English wine: the new Champagne?

07 September, 2023

Investment, improved equipment, a warming climate – much has happened in recent years to elevate the quality and profile of English wine, particularly its fizz.

The past decade has seen a coming of age for English wine. The figures tell a story of massive growth – one million bottles were produced in 2012 while 12.2 million were produced last year, according to Wine GB data. But that only tells part of the story. English wines, and in particular sparkling English wines, now regularly go toe-to-toe with some of the best regions around the world at international wine competitions. The category has moved out of the farmers’ market and on to Michelin-starred restaurants’ wine lists.

“The quality of English wines in general, particularly English fizz, has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, but also once again in the last three or four years,” says James Davis MW, general manager at Bolney Wine Estate, a winery in West Sussex in the south of England that was acquired by Freixenet Copestick at the beginning of 2022.

“That’s a consequence of a number of factors. It could be down to viticulture, or climate, or just experience – the longer the vineyard manager gets to work and experience the vineyard, the more they understand how the vineyard responds to different interventions.”

This improved calibre of winemaking has been greeted with soaring demand, prompting winemakers in England and Wales to increase the area under vine by 74% over the past five years.

“English wines have gone from being seen as something second rate – especially when compared to their French counterparts – to something recognised and celebrated,” says Chris Unger, sales and marketing director at Hattingley Valley Wines in Hampshire. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a two-and-a-half times increase in English wine production, with more than 3,480ha of grapes being grown, with outputs likely to reach 40 million bottles by 2040. While that might not compare to France, it’s clear to see the growth is phenomenal.”

But this current view of English wine as a serious category worthy of the plaudits that it’s receiving is a relatively new phenomenon. “In the early days, 30 years ago, it used to be very much a cottage industry in the UK,” says Chris White, chief executive of Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, one of the UK’s oldest wineries, having first been planted in 1986. Today it has 107ha under vine, making it also one of the largest single private estates in England.

“We didn’t have the investment, so the quality was buffeted around on an annual basis by the lack of access to world-class winemakers, world-class equipment and economies of scale.

“I wouldn’t say that the wine was filtered through people’s socks, but it was very much a cottage industry sold at farmers’ markets and there was no real other route to market apart from that. It wasn’t represented in restaurants, or on the supermarket shelf. And we certainly weren’t winning international awards.”

Beyond the obvious issues of investment and know-how, part of the problem for the fledging region was its lack of identity.

“We were trying to be all things to all people,” explains White. “We were trying to produce full-bodied reds and sweet wines, which the consumer wanted but were not necessarily what we could grow well here in the UK with our climate. So, we had to be honest with ourselves. You wouldn’t produce full-bodied reds and sweet wines in the Champagne region of France, you produce high-quality grapes to make sparkling wine. We looked critically at what we could grow well here, and we focused heavily on aromatic, fruity wines and sparkling wines, because we knew we could guarantee a suitable quality of fruit to make those on a yearly basis.

“We invested heavily in that. To ensure we had economies of scale, we made ourselves a large vineyard, and we bought state-of-the-art equipment so we could produce a million bottles a year. And then we could begin to get serious winemakers involved because they knew they had exciting wines to work on with top-quality equipment and fruit to play with. It’s taken time but now we’re entering international awards and competing with sparkling wines from Champagne and we’re winning these awards and that begins to erode the stigma of English wines.”

Export market

In the domestic market, English wine is now more than a conversation starter, but the export market hasn’t matured to nearly the same extent. In 2022, Wine GB reported that just 7% of wine produced in the UK made it overseas.

“In the UK, we’re blessed with the fact that we are large consumers of sparkling wines, whether it be prosecco or champagne or cava, there is a big market for sparkling wines in the UK,” says White. “So being a readymade market, there is more of an acceptance and a big demand now for English sparkling. When I first started, to be represented on the supermarket shelf was unheard of, now there is no supermarket, or even very few restaurants in the UK, that do not have an English wine on the shelves or on their wine list.

“There is an export demand but when you’ve got those additional costs of export and you still have quite a bit of low-hanging fruit here in the UK, we are still moving to the area of least resistance which, at the moment, is still the domestic market.”

But there is an elephant in the room when talking about the successes of English winemaking. Over the past 20 years, climate change has contributed substantially to the region’s ability to reliably grow varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as many traditional grape-growing regions in the south of the continent are finding it more and more difficult to do so. But while rising temperatures have been largely beneficial, enabling improved grape yields and access to a greater variety of styles of wine, winemakers aren’t gleefully awaiting the deepening climate crisis.

“Climate change and global warming are not a good thing,” says White. “Some regions in Spain and Italy, and even the Champagne region, are getting too hot for producing the styles of wine that they’ve been known for. So, a lot of vineyards are moving northward to maintain these styles of wine that they have produced before, or if they’re sticking in the same regions, they’re having to spend a lot more money on other processes such as irrigation and sun protection.

“In the UK, we didn’t have problems with irrigation, we had problems with frost. That’s changing. We now have the ability to grow varieties we’ve never been known for growing before, and marginal varieties that we had 30 years ago, like Pinot Noir, which we were told not to bother with have become among our most successful grape varieties.

“Within climate change, it’s getting warmer, but it’s not just getting warmer in a straight line – you get some quite extreme weather conditions and we’ve seen it ourselves over the past few years.

“We’ve had particularly wet years and other years where we haven’t had any rain at all during the summer months. We don’t have a lot of the problems they’re having on the continent at the moment, but it is a concern for us. It may be 20 or 30 years until we’re experiencing what they’re experiencing and so we’ll have to continue to evolve our grape varieties, picking times, and other preventative methods to make sure we can maintain what we’re producing.”

Expanding category

English wine has become a real force in the domestic market, but the region isn’t the finished article.

Even from a branding perspective, let’s face it, English sparkling wine doesn’t have the same ring as names such as champagne or prosecco, but as the category expands, producers will have to be mindful to not fall into the same traps as they did 30 years ago, trying to be all things to all people.

“Over time, English wine will stand on its own two feet and become a category in its own right in the same way that Rioja, Chianti, and Champagne,” says Bolney’s Davis. “But I think there’s some work to be done in terms of the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) scheme, the regionality, and this is more likely to shine through still wines, where terroir is easier to identify than sparkling. We’ll see regional identity in Chardonnay from Essex, Pinot Noir from Dorset, Bacchus from Suffolk.

“English Pinot Noir or English Chardonnay reminds me of an emerging region like Baden in Germany 15 years ago. You could see that there was a lot of potential in the wines but there was a bit of a journey to go on. The winemaking improved a little bit, viticultural understandings improved, the branding got better and suddenly, you have a world-class region where Pinot Noir is produced and sells for €50 or €80 a bottle and consumers aren’t flinching. I think the same thing will happen in England. At the moment there is a bit of reticence to spend £25 or £30 on a bottle of English Pinot Noir, but it will come, in the same way it did in Baden, Central Otago or Willamette Valley.”

That’s the challenge for English wine. If the past decade was defined as a coming of age, the next will be defined as when it finds its identity. Producers of English sparkling wines have made huge progress in this regard within the domestic market, but then there’s the export market and still wine where there is a lot to be done yet. But investment has arrived and, with it, talent. As climate macrotrends become increasingly favourable there are fewer things standing between England and its status as a world-class wine region.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.