England’s vineyards great and small – Time to discover the ‘Taste of England’

UK viticulture – a rapidly expanding scene

In 2017, when we wrote “English Wine is booming…or is it?” (in this NEWS & VIEWS page), there were 500 vineyards covering 4500 acres/1850 hectares, producing around five million bottles of wine annually, and it was forecast that production would double by 2020 to 10 million bottles.    According to 2019 statistics, there are now around 763 vineyards (supplying 165 wineries) throughout England and Wales, covering 8600 acres/3500 hectares producing nearly 11 million bottles. Over recent years more and more vines have been planted; especially from 2017 onwards.

England’s variable production

We can probably all remember the brilliant summer of 2018. It was an exceptional year for English wines, with volumes up 130% on the previous frost-fraught year; experienced growers described it as the “harvest of a century” and recent statistics confirm that annual production actually reached 15 million bottles!

What made 2018 a wonderful year for growing grapes in England was the near perfect weather at all the crucial times. There were no late frosts to affect “bud burst” in April/May, the all important “flowering period” normally in late June/early July saw dry, sunny weather, with no strong winds or significant rain storms and we had benign, warm weather in September and into October during the final ripening and harvest period.

A warming climate is enabling grapes to ripen better, and a little earlier, with harvests for some grape varieties starting earlier in September, but our weather still remains unreliable and has led to large variations in annual production over the last 5 years. If we go back to 2012, when UK experienced a record rainfall during the flowering season and yet more rain during the harvest period, many producers made no wine at all. Many English Wine producers reckon on 1 year in 10 being a particularly poor harvest.

Why produce wine in England?

So given this major constraint, why the growth and significant investment in UK vineyards and the production of wine? It is because vines grown in cooler climates tend to produce the best grapes through a combination of slower ripening taking place over longer hours of daylight. The right soil conditions are also important (and clay on limestone/chalk is a favourite world-wide) as are expertise in the vineyard and the winery. All these requirements are being met in England.

But a cool climate does limit the type of wines that can be produced. The fully ripened grapes will be higher in acidity and lower in sugar compared to, say, grapes grown in the South of France, but such grapes are perfect for producing lower alcohol (11 – 12%), dry, refreshing styles of white and pink wines – and in particular for making sparkling wines. England will never produce block-busting, full red wines!

The potential of English wine has also attracted our nearest French winemakers in Champagne – less than 100 miles South of us – who are planting vineyards in Kent and Hampshire. English wine is all about quality, not bulk, and in the same way as a good, dry white still wine from, say, Chablis or Sancerre, is worth its £12 – £17 price tag, so are many English wines from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the West Country.

Currently, Sparkling wines account for 69% of production, with still wines at 31%. Most Sparkling wines are made from the classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; this is reflected in these grapes forming the top three places in hectares planted in the UK.

Supporting English Wines in 2020

2020 has been something of a strange year thus far, with so many events put on hold and the closure of the hospitality sector, which has significantly impacted the sales of English Sparkling Wines in particular. Three-quarters of vineyards expect a big fall in turnover as a result of the Covid crisis.

English Wine Week (20 – 28 June 2020) will be virtual this year, but nonetheless now is a good time to support our home-grown wine industry – at home!

We have long been supporters of English wines and we currently sell wines from three very different wineries, (great and small) producing wines – with one thing in common – hitting the spot in quality/price ratio. Chapel Down (Kent), Albourne Estate (West Sussex) and a’Becketts Vineyard (Wiltshire) and we plan to write more about these vineyards in our next blog! If you are curious to find out more about English Wines you can find Liz Sagues beautifully produced book, “A Celebration of English Wine” on our website; if you are choosing some wines – why not add it to your basket!

In the meantime, we are supporting English Wine Week (and beyond) with an English Wine Case Offer and discounts (on our already low prices) on selected English Still and Sparkling Wines. Enjoy!