British Bubbles Gain Sparkle
British sparkling wine has moved beyond novelty status to establish itself as a drink of prestige as well as an investable asset.
English sparkling wine’s star is on the rise. Not only has British bubbly received plentiful plaudits since it began to gain recognition at the turn of the century, but it is also proving to be an investable asset. Michael Spencer, the billionaire City entrepreneur, has accumulated the majority shareholding in Kent-based Chapel Down, a winemaker listed on the London Stock Exchange. Global investment company BlackRock also has a 5.79 percent share. Meanwhile, prestigious Champagne houses such as Pommery and Taittinger have bought land near Southampton and Kent, respectively, to make their own English sparkling labels.
Megatrends such as global warming and Brexit could help the industry further. A warmer climate means a longer ripening period, which is good for the traditional grapes used in sparkling wine — a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A weaker sterling thanks to Brexit will make British fizz more attractive to its main export markets: the US, Scandinavia and Japan.
In 2016 there were 503 commercial vineyards registered in England and Wales, predominantly in the southern regions of Sussex, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Cornwall. In the last 10 years the area of planted vines has more than doubled and is set to grow by a further 50 percent by 2020, while production is set to more than double to 10 million bottles per year by 2020.
Granted, British wine is a tiddler on a global scale, producing 4.15 million bottles in 2016 compared to Champagne’s 300 million-plus. But London-based Master of Wine Mark Pardoe reckons the bumper 2018 harvest could push British fizz to wider acclaim.
“Wherever British sparkling wine has been offered internationally, there has been interest, either from curiosity or because the wine is good,” he says. “As volumes increase, aided by the bounty of the exceptional 2018 vintage, in both quality and quantity, I expect to see much more international visibility.”
And if all else fails there’s the British competitive streak. “British wine is a matter of pride,” says Sarah Driver, co-founder of Rathfinny Wine Estate, in Sussex. “You’ll be in a taxi and you say that you produce English sparkling wine, and the driver will say, 'yes, we’re quite good at that, aren’t we beating the French?”
Billionaire speaks to some of the main players.
Nyetimber, West Sussex
Cherie Spriggs, head winemaker: “We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary now and we consider ourselves the pioneers of the industry in England. Nyetimber has changed hands twice via private sale since we launched in the late 1980s: a sign of the brand’s success.
“We’ve received many awards but I’m most proud of the gong for sparkling winemaker of the year, for 2018. It’s the first time the award has ever been given to a winemaker outside of Champagne, so it is quite a milestone.
“We’re one of a small number of producers in the world who make sparkling wine using fruit only from vineyards they own. That allows us complete control over quality of grapes. We only harvest in good years. For example, 2012 was such a bad year with the frost we didn’t harvest any fruit; we made zero bottles. But we’ve just had an excellent harvest, so we hope to reach 700,000-800,000 bottles for 2018.
“We’ve been compared side by side with Champagne especially since, two years ago, our 2009 vintage won a blind tasting in Paris against Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru Champagne. I do think from a quality perspective England is showing it can compete against its global counterparts. But at this point the size of the industry is very small.
“The best food to pair with Nyetimber, in my opinion, is light preparations of fish and shellfish. Our Rosé matches well with poultry and our demi-sec wine works beautifully with light desserts and certain Asian cuisines.”
Hattingley Valley, Hampshire
Co-founder Simon Robinson: “As a partner at a law firm, I always wanted to plan my retirement. My wife Nicola and I acquired a 28-acre commercial farm in Hampshire at the end of the 1990s but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I watched Nyetimber’s progress with interest.
“We started planting in 2008 and it was a gentle transition until I retired from Slaughter & May in 2013, when I was 58. We’ve since expanded to 70 acres. We started off with 25,000 bottles in 2010. This year, we’ve expanded production capacity and hope to make 600,000 bottles. It will be the vintage of the entire century.
“If you had said in 2010, we would be where we are now, I would have said you were bonkers.
“Among people in the know, British sparkling is already challenging Champagne, and certainly Prosecco and Cava. I would say the average quality of sparkling wine here is probably better than the average quality of Champagne.
“In future, Brexit may be a challenge as we rely on seasonal labour of around 50-60 people each year who mainly hail from the EU. From an export perspective it probably won’t make a difference as most English wine is sold in the UK, with the US as the main import market.
“What sets us apart? I encourage our wine makers to do their own thing, for example we’ve started making an ice-wine-style pudding wine and an eau de vie called Aqua Vitae. We’re very keen on employee training and development. We reward out-of-the-box thinkers and encourage a bit of eccentricity.”
Ridgeview CEO Tamara Roberts: “Ridgeview was planted in 1995 by my parents Mike and Chris Roberts. They were passionate oenophiles and had a dream to produce a sparkling wine that would thrive in the UK’s cool climate. They found a good site in the South Downs with its chalky soil, on a ridge with a stunning view. They planted three classic varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
“Today Ridgeview’s wine is regularly served at Buckingham Palace state banquets and has been chosen as the official sparkling wine of 10 Downing Street.
“Ridgeview is known for being fruit-driven with fresh acidity and balance due to the long, cool growing season. Family is at the heart of what we do with an uncompromising attitude to quality.
“We currently produce around 250,000 bottles a year, but we have just finished our largest ever harvest and will have a new winery next year that will double our production to 500,000.
“Our top three markets are the UK, the US and Norway. Export represents 20 percent of production and the US is half of this. We are currently available in Japan and Taiwan; we are looking to expand our presence in Asia and Australasia in the future.”
The Rising Stars
Co-owner Sarah Driver: “We want ‘Sussex’ to become synonymous with high-quality sparkling wine from the UK. The aspiration is that in 20 years’ time you will walk into a bar in New York or Beijing and the barman will ask ‘would you like a glass of Champagne or a delicious glass of Sussex?’
“We launched our first vintages of Sussex Sparkling wine, a Blanc de Blancs 2014 and a Rosé 2015, in April 2018. All our sparkling wines are crafted in the traditional method like Champagne, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, after which the wine is left to age on the yeast lees for a minimum of 36 months to develop wonderful autolytic notes.
“Because our vineyards are south-facing and we’re very near the coast, we have a warm and slightly drier climate than the large parts of England. We’re able to leave our grapes on the vine for a long time as we’re picking them in late October/early November, so we produce fruit with great flavours.
“We grow Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and only keep our reserve in good years. In 2017 we bottled 150,000 but this year because it was a great summer, we will be nearer to 350,000. We’ve got a Blanc de Noirs coming out next year, then we’ll look to release our Classic Cuvée. We also make a still wine under a different label called Cradle Valley.
“I have been asked, has it been a leap of faith? Have you lain awake at night thinking it might not work? Absolutely not, England is in a sweet spot, with the ideal climate to produce grapes with perfect balance of sugar and acidity essential for world class sparkling wine. And we love our sparkling wines.”