English sparkling wine reaches adulthood
Picture: Gusbourne Estate, March 2007
Lots has been written about English sparkling wine recently, and it seems to me that the industry is now entering a new phase. If its infancy began in 1992, the year in which Nyetimber made their first fizz, and its adolescence happened throughout the 2000s as more and more producers started up, then in 2016 it has entered full maturity.
Several reasons suggest this. One of the most notable to me as a writer is an increase in PR outreach. The number of invites to visit estates or attend tastings is increasing significantly. Coverage of English wine is more commonplace not just in the wine press but in mainstream media. Furthermore, the story that English sparkling wine can achieve greatness is no longer new - the message is evolving as this new chapter unfolds.
The reason for this increase in activity is simple: a big increase in production. English Wine Producers state that vineyard hectarage has doubled since 2007, with something like four million bottles of sparkling wine made in 2014. For the last decade, doom-mongers have been predicting that an inevitable oversupply of English sparkling wine will result in a price crash as producers compete to shift their product. That hasn't happened (yet?) but there is certainly a feeling that competition is getting fiercer.
For example, there is a storm in a coupe currently brewing over the establishment of a Sussex PDO. Briefly, a group of producers from that county has submitted a proposal to get protected status for their wines but there is doubt over whether they can prove sufficient uniqueness in their produce, and justified cynicism from others as to whether it benefits marketing more than quality.
Competition inevitably increases when there is a lot of money at stake. Rathfinny have invested over £10 million and still haven't released any wine. Taittinger recently announced their investment in English vineyards, alongside others, worth at least £4 million. Gusbourne were bought by Lord Ashcroft, becoming a PLC in the process. When I worked there as a vineyard assistant in 2007-08, there were only two or three permanent employees. Now, they sponsor Gieves & Hawkes. Dozens of other brands are jostling for attention, all of them aiming at a premium level.
English fizz is growing up fast. Witnessing this seems somehow rueful - there is an inevitable loss of innocence as producers confront the realities of an increasingly crowded market. Yet as their collective experience grows, quality is getting better and better. The challenge now is to sustain a long and healthy life.