Time to get serious about English wine

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Wine Chardonnay

The thought of English wine can still conjure a smirk from many.
But, the natives are getting better, as more wineries look to take
advantage of Britons' increasing preference for grape over grain.

Bookers Vineyard, established in 1973 and one of the oldest in modern England, this week opened its new winery.

The firm has spent a £62,000 Processing and Marketing grant on state-of-the-art facilities such as fermentation tanks, stainless steel wine vats and bottling equipment, to improve the quality of its wine. The money came from both the EU and the UK government.

Margaret Beckett, secretary of state for the environment and who came down to lead the winery's opening ceremony, said she believed in the "solid economic future"​ of English wine.

"English wines are now taking more accolades at international competitions than ever before, and this is against competition from some of the best producers in the world,"​ she said.

Sparkling wines have led the charge. The RidgeView vineyard beat off global competition, including that from Champagne houses, to win the Best Sparkling Wine award at last year's International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Some of France's major Champagne makers have even bought up land in southern England, because the climate and soil is thought to be similar to the Champagne region and the land is cheaper than paying the inflated prices there.

Bookers, situated in the heart of this region and just to the east of RidgeView, has also won its fair share of awards for both sparkling and red wine.

Sam Linter, chief winemaker at Bookers and daughter of its founders, said the winery's big target was now to improve its selection of red wines.

She said Bookers had spent most of its grant on state-of-the-art equipment for making red wine. The firm has bought fermenting machinery "to ferment grapes properly instead of by hand"​, and has been working hard to master the technique of ageing wine in oak.

Around half of Bookers' wine is red, with sparkling making up another 35-40 per cent.

The problem, inevitably, is how to get English wine into the shops - particularly the big retailers, which now account for around two thirds of Britain's wine sales. The two-and-a-half million bottles made annually in England and Wales account for less than one per cent of wine drunk in the UK.

"Our biggest problem is that we don't produce enough to supply them with the minimum quantity they need,"​ said Linter. The UK has more than 366 vineyards covering around 870 hectares (ha), leaving the average size of each at just 2.5ha.

Bookers, which has around 9.3ha of vines, produced 30,000 bottles last year, but has an ambitious plan to triple that figure over the next two years; following the example already set by Denbies - now the biggest English vineyard with 107ha.

"Some people are getting there,"​ said Linter. "More vineyards are being planted and people are planting more commercially rather than just as a hobby"​.

Bookers has also installed bottling equipment, which will enable it to save money by bottling on-site and could also open up new business bottling wines from neighbouring vineyards.

Linter, who is also a judge for the International Wine and Spirits Competition, believes Bookers can make gains in the market by focusing on red wine that is lighter on the palate than heavy-duty reds from Australia and Chile.

Yet, the firm's reds currently start at £5.95 - a price that puts them just outside the UK wine market's core price bracket of £3 to £5. This also puts Bookers in direct competition with higher quality wines from France.

Consumption trends in the UK, however, could hardly be more favourable. Britain collectively guzzles 75 per cent more wine now than it did in 1990, and consumption is thought to be growing by around three per cent every year.

Wine has even caused a confidence crisis on Britain's beer market. The rise of the grape also prompted Jerome Villaret, director of French economic agency Inter Rhone, to say that "the UK is where the world wine war will be won or lost"​, at a recent wine industry show in France.

Villaret said grape variety, brand name and country of origin were the three most important messages for winemakers to convey on their bottles in the UK. He added that fruity, aromatic wines with lots of sugar tended to sell better; something which has led to cynical comparisons with fizzy soft drinks from a few French vintners.

English wineries, geographically speaking, are well-placed to tackle the important UK market.

And anyone questioning the heritage of Britain's wine industry would be well-advised to check the history books. One worth its weight in grapes would tell of how the Romans initially brought vines with them to Britain around 2,000 years ago. Vineyards were then maintained in monasteries until the 12th Century.

Even so, the past is not everything - as many winemakers, both Old and New World, would say, faced with growing international competition in their industry.

"Things in the wine industry change all the time and you need to keep up with it,"​ said Linter.

Related topics Markets Beer, Wine, Spirits, Cider

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more