It was once believed that no good sparkling wine could be grown north of Champagne, but the southern counties of England are turning this adage on its head. A combination of global warming and increased knowledge of wine production is transforming a nation of committed wine drinkers into a land of exemplary wine producers. Five years ago it would have been highly unusual to find even one example of English wine on a menu. But now English bubbles are listed alongside the celebrated Champagnes and popular Proseccos in most restaurants with a proficient wine selection. This is not to say that it doesn’t face its fair share of challenges, however. Climate change, Brexit and global competition can all easily turn from a help to a hindrance.
With an industry dating back to Neolithic times, the top wine producers of the world are already well established. It is no surprise that France, Italy and Spain occupy the top three positions, together producing 48% of the worlds wine from the years 2000 - 2013. England pales in comparison, responsible for less than 1% of global exports. But this is rapidly increasing. The hectarage of land under vine in England has more than doubled in the last 10 years, currently sitting in excess of 2,000 ha, and this is only set to increase. DEFRA secretary Elizabeth Truss announced last year that English wine producers will have the Government’s support to increase exports tenfold by 2020. This target is predicted to grow the industry’s value in the UK from £3.2 million to £30 million. Whilst there are some vineyards producing red and white still wines, the vast majority are favouring the sparkling variety, using the traditional Champagne method. This is largely due to the similarity in soils between Champagne and the South of England, which contain plenty of chalk and limestone. The cool climate also helps preserve the high acidity levels the grapes need to create the characteristic bubbles.
So how is English fizz standing up to the elite Champagnes? In the last 16 years (up to and including 2015) they have won 9 trophies for Best International Sparkling Wine, and 6 trophies for Best Sparkling Rosé in global competitions. This is more than any other country has ever achieved. In 2016 a £40 bottle of 2009 Nyetimber was ranked above a £65 bottle of Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru Champagne, and this year we saw Hattingley’s 2011 Blanc de Blancs being awarded the World Champion title in the Blanc de Blancs category. Perhaps the greatest indicator of the quality of Southern England’s terroir, however, is the £4 million investment from Taittinger, who earlier last year became the first Champagne house to plant vines in the UK. The old apple orchard near Chilham, Kent, is expected to be producing it’s first bottles in 5 years time.
Global awareness and appetite for English wines is growing. In 2016, Hong Kong was the largest exporter of wine from Britain, with exports valuing over £179 million. But there is certainly room to grow. MP Nusrat Ghani is a leading advocate for English wine to be served at all 268 British embassies, High Commissions and consulates around the world. You would not attend an event at the French embassy and expect to be served anything other than French wine, and in a post-Brexit world, all must be done to support home-grown produce.
Indeed, Brexit could be a threat to this industry. The potential additional costs of exporting wine without access to the single market could hinder any prospective international growth. One can only hope that the need for wine during these turbulent times will positively impact the English wine trade. Climate change is another factor that is equally as temperamental. Whilst the warmer weather has been largely responsible for the recent expansion in English wine production, the sharp frosts and heavy downpours could just as easily jeopardise it. The future of English wine is riddled with uncertainty. Still, we must do all we can to aid it. A glass of wine seems to be in order.