Written by Courtney Schiessl
In just a few years, English sparkling wine has risen from obscurity to land on the tips of industry tongues and the tops of trend lists. The wine trade praises the high quality of these sparkling wines, drawing natural similarities to Champagne due to the mandated use of the traditional method, as well as the marine subsoil stemming from the Paris Basin that also runs through the Champagne region. Critical reviews are glowing, and even consumer publications are highlighting high-quality sparkling wine from England. Overall, the future for English fizz seems, well, sparkling.
But despite this fervor, the country still has obstacles to overcome in order to solidify its status as a high-quality, widely recognized wine region, rather than a short-lived novelty. The rapid evolution of this category points to the opportunities for this new winemaking country, and also to the climatic, legislative, and logistical challenges facing England on its journey toward sustainable, long-term success.
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The History of English Wine
Modern English viticulture emerged in 1952 when the first commercial vineyard was planted at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire. In the early decades of English wine, hybrids like Seyval Blanc and German crosses like Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus dominated vineyards and made uninspiring and acidic still wines.
“They made wine that didn’t exactly set the world on fire,” says Simon Robinson, the chairman of Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) and the founder of Hattingley Valley in Hampshire. Things changed in 1988, when an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, recognized the parallels between the chalky soils of southern England and Champagne and decided to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier at their Nyetimber estate in Sussex, with the explicit notion of making traditional method sparkling wine. Says Robinson, “That was the key insight that’s triggered everything.”
When Nyetimber’s sparklers began winning awards in the mid- to late-1990s, producers took notice, some establishing new wineries and others converting production from still to sparkling. The growth has been rapid; the amount of land under vine has quadrupled to 3,578 hectares since 2000, increasing by 83% since 2015 alone. The average vineyard size is also growing among the 522 commercial vineyards established by 2017. (WineGB doesn’t have current vineyard statistics, but Robinson estimates that the number of vineyards is now around 600.) Increasingly, farmers are planting vines as crop diversification, and fruit growers are shifting to grape cultivation.
The number of wineries in England and Wales has risen as well—164 as of 2018, according to WineGB—each with different grape-sourcing and production strategies. Some, like Nyetimber and Gusbourne, use only estate-grown fruit, while others, like Digby, adopt a négociant model and only use purchased fruit. Many more fall somewhere in the middle, spreading out the growing risk in a variable climate by supplementing estate fruit with grapes from other counties. Ridgeview and Hattingley Valley, for instance, own vineyards and also maintain purchasing relationships with growers.
The size of producer varies as well, though there are no massive wineries in England. The country experienced a record vintage in 2018, reaching 15.6 million bottles. This was up from 5.9 million in the difficult 2017 vintage, and Robinson notes that production averages around 12 million bottles in a good year. Nyetimber produced 1 million bottles in 2018, a record amount for them as well as, they believe, any English producer. But there are more small, family-owned upstarts launching as well, like Harrow & Hope, a husband-and-wife operation that first planted vines in 2010.
Robinson, who only started Hattingley Valley in 2008, draws parallels to how the American industry has developed: with an entrepreneurial spirit. “I tend to refer to England as the New World in the Old World,” he says. “We don’t have the restrictions and traditions that the Old World has because we haven’t been growing and making wine for very long.”
While viticulture has become more viable as temperatures have warmed, England’s climate is still a hurdle in the quest for long-term sustainability. “The weather is always the biggest challenge,” says Robinson. The South Downs of England hover around a latitude of 51 degrees, 2 degrees north of Champagne, so temperatures are quite a bit cooler, making ripening more difficult. While many point to climate change as an opportunity for England, particularly as other regions struggle with preserving acidity and managing overripeness, the country is also famously wet, which creates additional problems.
“In Champagne, in the middle of France, it’s not a coastal climate,” notes Steve Graf, the co-founder of Valkyrie Selections in New York, which imports Nyetimber and Hattingley Valley. “You aren’t influenced by an ocean.” Rot and botrytis pressure can affect quality during the growing season, and cool, rainy conditions at flowering can seriously hamper quantity. In contrast to most other wine regions, higher yields generally indicate top-quality vintages. “Higher yield means higher quality, because that means you’ve had a warmer growing season with good set and good maturity,” Graf explains. “It’s antithetical to what you would normally think.”
This challenging climate means that vintage variation is huge. Rain at flowering and a cool, wet summer made 2012 a dismal vintage; most producers struggled to produce any wine at all. But 2018 was England’s best vintage yet, with no frost, no rain at flowering, and a long, hot summer. Robinson refers to it as a 150% production year, and many wineries scrambled to find storage for all of their fruit. Though 2018 indicates a promising trajectory, these wide vintage swings make winery business models difficult. “I don’t think any other region could sustain that low yield,” Graf comments.
However, Tamara Roberts, the CEO of Ridgeview in Sussex, is quick to point out that England’s climate and geology are not homogenous. “The average rainfall across England is regionalized,” she explains, noting that southeast England, where viticulture is concentrated, has a bit of a rain shadow from continental Europe. “It’s no surprise that much of the grapegrowing happens in eastern counties—it is much drier, with more sunshine hours, but we are still very cool.” And while southeastern counties like Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent all have chalklands, topped with green sand stemming from decomposing chalk, the regions are geologically diverse.
Though the notion of making sparkling wine in England may not have occurred until the late 1980s, the style is successful in this marginal climate. “The Champagne method is designed to vinify grapes that are fundamentally immature by many standards, so it works,” says Robinson. At harvest—which typically begins in early October for producers of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, though in recent years it has been earlier—grapes come in around 10% ABV, with high acidity, around 10 to 12 grams per liter. “One thing to watch will be the acidity of English sparkling wines, which can be our Achilles heel,” comments Cherie Spriggs, the head winemaker at Nyetimber. Dosage is often used to balance this acidity, Graf explains, with the amount of dosage often equaling the acidity of the wine, and deacidification is also permitted.
Unlike countries and regions around the world that are increasingly broken down into smaller and smaller sub-appellations, England’s wines are produced under a simple legislative banner: a country-wide England PDO and PGI. When the volume of wine produced in the country reached a threshold that required compliance with EU standards, these country-wide appellations were created quickly and officially launched in 2011.
“Necessarily, it was very broad because it was difficult to think of what the right rules and regulations would be,” says Roberts. “There is no regionality. It is very generic in that way because that’s how the production is happening—the grapes are being produced in a different county and are moving across England for winemaking.” Although 76% of the vineyards in England and Wales are located in southeast England, vines are planted as far north as Yorkshire—and they are all considered equal under the England PDO.
The PDO and PGI designations also cover a huge range of grape varieties—around 90, ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon to Scheurebe—though PDO sparkling wines may only be produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir Précoce (Frühburgunder), Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. PDO sparklers must also undergo secondary fermentation in bottle and age on the lees for at least nine months, but Champagne-like residual sugar requirements for sweetness level labeling or extended aging requirements for vintage wines are not included in legislation. All PDO sparkling wines must also undergo a tasting assessment, but it is a no-fault test for commercial acceptability.
If these standards seem lax, it’s because those drafting legislation feared that restrictions might hinder the fledgling industry. “People want to encourage innovation,” says Robinson. Adds Tamara Roberts, “There’s a time for innovation and a time for regulation. Regulation comes when there is a threat of something to disrupt.” For the most part, producers self-regulate—many producers age their sparkling wines on the lees for longer than the mandated minimum, and Nyetimber, for instance, follows EU standards for terms like brut and demi-sec.
At this early stage of the English wine industry, many producers think that restrictions will do more harm than good. “Individual producers currently have the flexibility to decide how they produce their wines,” Spriggs says, “and it would be a shame if any legal regulations or requirements removed that flexibility necessary for a growing wine industry.” From Robinson’s view, inferior wines could be produced either way. “I don’t think any restrictions will stop people from producing poorer quality wine if someone wants to do it,” he offers. “There are plenty of low-quality wines available in France.”
But as the English sparkling wine industry gains more traction, questions about standardizing labeling terms and enacting additional aging requirements are raised more frequently, so there may be changes down the line. This is particularly true as the industry grapples with Brexit. Because the standards for English wine were created under the EU, WineGB must draft appellation standards outside of the EU, a project that is currently a key priority for the organization.
Still, the question of regionality is inevitable, and producers and industry experts are divided. The issue became top-of-mind when a group of Sussex wine producers, led by Rathfinny Estate, submitted a petition for a new Sussex PDO that was approved by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) in early 2016. Proponents of enacting regional appellations argue that the specificity will lead to better consumer understanding and consistent, terroir-driven quality. Opponents fear that it will fracture the burgeoning wine country, slowing momentum and creating confusion. “The general view is that it’s not very helpful because the English industry is very small by almost any standard,” explains Robinson.
Currently, producers meeting the qualifications laid out in the petition may use the label “Sussex Quality Wine,” as the PDO has not yet been approved by the EU, a pending status that will likely remain unchanged, given the conditions of Brexit. (England does have one other PDO—the Darnibole PDO—which is only allowed for a specific vineyard of Bacchus produced at Carmel Valley.)
“I think that’s a natural next step, but it’s very contentious,” says Roberts.
As a young sparkling wine industry, England faces logistical challenges for commercial viability as well. For labor, grapes, and materials, demand typically outstrips supply, creating competition-driven price surges that translate into the wine’s cost.
“The biggest hurdle is price point,” asserts Graf. Wholesale prices of English sparkling wines often equal those of Champagne—starting around $30 and going up to $50 or $60. “I think that comes from a couple of things,” he adds, “including a total lack of consistency for yield. And it’s such a new sparkling wine industry that the economies of scale aren’t there yet.” England relies on seasonal workers from countries like Romania, Poland, and Lithuania, and with Brexit looming, it’s unclear whether EU residents will be able to work freely in England.
Skilled winery workers are also difficult to find, as there aren’t local educational institutions for these professions, and the culture for the jobs didn’t exist until recently. “We don’t have the land costs; however, the cost of labor is expensive, with a high cost of living over here,” says Roberts. “We don’t have a ready marketplace of skilled viticultural or winemaking labor. We need to invest in training.”
The supply market for grapes is also a concern. While new vineyard plantings will ideally work to alleviate shortages, there is a worry that too much planting could create a surplus. Moreover, not all of these new vineyards are created equal. “There needs to be a grading of growers or vineyards,” says Roberts. “There are many new growers out there who are not doing the due diligence in the vineyard as they should be, while there are some growers who are creating decent quality grapes with good yields.”
These high costs also make it difficult to invest in improving the quality of England’s still wines. While the potential to make high-quality still wines exists, particularly as temperatures warm, producers would likely have to charge prohibitively high prices to make consistently good wine in such variable vintages. “Right now, we are too cool to be consistent and have depth of flavor,” says Roberts. “We would need to charge top-end Burgundy price points.”
It’s also tough to convince lenders to front the money needed to cover these high costs because traditional English financiers don’t understand the realities of winery financials. “It’s a difficult journey to spend upfront,” comments Roberts. “The investment profile is 10 years instead of 3 for a startup, so there’s a lot of education and persuasion.”
The hope is that, with time and growing understanding of the industry’s potential, the tide will change. Investments from high-profile Champagne producers could help boost the reputation of English sparkling wine among traditionalists—Pommery purchased existing vines and, working out of the Hattingley Valley cellars, launched the Louis Pommery cuvée in 2018, while Taittinger became the first Champagne house to plant vines in England in 2017, at a former apple orchard dubbed Domaine Evremond.
Climatic, legal, and logistical challenges aside, perhaps the biggest obstacle for English sparkling wine is recognition. Though the category is trendy among wine experts and insiders, the average consumer would likely be baffled at the prospect of finding excellent wine in England.
“Outside of the UK, there is a lot to do to educate people that we’re making wine here,” says Robinson. “It is improving rapidly, and the US is a very open market—people are open to new ideas.” Currently, the US is the primary export market for English sparkling wine.
Even among the American trade, sales of English wine can be difficult. “Because of the price, it limits the potential number of accounts to a high-end clientele,” says Graf. However, the region does offer the discovery and quality that US buyers are seeking. “It’s the newest category of wine that I’ve ever had to sell or talk about, so there’s an exciting element to it,” adds Graf, “and somms who are curious definitely want to taste these and find out what was going on there.”
Spreading the word among consumers is a massive undertaking, though, and while WineGB works to promote English and Welsh wines to trade, media, and consumers, some feel that more collaborative efforts are needed to push the message to a wider audience. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” says Graf. “We should band together.”
Tourism is also an untapped resource that could have huge potential for English wine producers. “There’s a big market for it with international visitors,” Roberts notes. “If we can get our offering right and put together packages, wine tourism could thrive because we’re within an hour or two from London.”
But wineries also have to be realistic. “Marketing is missing because it requires a lot of investment,” says Roberts, “and producers in the fledgling state don’t have the budget to put into that.” And because Great Britain is leaving the EU, financial support from the government is unlikely.
There’s also the issue of production—why should wineries pour money into the promotion of English sparkling wines if most consumers can’t find them? “The availability of sparkling wines won’t be repaid, because people won’t actually be able to get them at this stage,” Roberts says. “There isn’t enough supply.” The hope is that with more vintages like 2018, this could change. “A harvest like 2018 offers the chance for increased production,” says Spriggs, “which will widen exposure to English wines in general, both domestically and internationally.”
In all likelihood, England will never be as synonymous with sparkling wine as Champagne. (Graf notes that the name itself is a bit clunky—English sparkling wine doesn’t roll off the tongue like Champagne, Cava, or Prosecco.) WineGB projects that England will produce 40 million bottles of wine by 2040; in contrast, Champagne produced 362 million bottles in 2018, according to the Comité Champagne.
Nonetheless, as the English wine industry navigates the challenges that come with getting a quality wine region off the ground, it certainly has the potential to become one of the world’s benchmark sparkling wine regions. “I would think we would only ever be a niche producer,” says Robinson, “but we should be a very high-quality niche producer.”
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