How bright is the future for British fizz?

How bright is the future for British fizz?

Benenden’s wine expert takes a look at the economics of the thriving domestic sparkling market

Christopher Merret (16 February 1614-19 August 1695), was a 17th-century English physician and scientist who became the first to document the deliberate addition of sugar for the production of sparkling wine. The Champenois would have us believe that Dom Perignon invented the genre in Champagne in the late 1600s, but superior bottle-making technology means we Brits got there long before.  

Roll on to the modern era, and you will find that New Hall in Essex were the first to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1984. Nyetimber planted Pinot Meunier as well to complete the trio of Champagne grapes in 1988, produced their first wine in 1996 and have never looked back.What has happened? Why the seemingly sudden interest in planting vines and producing English wine, especially English sparkling wine? Is it climate change? The simple answer is yes.  

Stephen Skelton MW, the leading expert on soil in English vineyards, explains. “Before the 1990s, natural alcohol levels at harvest were between 5% and 8%, seldom higher. Since 2000, there has rarely been a year when they have been under 10%. In 2018 - admittedly an amazing year for UK growers - still Chardonnay wines were made with 13.5% alcohol, all natural. 

“The area under vine is currently 3,250 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier comprising 2,194ha, or 67.5% of the total area. Three-quarters of English wine production is now sparkling.”

“There are, however, drawbacks in making sparkling wines - lower yields, the extra equipment, and, most importantly, the additional capital and time required, but long-term, the wait is worth it, as the world-class quality of so many English sparkling wines shows.” 

The year 2018 was a totally exceptional one, seeing an early harvest produce 13m bottles (2.5 times the average) and 2019, recently harvested, is also a high-quality year with less volume. So the million-dollar question is: who is going to drink all this wine? Retail prices range from £17 to £45, Champagnes sales are falling in the UK, and the US has imposed 25% import tax on French sparkling wines. Will we see Champagne being discounted in 2020? Will we see English sparkling wines coming down in price as supply outstrips demand? I think the answer to both questions is yes. 

We are surrounded by English vineyards - Biddenden, Chapel Down, Herbert Hall, Hush Heath and Gusborne are all on our doorstep - and the community shop stocks the Biddenden fizz, so please try and support them if you can. 

Tracy Claridge