a wine has been featured in the media or won awards, we often receive requests for that particular brand too. We love to feature local vineyards and our exclusive Chatsworth English Sparkling Brut Reserve outsells all our other English wines. We encourage our suppliers to do in-store tastings, matching wines with other produce we stock."
Sam Lindo, winemaker at Cornwall's Camel Valley Vineyard, reiterates how the speciality food and drink sector can build on English wines' success. "Here in Cornwall, we have had a good local following for a long time, but I see this happening around the rest of the country now.
"There has been an upturn in demand for sparkling wine from all around the world and English sparkling is benefitting, as it is seen as one of the best. However, with all the good press in the last few years, personal interaction in the retail environment is still needed to give customers confidence to take the plunge. Independent farm shops, delis and food halls offer this kind of shopping experience."
Howard Corney, owner of East Sussex vineyard Court Garden, continues this theme. "English wine has now captured the imagination of the public. Farm Shops appreciate Court Garden as it is local, while delis and independents love the story of a family-run single estate enterprise and they all relish the endorsement provided by a sprinkling of gold medals."
There is an undeniable confidence now in the ability of English wine to stand up on its own merits against the competition, to be recognised and enjoyed for its own character without the need to copy another style. Jenkyn Place is a boutique Hampshire vineyard that epitomises this approach. Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at several English vineyards, including Wiston Estate and Jenkyn Place explains: "English sparkling wines have a unique taste profile and with so many high quality examples available, the signature style is becoming more recognisable. This means concentration of flavour due to naturally low yields, hedgerow/orchard blossom on the nose and, when the wines have sufficient age, a beautiful balance between crisp acidity, fullness and complexity on the palate. The purity, length and elegance of these wines are well established now and, where once associated exclusively with Champagne, these have now become the identifiers for English sparkling wine too."
At Exton Park, French winemaker Corinne Seely has a similar outlook. She describes the winery's Pinot Meunier Rosé, a UK first, as "smelling like an English garden", a feature key to her philosophy of expressing English terroir.
"During the years I have been a winemaker around the world, I have worked on many different terroirs, but I believe that the English terroir really does have something special to offer. It is a great challenge and I have seen through Exton Park that it is possible to produce something that can truly rise to the challenge of competing with Champagne by being something of its own, rather than a replica."
For Simon Bladon, owner of Jenkyn Place, changing attitudes towards UK provenance are heightening demand for English sparkling wine in particular. "Over the last few years, I have seen a clear trend of people preferring to eat local produce. Restaurants are announcing the proximity of their suppliers and British produce is championed even in supermarkets. It is not surprising that this same trend is finally happening with wine. People increasingly appreciate that we do not need to look abroad for quality; we can still drink a fantastic glass of English sparkling wine while supporting local producers. It has definitely taken time, but people are getting behind their local vineyards and enjoying the fruits of the English terroir. Champagne is no longer the default choice when it comes to a celebratory glass of something sparkling. Prosecco is having its moment at a cheaper price point, but the popularity of quality English fizz is only going to increase. The future looks exciting and soon you will be surprised when you meet someone who hasn’t tried and appreciated an English wine!”
While the focus is directed mainly at the sparklers, still wines should not be overlooked. Julia Trustram Eve explains: "English still wines tend to be fruity, light and refreshing, so are perfect as an apéritif but are also very food-friendly. This makes them a great choice for farm shops and delis, as their versatility means they can be used to create excellent food pairings, perfectly complementing the other quality artisanal produce on offer. It is also another way that these outlets can continue to highlight quality local produce. The latest round of competition results saw English still wines gain their highest number of accolades so far, further testament to our ability to make top quality still as well as sparkling wines, so there’s really no excuse not to add some local still wines to your offering!"
Linda Howard, Director of Giffords Hall Vineyard in Suffolk and Mark Kacary from The Norfolk Deli in Hunstanton, echo these sentiments. "So many people don’t realise that East Anglia focuses on the stills as well as the sparklers. Why wouldn’t you stock English still wines, especially if the deli/farmshop is trying to suggest that they offer the best of local produce! If customers enjoy a lighter style Beaujolais, why not enjoy a lovely English Pinot made with as much care and passion as our French counterparts?"
Kacary emphasises the beneficial role outlets like his can play for the English wine industry in general. "As a food outlet for local produce, we believe it's just as important to get to know our local winemakers as it is to know about local cheeses etc.. Through the support of an independent shop, we can help grow the market, not to mention the differentiation shops like ours offer over the supermarkets and specialist off-licenses."
All images provided by the vineyards, unless otherwise stated.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 edition of Speciality Food Magazine.