Talking wine on Radio 4

(by peter)

Sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

English Wine Week. National Wine Month. The royal family serving English wine with gay abandon at family weddings and state visits. The 2012 Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee on the horizon. All this plus a warm, dry spring rich with the scent of early strawberries, clipped tennis courts and fizzy wine…

It’s enough to fuel the patriotism in any proud wine-sipping Briton.

So when I was asked to go into BBC Radio 4 to talk English wine last week, I had to resist the urge to be just another cheerleader for the cause and instead apply some level-headed analysis to the matter at hand. (You can find out if I succeeded or not by listening to the interview via the BBC podcast; the wine bit starts at 41.36.)

Even then, it was hard not to be resolutely positive about the prospects for English wine.

The show’s host, Peter White – he of the irresistibly upbeat voice, and a fine Winchester denizen to boot – quite rightly quizzed me as to why this was the case. Especially when the ‘new dawn’ of UK wine has been heralded a little too enthusiastically and frequently in recent years.

My point was that not only was 2010 a year of record production for English wine (four million bottles), it was also a watershed year in that sparkling wine accounted for half of the wine made – its highest ever level. (Some, indeed, predict that this will rise to a natural level where fizz accounts for 90% of the UK’s wine production in time.)

This is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, sparkling wine is incontestably the best style of wine that we make on these shores. Our finest fizz regularly holds its own – even trumps – the world’s best in blind tastings. In the Judgement of Parson’s Green tasting, which Susie attended and reported on, English fizz took four of the five top spots. In the Decanter World Wine Awards 2010, the Grosvener Estate Blanc de Blancs beat off competition from vaunted champagne brands to win the International over £10 Sparkling Wine Trophy. There are many more such examples.

But there’s another, perhaps more telling reason why the rise in UK fizz production is important.

There was a false dawn before in UK wine. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a planting boom took place, fuelled by a buoyant economy, a nascent wine culture and the threat of an EU planting ban. But when the wine came to be sold, the demand simply wasn’t there for what was mostly highly priced still wine of slightly brisk character. Sales stalled and many producers folded.

The difference between then and now? In a word: fizz.

Sparkling wine – especially traditional method fizz – improves with age. This means that producers can retain stock without it being devalued, effectively enabling them to control supply and demand.

Fizz also has a higher associated value, meaning a more viable commercial model for UK producers in what is an expensive business to run. (Land, labour and material costs are high in the UK, and set-up costs are eye-watering, given it can take up to five years for a vineyard to establish itself and the another 2-3 years for wines to mature in cellar. And that’s before you’ve started to invest in marketing, distribution and other costs.)

But there are other reasons why UK wine can be seen to be entering a new phase in its development.

One is the sheer scale and scope of investment going on.

In 2006, sparkling wine producer Nyetimber produced 60,000 bottles off 14 hectares (ha) of vineyards. Just five years later, the vineyard stands at 177 ha, with the ultimate aim of one-million-bottle production. Hambledon is looking to invest £10m in its business, while ex-hedge-fund-manager Mark Driver is stumping up around £7m for his brand new Rathfinny Wine Estate in Sussex. Ridgeview is looking to double production to 500,000 bottles. Hush Heath Estate was a mere 2ha in 2002; now its target production is 100,000 bottles – five times production levels in 2006.

In short, the future is looking promising.

Many new producers are either starting to come online or will do so in the near future. Just a few examples from around us in Hampshire include Laverstoke Park (courtesy of former racing driver Jody Scheckter), Leckford Estate (Waitrose) and Coates & Seely. The latter is part-owned by the head of AXA Millésimes, the prestigious French wine group which owns high-profile properties like Château Pichon-Baron in Bordeaux and port producer Quinta do Noval. The wines are just starting to be sold by Liberty Wines.

Even the royals are getting in on the act, setting up a vineyard in Windsor Great Park to make sparkling wine. Such a groundswell of new production bodes well for the industry: greater competition and diversity will inevitably make for a more vibrant, dynamic UK wine scene.

Retailers are also backing English wine.

Witness Tesco introducing an English white wine (Denbies English White, £8.79) to its Finest* range this year. Battersea independent merchant Artisan & Vine is another high-profile champion of the local cause, not only listing 25 English wines but also organising day trips to local vineyards as part of a new venture.

There is also a new breed of retailer emerging – one dedicated solely to the joys of English wine. A good example of this is The Wine Pantry, which opened its doors just last week in Borough Market, stocking fine English wines to taste and buy alongside hams and cheeses. Owner Julia Stafford and her business partner have gamely stumped up six figures to fund this ambitious (and hugely welcome) venture. We wish them very well, and will be popping in as soon as we can to get a taste of the action. Other examples include websites Great English Wines and Best English Wine.

It’s also worth remembering that the UK has a world-class wine training centre in Plumpton College – which also does a very creditable sideline in wine production (witness Susie’s tasting notes here).

One criticism often levelled at English wine, especially the fizz, is one of high prices and poor value. It was a point recently made by critic Malcolm Gluck in The Guardian, and one which Peter White rightly picked up on in our interview.

My point was that value is all about context.

We think very little of paying good money for top quality hand-crafted UK products like a Savile Row suit, an Aston Martin or well bred beef. So why should wine be any different?

The issue is context. We have been somewhat indoctrinated in this country to have a distorted perspective of the value of wine because of the deep discounting of the big retailers, designed to keep wine prices artificially low to drive footfall as powerful buyers take advantage of a global wine surplus. Such discounting strategies are now also common for champagne, and not just at Christmas time.

But making good sparkling wine is not a cheap endeavour, especially when you’re just starting out in a country with costs as high as the UK and from a production base typified by small producers with few economies of scale.

The most appropriate context for UK fizz is champagne. The natural context, raw materials, production methods – even styles and quality – are very similar. Given, then, that most top-name NV champagnes start at £30 (excluding the current raft of supermarket-brand champagnes designed to be sold on discount or at fiercely competitive prices) and that many vintage champagnes come in at around half as much again, I don’t think asking £20-30 for top quality UK fizz represents a bad deal.

Expensive – yes. But poor value? Hardly.

As for where English wine is heading – this was a trickier question. My instinct is that it will steadily grow and diversify over time, with fizz making up the bulk of production. Exports may even become a viable business for some of the top producers – apparently there was a spike in interest, especially from the Far East, following the royal wedding.

And yet this will only ever be a niche industry, both in terms of the trillion-pound UK economy and the global wine scene.

It may well be that global warming will give the UK a far more suitable habitat for the vine in years to come, at the expense of other, warmer parts of the world – some scientists are predicting global temperatures to rise by as much as 10ºC in the next millennium.

But this is a long way down the road and there is no guarantee that even if the British climate does change significantly that wine will be the natural inheritor of large swathes of land in this country.

In short, the UK will only ever represent a drop in the ocean of world wine production. Here are a few stats to illustrate the point:

  • Current UK wine production of four million bottles is less than the average daily UK consumption of wine (which is around 1.8 billion bottles per year).
  • By way of context, annual global wine production is 36 billion bottles.
  • The world vineyard covers over 7.8 million hectares – the UK’s is just over 1,300 ha.
  • British drinkers get through 100 million bottles of fizz every year yet the entire annual production of English sparkling wine is just 2 million bottles – so just enough to cover about a week or so at current consumption levels.

But size isn’t everything.

Even with just a niche wine industry, if English wine can take on the world’s best and hold its own, then that could and should be a source of great national pride.

Hopefully the rising quality, growing producer base, retailer support and interest in sustainable produce will encourage more people in the UK not only to drink more local wine but also get out for a day trip to visit the wonderful vineyards of these fair isles where the wines are grown and made, often by hugely talented, knowledgeable people with a huge respect for the land.

Surely that’s not to get too caught up in the emotion of the moment.