The rise of English wine

16 June 2022, 14:13 PM
  • With its quality and sustainable credentials, the British wine scene is a ripe opportunity for indies, finds Samantha Priestley
The rise of English wine

It’s not that long ago that English wine was thought of as being below the standards of European wines, and those wines from other sunnier climates. People in England didn’t really buy or drink English wine because, well, surely we couldn’t make decent wine on this cloudy island.

But all of that has changed. Part of this is down to customer perception. Years ago, British people simply didn’t think of trying English wine, but over time more and more people have been giving it a go and finding out it’s actually really good. This shift has been especially weighty since the pandemic. The emphasis on buying and staying local has prompted people who usually look to the Continent to look to home instead. Customers have become more interested in sourcing locally produced food and drink in order to contribute to a healthy climate. This brings us to the irony of the climate issue where wine is concerned.

A double-edged sword
Those preconceived ideas of English wine as being difficult to produce because of our climate weren’t completely wrong. Though most English wine grapes are grown in the south where the weather is much sunnier, it has still been difficult at times.

“The British climate is the biggest challenge,” say Charles and Ruth Simpson, of Simpson’s Wine Estate. “We always knew that the biggest hazard for our vineyards is frost, the devastating effects of which were experienced in 2017 and 2020, when we lost a significant percentage of the expected crop. On those occasions, the warmer spring temperatures brought forward bud burst on the vines, however it then gave way to cold weather fronts and hence the frost, burning and irreparably damaging the buds. In contrast, the wet and humid summer of 2021 provided a different challenge, that of mildew, which can be equally devastating if not kept under control.”

The recent warming of global temperatures is, of course, a bad thing and something those ethically-minded consumers are trying to address by buying locally, but it has also meant English wine can be produced with a little less of those weather barriers. This is especially true for red wine, which was once too difficult to produce in our colder climate, but is now really taking off, being produced more frequently and to a much higher standard.

“In recent years, average temperatures have risen which increasingly allows us to make great still wines, as well as the more traditional sparkling wines,” says Jackie Wilks, co-founder of Terlingham Wines. “We grow cool-climate Bacchus, Rondo and Dornfelder grapes, and if we get a very hot summer we can make a red such as our 2018 Caesar’s Camp – this is always very exciting!”

The Simpsons agree, but also see other reasons for the rising popularity of English wine. “A lot of people talk about climate change as being the only reason that any wine can be successfully produced in the UK. There has undoubtedly been a slight shift in temperature, which means that England now has similar temperatures to that of Champagne 60 years ago, however successful wine production is still only possible on very specific sites within the UK as we are still on the very fringes of viable viticulture. We would put England’s recent wave of winemaking success more down to the move towards the more noble grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Meunier) in addition to increasing expertise of how to grow and make wines in this challenging climate.”

This ability to adapt, not only to a changing climate, but to other grape varieties that might suit our land better, has certainly been the key to success in British winemaking. But there has been one curve ball that vineyards in the UK are still grappling with. Brexit has caused a shortage in labour.
“Weather and labour costs and labour availability are top of our list of issues,” says Jonica Fox from Fox & Fox. “The usual challenges of business, regulation and compliance come behind them.”

But wherever there is a cloud there is a rainbow, and winemakers have a lot of sunshine coming their way in the form of increasing demand.

“Over the past few years, the sales of English wine have skyrocketed,” Charles Simpson says, “with an increase in interest attributed to supply shortages and rise in price and complexity of EU wine importing costs due to Brexit and also the global pandemic. Conversely, this has presented opportunities for the domestic export market and English wine is now making its mark across the globe, including Scandinavia, Japan, Canada and Australia.”

Sustainability is key
As consumers try to source their food and drink more locally, they also want to know products are being made as ethically and sustainably as possible. At The Uncommon, Henry Connell and Alex Thraves have made their wines available in cans only. A bold move, and one which speaks to a generation of recyclers. If you thought glass was more recyclable than cans, it turns out it isn’t.

“There is a common misconception that glass is recyclable,” says Henry. “It is not. It’s only recyclable a maximum of 2.5 times and degrades easily because it’s so fragile. Glass is made from sand, one of the most abundant compounds on the planet, so it’s very cheap and very easy to make. The issue is that it’s far easier and far cheaper to make more glass than it is to recycle existing glass. That explains why about 65% of all glass made ends up in landfill and it takes one million years to break down. Glass is heavy, breaks easily and it takes a long time and a lot of energy to cool down. If you do away with the bottle you can also do away with the bulky single-use materials used to protect it.”

Their cans of wine are beautifully designed and appeal to younger customers who also buy cans of G&T and sip them at picnics and barbeques. But it’s not only because they look pretty and reduce our carbon footprint. Henry explains there are taste benefits to producing these wines in a can. “Our sparkling wines are fresh and aromatic and made to be drunk young. The can keeps out air and light so that they are fresher for longer.”

When it comes down to it, it is the taste that really matters. English winemakers are passionate about producing top-quality wines that give British people the option to buy British. In the year of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, there’s perhaps no better time to be making and drinking English wine. Charles and Ruth Simpson note that British winemaking and viticulture now employs more people than arable farming, making this industry a truly British one. It’s also an industry that is still very much hands on.

“We do an immense amount of work by hand,” says Jonica Fox, “positioning the vine leaves and fruit to get the best sunlight and air circulation. We take off all the small bunches early on to drive the vine’s energy into ripening the fruit we leave on the vine. It’s painstaking work.”

There’s also a drive to go through each process as naturally as possible, which is challenging at times, but also vitally important to most English winemakers. Jackie Wilks explains: “As we’re a natural vineyard, we have the added challenge of not using chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides etc. We also don’t use ripening agents, so we really are at the mercy of mother nature. Sea breezes help to manage disease, particularly mildew, but at the same time they can also lower our average temperatures, so they can slow the ripening down if we have a period of very cold weather.”

It’s something Jonica Fox understands well. From their vineyard in east Sussex, Fox & Fox focusses on vine nutrition and keeps the use of protective sprays to a minimum. “We encourage insect and birdlife by leaving headland grasses and wildflowers to bloom,” says Jonica. “Our vineyard year starts with bud formation in March, moves through first shoots in April, followed by flowering, and fruit-set around the same time as Wimbledon. Harvest varies according to the year but is typically early to mid-October.”

It’s a process and a mindset that travels all the way through the winemaking process, from start to finish. “Just as we take care in the vineyard, we do the same in the winery,” says Jonica. “We believe in minimal manipulation to let the grapes speak for themselves. That means we use time instead of mechanical processes like filtration, we avoid what is known as malolactic fermentations which can reduce the acidity and we don’t filter our wines either.”

Keeping those ethical consumers in mind, all of Fox & Fox’s wines are vegan and certified as such by the Vegan Society. They do this particularly to be inclusive and see this as ensuring all consumers can enjoy their wines, no matter where you stand on diet. The rise in popularity of natural wines and pure wines has shifted winemaking to a place of being much more organic, which seems to suit English winemakers very well.

“For us, our whole focus is to make the wine that mother nature allows us to make each year,” says Ruth Simpson. “We’re not trying to create perfect consistency year after year, but rather we want to put the year we had in the vineyard in a bottle. So, we love the fact that some years are warmer, some are rainier, some favour some varieties of grape over others, it makes each of our vintages special and unique.”

Every wine tells a story
There’s certainly something about the stories being told by English wine that is capturing the imagination of customers. From The Uncommon’s uncommon cans of wine, that fit beautifully on the shelves of any small business, to the growing range in English wine varieties. Jonica Fox recommends a selection based on style – table wine, dessert wine, speciality wine, and sparkling wine – as well as a selection based on grape or blend. She also notes that wines in clear bottles are more vulnerable to light, while those in green or black bottles are better protected.

This fascination with the details of how our produce is made and stored is perhaps a sign of a return to simpler times for many people. Following the pandemic, paying attention to our local area and what happens there has shifted into the forefront of many people’s minds, and this net is cast to all areas of our lives.
“Since 2020, consumers have shifted their focus to supporting local, with a greater interest in understanding how products are made and the ethos of their associated brands,” says Ruth Simpson. “This has filtered through to the hospitality industry, who are keen to stock English wines and with such a diverse range on wines on offer, there are many different styles to pair perfectly with local produce.”

The range in English wine is only going to keep growing, as producers win awards for their wines and prove that the old days of English wine being below par are well and truly over. English wines can now compete all over the world, and they do, and it’s the right time for them to be loved the most in the place they were born.
“The wonderful thing about English wine, in addition to the incredible quality, is that it is so varied,” says Jackie Wilks, “and most of the producers are small, independent companies with a real passion for what they do. So you have the opportunity to find producers with very special and unique stories which will really resonate with customers and create an unbeatable USP.”

Most of all, the rise of English wine is a very English story. A story of working with our hands, using the ingredients that grow on our land, and adding a touch of quirkiness here and there. And it’s a story that’s only just beginning.

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