English sparkling wine will overcome its latest frost-bitten setback, but longer term challenges lie ahead
Growing grapes in a climate such as the UK was never going to be easy. Whatever the history of winemaking in Britain (dating back, it is said, to Roman times), the combination of highly variable weather, late frosts (as experienced a couple of weeks ago), brisk (occasionally blasting) South-westerly winds, and, above all, the distinct lack of consistent Mediterranean or Continental warmth during the ripening months of summer, makes the business of wine that bit riskier than in, say, southern France. “This is one of the most difficult places in the world to make wine,” says Dr Richard Smart, a scientist and agronomist originally from Australia and now resident in Cornwall. “The only place I can think of that’s harder is Sweden”.
So what? say its promoters. In recent years, the result of hard work and the occasional good harvest has been a remarkably high quality of English sparkling wines, the de facto flagship of the nascent English wine industry. With the obligatory nod to producers in counties such as Dorset, Devon and Cornwall whose products have been performing well, most of the prize-winning and commercially viable output of sparkling wine has emanated from the arc of hilly, well drained, relatively dry and relatively (for England) warm counties of Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent.
The long-term prospects for English sparkling look positive, if – inevitably, given the vagaries of climate – with a strong degree of uncertainty attached. Even with a predicted boost of climate change, temperatures will remain probably a degree or two on average below the acceptable level for sugar-ripening, but winemakers are learning how to make the most of what they have, from crafty trellising and cover crop solutions to canny tricks in the winery, to get around this issue.
Perhaps a bigger question mark hangs over the business model for English sparkling wine. Lots of vines are going in the ground this year (1 million, according to English Wine Producers, the trade association representing the biggest players), and a lot more are planned for the next 5 years, taking the total hectarage under vine from a very modest 2,000 ha to 3,000 ha by 2021. Each new planting brings the prospect of increased scale and, over time, reduced costs, which are currently very high by normal winegrowing standards. But growth in production and sales is frustratingly slow because of the length of time (5 years+) needed for new vines to reach full production, before one deals with the uncertainties of the growing season – or, more seriously, if that vine has been planted in the wrong place, permanently curtailing its chances of producing high quality grapes in decent quantities.
Then there is consumer demand. Right now, English Sparkling is riding a near-perfect wave of critical adulation, consumer curiosity, and trade enthusiasm (partly driven by the decent margins available for selling it in specialty retail and the on-trade). Over the next 5 years, supply should increase by about 50%, assuming no major growing season disasters, to around 4.5 million bottles, according to Wine Intelligence estimates based on the vineyard growth forecasts published by Stephen Skelton MW. At this level, and with most product selling for over £20 a bottle retail, the English sparkling community will be facing off directly against the might of Champagne, which currently sells 32 million bottles in the UK and produces an impressive 300+ million bottles a year.
Will the honeymoon for English sparkling last? Will there be export markets, post-Brexit, willing to take on a new luxury sparkling product to displace the traditional Champagne or local high end sparkling? Will there be sufficient capacity in the system (grapes, winemaking facilities, human talent) to defend this position? The emerging success of the category is bringing such “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” challenges.
For our part, Wine Intelligence is going to make its first contributions in the category. Next month we will publish our annual UK Sparkling Wine Market report with a special focus on English Sparkling, and on June 26, alongside Plumpton College, we will be hosting a special WineSkills workshop dedicated to the business of sparkling wine, at the WSET Global Centre on Bermondsey St, London SE1. See you there – weather permitting.