I’ve spent the last few weeks editing Henry Jeffreys’ forthcoming book, Vines in a Cold Climate: The People Behind the English Wine Revolution. I didn’t need much persuading to take on the task. In fact, I volunteered for it. Why? Because the rise of English sparkling wine over the last 20 years is, to my mind, our industry’s most notable – and successful – story this century.
I don't think it’s patriotic hyperbole to say that, in the last 20 years, the wine world has witnessed the emergence, for the first time in four decades, of a wholly new region, recognised globally for a specific style and innate identity. Who else, since Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc burst into the public consciousness four decades ago, can claim that?
Even more promisingly, the category into which English producers have emerged is a premium, mainstream, yet sparsely contested niche. All at a time when more and more people are drinking sparkling wine and are keen to look beyond Champagne. The potential is huge. Just as we are seeing new brands springing up every year, from urban wineries to boutique, often quirky operations, so established names like Chapel Down and Balfour are announcing huge expansion plans. Ridgeview, which didn't even dare put the word 'England' on its labels 15 years ago, now produces 400,000 bottles a year and exports to Japan, Scandinavia and the US. And we are only at the start. Despite doubling in the past decade, UK plantings are still only a 16th the size of Champagne. There remains extensive acreage waiting for planting in a country where the cost of land is 1/50th that of its more famous Gallic counterpart.
So why are we not more gung-ho about it all? Talking to colleagues in the press, I’m always struck by how they seem keener to champion orange wines fermented in goats’ stomachs than an English fizz made in our green and pleasant land. Is this down to an innate British bashfulness? Or is the UK wine scene perceived as actually a bit, well, boring?
Despite the success of the last 20 years, today the industry finds itself at something of a crossroads. No longer is it able to trade on the novelty factor and goodwill from curious consumers – not when it is hawking a premium product during a cost-of-living crisis. At the same time, the English wine scene is becoming more and more disparate. On the one hand we have Nyetimber and Gusbourne marketing prestige cuvées at £200 a pop; on the other we have disruptors like the Charmat-method Harlot selling at £15. Still wines are coming on a pace but in a variety of styles, price points and quality. And then there are divisive issues like nascent PDOs and naming conventions. All at a time when Brexit is stifling exports and there is talk of a domestic supply glut. Could a reckoning be on the cards?
We’re always told that good wine is made in the vineyard – and no-one doubts that there is some very good wine now being made in this country. But for me, there has been too much focus on the vineyard and not enough on the whiteboard. Not in terms of financial planning, heaven forbid, but in the way English wine is branded, marketed and promoted.
Although a handful of brands are carving out their own niche, the generic image of English wine is, to put it mildly, rather staid. More corporate gilet than muddied wellies. Compare English wine to the other British success stories of recent years – cheese, beer and gin – all of which are seen as more characterful, more artisan. The image of UK wines can seem dull by comparison. With the sands now shifting at WineGB, maybe the Simon Thorpe-shaped vacuum will be filled by a savvy, dynamic marketing guru; God knows we need it.
‘With so many people chasing the same image, there can be a sameness about English wine,’ writes Jeffreys in his book. ‘From the outside, the industry appears very corporate, which is odd as it’s such a young industry populated largely by small start-ups and family enterprises. Perhaps it’s because so many producers come from a finance background. Or it might have something to do with proximity to London marketing and PR agencies who are all preaching the same thing.’
The frustrating thing is that beneath this bland image lies a surfeit of rich and compelling stories. Yet, very few brands are telling them. Or not in a way that connects with consumers. Elisha Cannon, who, by divesting herself of both vineyard and winery is able to focus purely on marketing in pursuit of her rosé brand Folc, says: ‘The way the wine industry markets itself assumes that consumers are the same people they were 20-30 years ago. They’re not. Are we trying to attract sommeliers or are we trying to reach Mr & Mrs Smith?’
Among the things that irritate me hugely about the wider wine trade (it’s a growing list; possibly more down to my middle-aged grouchiness than anything else) is going to a country pub in Sussex or Hampshire and finding that the only fizz listed by the glass is Veuve Clicquot or Laurent-Perrier. Why would such a venue not take the chance to showcase the abundance of English sparklers made on their doorstep? Something, somewhere is going wrong…
Look again at the subtitle of Jeffreys’ book – The People Behind the English Wine Revolution. It’s the people – not the grape varieties, the vineyards, the money men, the corporate plans or the even the climate – that we need to be getting out front and centre to help spread the word.
At the LWF, I’ll be hosting a panel on Centre Stage with Jeffreys and others to discuss how we can do just that. Come and join us and let’s figure out how we can get English wine back in the limelight – for all the right reasons.
The session takes place on: Wednesday 17th May at 14:00 - 15:00 on Centre Stage.