Last of the Summer Wine

By Nathan Lee

Rise of English Wine

English viticulture is booming as growers multiply in number and hot weather blesses the country’s already blessed terroir.

New world wine is often unfairly stereotyped as plonk.

Indeed, disconnect between brand and origin can be quite hurtful for some of the more unfortunately located vineyards. On the one hand there is the mass produced, mechanically processed grapes that fill Blossom Hill bottles and are entirely brand driven, and on the other there’s the climate and terroir that simply affect grape varieties. The two aren’t interlinked, and thus associating ‘bad wine’ with a region is narrow minded.

The old adage that the best wine can only be sourced from Champagne, Bordeaux and Brunello di Montalcino is redundant. As wine is consumed more regularly and by a burgeoning global middle class, there is a growing demand for high quality produce from regions outside the traditional stalwarts. As Chateau Margaux, Lafite and Latour vintages lie dormant in the cellars of the Chinese upper class, the rise of English wine could be upon us.

Exponential growth

In 1981 the future of the Concorde looked bleak. After doing a market survey and discovering that their target customers thought that Concorde was more expensive than it actually was, BA progressively raised prices to match these perceptions. Instead of fuelling demand by reducing prices, the airliner pushed them up to appeal to business and upper class travellers, and it worked.

Wine was brought to Britain by the Romans, but it was likely to be first grown after the Norman Conquest in monastic institutions primarily in southern England. After enduring a turbulent few centuries, most notably under the reign of King Henry VIII and during the two world wars, the English wine industry was reborn by Ray Barrington Brock and Edward Hymans who taught the practice of grape-vine cultivation in England.

The work of these two pioneers inspired others, and by the late 80s/early 90s the total area under cultivation rose to more than 2,000 acres. Although “the best way to get a small fortune is to have a large fortune and buy an English vineyard,” or so the saying goes, there is undoubtedly good produce coming out of England; frequently compared to Champagne minus the unpredictable Pinot Meunier grape.

Blessed by the weather

Like ’09 and ’10 in Bordeaux, sometimes it simply takes a bout of good weather to make a market boom. Despite 2012 being a dismal year for wine production, sales of English sparkling wine trebled, and 2013 is set to be one of the best years ever for vineyards in the UK. A cold winter got rid of all the pests and without frost the grapes managed to flourish in the hot summer.

But in the same way the Concorde inflated tickets to survive, the revelation that the English have a taste for English produce could lead to this year’s bumper supply being priced up, rather than down to drive demand. Most bottles already come in at more than £10, and there is clearly an astute awareness of the upper class market.

When the French enjoyed two summer’s worth of good weather in Bordeaux the price of its best produce was increased by 50 per cent and more. New wealth from China and a range of other contributors helped of course, but good wine is often bad for consumers.

English Wine is entering a new era with the Royal Jubilee and Olympic celebrations giving the industry exposure and an excellent summer of weather providing the legs. But will the rise of English wine really be something to celebrate, or will the corks be left for the Earl of Grantham to pop?

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