English Sparkling Wine… Then, Now and Beyond

22nd February 2017


England. The country where we put the kettle on in a crisis, the changing of the guard, where full English breakfast is enjoyed, disappointing World Cup performances suffered, wonderful rolling countryside, fish and chips, Morris dancing and just tucked in behind them all, a growing gem that is English Sparkling Wine. Christopher Walkey explores the journey so far and vision for the next ten years.

Partaking in the feature editorial are:

  • Corinne Seely – Exton Park Vineyard
  • Kirsty Goring – Wiston Estate
  • Bob Lindo – Camel Valley
  • Sam Lindo – Camel Valley
  • Gareth Maxwell – Hattingley Valley
  • Charlie Holland – Gusbourne
  • Steve Brandwood – Sixteen Ridges Vineyard
  • Ben Hunt – Halfpenny Green Vineyards
  • Jacob Leadley – Hattingley Valley
  • Simon Roberts – Ridgeview
  • Mark Harvey – Chapel Down

I am lucky to stand in the middle of the buzzing sector of the drinks industry that is sparkling wines. One that offers wonderful wine growing regions across the globe, diverse and highly talented people and of course some amazing tasting wines. Set in amongst them all is English Sparkling Wine, one that has received many positive news stories of recent, grown in worldwide reputation, blossomed in quality and variety of tastes and is firmly making an impact when it comes to what people are choosing to pop open for celebrations and their fine dining experiences. I thought it would be good to interview some key names in this industry sector with important questions to get an idea of where things are and what progress we can expect to see.

There is an amazing opportunity for English Sparkling Wine (ESW) to really lay down strong foundations for itself to enable positive future growth and a cemented reputation internationally. If we throw in to the pot that Brexit will soon be upon us, how do you think the next ten years will pan out for ESW for UK sales?

The ESW Industry is now moving on from the second phase and entering a third phase where vineyards and winemakers aspire to premium positioning. However, compared to the international competition, ESW still have everything to develop. These competitors have a longer and more successful trading history. Their initial investments in vineyards are already paid off, leaving them free to develop market penetration, while English vineyards – at least some of them – still need to produce their first vintages.Corinne Seely

The key will be retaining quality and an even supply into the market. Given the new potential freedoms regarding duty of English wines, we could have a real advantage over imported wines if the UK government are prepared to support this dynamic home grown enterprise.Kirsty Goring

We have been laying down the future here at Camel Valley for nearly 30 years! Growing, only at the rate of sales is the key. Our climate can produce great wines, but with very low average yields, compared to Champagne, for example.Bob Lindo

Interesting dimension Brexit, though effect for us will be small as our sales in Europe are not at all huge, whereas the Far East, Middle East and the USA love it.Sam Lindo

Whilst there has been significant growth in the previous few years, there has only been good coverage in the national press in the last 2 years or so. Brexit will be a great opportunity for us in my opinion both domestically and abroad. With the weakening of Sterling making exports cheaper and imports more expensive, we as an industry will benefit from this. I feel that we will see even more focus on buying locally and helping support British industries which will help wineries in the UK.Gareth Maxwell

When you consider how much ESW has developed over the past decade, it is impressive to see how far we have come in such a short space of time. I imagine developments over the next ten years will be just as dramatic. Demand continues to outstrip supply and with the current appetite for ESW this shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Expansion of vineyards and new entrants to the market will increase competition, but bearing in mind our relatively modest share of the sparkling wine market, there is still huge potential for growth.Charlie Holland

I believe that very strong foundations are already in place and having recently joined the ESW revolution after spending 15 years with a Champagne company I’m very optimistic about the prospects for building solidly upon them. I can only see the momentum gathering pace over the next decade and it is probably true to say that Brexit will have a positive effect on domestic sales especially.Steve Brandwood

From a fairly small market at the moment ESW is really gaining press momentum mainly because of its quality and similar style to Champagne. Many vineyards are being planted so the growth is increasing rapidly. The more products that we are making as a country going into the market can only mean more publicity and eventually more sales as a country. Brexit we hope will give smaller UK producers a chance to fight against rising wine duty. This will make English wine more competitive in the wine trade. Brexit and the weaker pound has also meant local merchants are turning to English wine instead.Ben Hunt

Domestic support is strong, but exports will become increasingly important as production volumes increase as they are projected to over the next 5 years. As everyone knows a weak pound can aid exports, but future trading agreements and the strength of the pound are very uncertain. One big positive is that exports are growing and the early signs are that these new markets are taking a real liking to ESW. The next 10 years will test the domestic appetite for our home grown wines, but volume increases will be steady rather than dramatic.Jacob Leadley

What Brexit will bring is still an unknown quantity so difficult to say how this will affect sales in Europe. We have built up long standing, cemented relationships with our European distributors which I believe will stand after we leave the single market. We are still a small percentage of the overall market so there is room for the increased production of ESW.

Over the next 10 years this volume is predicted to increase significantly, alongside this I think the public’s awareness of ESW will improve, aiding the sales. We still have a long way to go educating the majority of the wine drinking audience that we have a thriving and improving English wine industry. In the coming years I hope to see possibly predominantly English wine lists, we are already seeing an increase in shelf space provided for ESW in the main national supermarkets.

The success of Prosecco over the last few years is another factor that will lead to increased English sparkling wine sales. As Prosecco drinkers palates mature they will naturally gravitate to other sparkling wines, this along with increased awareness and availability of ESW sales again should see a significant increase.Simon Roberts

This is an incredibly exciting time for our industry with high and growing demand for ESW in the UK. Given the scale and growth of other sub categories within sparkling wine in this market (Champagne at 30 million + bottles; Prosecco at 90 million + bottles) the head room for growth is significant and the challenge for our industry will be to manage supply against a surplus of demand for many years to come!Mark Harvey

Expansion in producers and more land being planted with vines, can Champagne’s dominance be seriously challenged by ESW on the worldwide scene?

If ESW one day challenge Champagne, I do not believe that it will be because of more land being planted, it will only be because of the recognition of their premium quality… when people want to buy an ESW because they feel like it, just as sometimes they feel like having a glass of Champagne. If one day we can get people thinking like that, we will really be getting somewhere!Corinne Seely

I think it absolutely can, but it will (of course) take time. There is a fascination in the uniqueness and the story behind wines, which means people are keen to try something different and unusual, particularly younger drinkers. The climate has got its part to play too and there is an enticing narrative for English wines to engage people with. If things really get exciting, we can expect to see a lot more interest from the Champagne houses following in the footsteps of Taittinger and the like.Kirsty Goring

Yes. ESW definitely more than competes on quality, but it’s unwise to chase quantity and market share, like it’s a commodity. The first thing the new wave of investor/growers have to learn is that viticulture is a form of agriculture and the close level of control that they are used to, may be inappropriate. You need to build a reputation and sales over time, rather than just inventing a brand; winning a few Gold medals along the way helps too.Bob Lindo

In the UK, the Champagne producers will lose a reasonable share of their market in the next 5 years to English producers, but it will take a very long time before we can seriously challenge their dominance on the worldwide scene. I do believe that we have a very good potential market in the US where they may really ‘buy in’ to ESW and become a key export country for us.Gareth Maxwell

ESW accounts for less than 2% of that produced in Champagne, so this is unlikely to challenge their dominance from a volume point of view. However, with the continued increase in knowledge, skills and experience I believe ESW are already able to compete with the best sparkling wines from around the globe.Charlie Holland

Champagne is always going to be the obvious comparison, but we shouldn’t be in awe of it. We are not there yet in terms of being able to challenge Champagne’s volume dominance, we can however challenge Champagne’s dominance on the occasions when a premium sparkling wine is called for. One thing is for sure, for a serious challenge of Champagne’s place at the head of the market to be undertaken there needs to be a long-term collective effort by everybody involved in standing together to promote ESW generically on the domestic and international stage.Steve Brandwood

Why not?! Hundreds of acres are getting planted and England is proving to be a great climate for growing sparkling style grapes. It might take a long time to catch up with Champagne, (if ever) but ESW is certainly heading in the right direction.Ben Hunt

A recent quote from the Champagne Bureau while talking about the UK market was “increasing competition is being seen from alternative sparkling wines”. While the main competition at this stage is from Italy I think that the rise of ESW is also grabbing some attention. Globally I think we are in the early stages of taking our wines to the world and with Champagne on average being the second best-selling sparkling wine in most countries (second only to any domestic production) around the globe – we have a little way to go. However, this must be the long term goal.Jacob Leadley

Champagne is and will always be synonymous with sparkling wine, it will take a long time to overtake a ‘brand’ that has been built up over the last 200 years. Having said that, as the next generation of English sparkling producers take over and the industry grows, I hope to see ESW becoming an intrinsic part of the national culture. As the industry grows it will be the tertiary industries surrounding it that will help to cement the position of ESW; tourism, manufacturing and servicing of the industry.Simon Roberts

Absolutely. In the short term, ESW is competing directly with leading Champagne brands in key cities worldwide, with increasing numbers of critics, sommeliers, trade and consumers surprised and delighted by the quality of wines from the leading producers. Clearly reaching the broader base and scale of Champagne will take more time, but we are getting there! Mark Harvey

Do you think that ESW producers need to be protected more in regards to where ESW can be produced? Are we saying that any parcel of land in any region is fine, or should a governing body start to classify the wines by region and / or limit produce? It works for Champagne does it not?

English producers have at least 3 advantages which are: The number of producers are small, compared to other regions around the world – There is a healthy competition between each other – The politics are not yet too involved, compared to the Old World where the stakeholders can pressure the industry. They should retain these advantages and work on a successful relationship between them. Is the current English hectarage big enough to already create a distinction between the different regions? I do not think so. For example, even if you can effectively cut the region into sub-regions, remember that Champagne works on its entire territorial brand. The whole region manages to work together. At this stage, I think English wines should avoid this added complication. I believe in terroir. Terroirs produce authentic styles and a fantastic diversity of possible wines.Corinne Seely

ESW needs to have control over the country of providence. As we start to export more, there is a real potential of confusion with ‘British wine’ (where grapes are not necessarily from the UK) and clarity of production source and method is key at this early stage. I’m not sure that we are ready to truly distinguish the differences in regional variability with such a young industry. Terroir is without doubt important but at the moment, it is a delight to see how the different wines are developing. I don’t think there’s any need to rush into regional categories. The quality standards of the ESW PDO are a good structure for the moment.Kirsty Goring

I campaigned to be free from planting bans and Government restrictions. Natural selection will mean that the viable sites will survive and the unsuitable sites whither on the vine. I really do see a future for single vineyard wines.Bob Lindo

I don’t think that the site is an issue at present, the viability of vineyards almost looks after itself at the moment as there are many factors that need to be in alignment for a vineyard to work to produce premium grape varieties. There should be a clear two if not three tier system, one that focuses on Germanic varieties, one that consists of the grapes used in the quality ESW and then one premium tier. I would envisage the top tier being a more rigorous classification that utilises an international panel of judges and sets out much more stringent quality / ageing criteria.Gareth Maxwell

I would advocate increasing the quality of ESW, but not at the expense of over-regulation, especially if this restricts innovation. Rather than regulate where one can or cannot plant vines in the UK, introducing higher quality parameters when assessing finished wine produced would be a better way to ensure quality.Charlie Holland

There are definite benefits in this, particularly when it comes to educating consumers and of course protecting them as well as the producers, so with the longer term in mind, yes, work should be undertaken on regional classifications, permitted varieties and yields, particularly as export markets grow and with it the international requirement to understand us. With this in mind, when classifications are drawn up they need to be kept clear and simple for everyone to understand. However, at this present time, I do feel we are still pioneers and as such whilst every producer knows that growing more grapes doesn’t equate to more quality, there should be freedom to experiment in finding the best vineyard locations and which grape varieties are subsequently the most suitable for them.” Steve Brandwood

Champagne is too heavily regulated. I believe that ESW should have freedom with no or limited restrictions on grape varieties or production methods. This gives the whole country a chance to create its own unique style. I could probably see wines being named regionally but this would not be compulsory.Ben Hunt

Taking a very long view – yes. However I do not feel that we as an industry know where these lines should be drawn. Current production is spread over large areas of England across many soil types. We are producing some fantastic wines, but also some poor ones, bringing quality levels up as an industry is very important. How the industry achieves this in the next 5-10 years will be interesting to watch.Jacob Leadley

Protecting our wine producers is a little way off at the moment, we are still a relatively new industry and I feel we need to be far more established before we start introducing such restrictions. We are starting to see regions that are more successful than others and in time this may lead to natural ‘appellations’ which makes sense for tourism. We have already introduced parameters for quality ESW and these will become stricter as we grow. The public on the whole will not appreciate the difference between a wine from Sussex or Kent especially if they are sitting in a restaurant in New York or Tokyo. For the time being I think more concentration on promoting brand England is more helpful.Simon Roberts

We think that to place restrictions on a nascent industry is entirely unnecessary and that one of our key strengths is innovation, which can be stifled by over-regulation. We are in the enviable position of discovering our own terroir and it will be the quality of the wines and producers (and importantly their ability to select the best land) that will dictate which regions will flourish and which will fail.Mark Harvey

A new name for ESW – British Fizz – Leave things how they are – Maybe a name per region? What are your views?

Would you like a glass of ESW, darling?’ is not as romantic as you would expect, if I may say…. Now that its premium quality has been recognised and accepted, the ESW industry should think of a distinctive name for its wines before the market decides for them….if it is not already too late.Corinne Seely

O! be some other name: What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.Kirsty Goring

Brands will dominate and there isn’t a generic ‘name’. If there had been a name, then someone would have thought of it by now! People confuse PDOs with names, where in fact, they are appellations. The ‘British’ PGI, the ESW PDO are not names it is a protection to ensure that when the term ‘British’ is used in any sparkling wine context, that the grapes are grown in Great Britain and the traditional method is used. It’s to avoid carbonation and imitation. If you want some fun, look at the Champagne labels on a shelf in your local supermarket. If the brand has a reputation, like Bollinger, then Bollinger is written large and Champagne small. If it’s a less valued brand, then vice versa, Champagne is the largest word.Bob Lindo

Not for one minute are we saying people should call it British Fizz, we just want to protect ESW and stop people from using the term from other countries.Sam Lindo

At Hattingley, we have focused on export since day one so have been well aware of the strength of Britain as a brand abroad. When visiting export markets, most people refer to us and our wines as British, not English. We should use this as our brand and embrace it, but not ‘Fizz’. Fizz speaks of a cheaper wine and/or category and we should not associate ourselves with it. We would rather see the term ‘British Sparkling’ used.Gareth Maxwell

The success of ESW has been built on the strength of its leading brands and this is where our focus should remain. As a category, ESW is very clear and easily defined. Charlie Holland

Whilst I feel that a generic name will manifest itself at some point in the near future and may possibly help things along in certain markets as a result, I am not a fan of the terms ‘British Fizz’ or ‘Brit Fizz.’ I don’t think either are elegant or ‘premium’ enough to capture the essence of what this country is producing.Steve Brandwood

British Fizz is an effective name to try and slow down the sales of imported grape concentrate made wine. Personally ESW is already gaining a good reputation that isn’t coming across as ‘cheap’.Ben Hunt

The age old question – do we need a new name. I have been making wine in England for only around 6 years and I must have heard of at least 30 suggested new names. I understand the need to protect British Fizz or British Sparkling but I don’t expect to see it on many bottles any time soon. If consumers choose to call it British Fizz then I am all for it, I have always felt a new name, if we ever have one, will come from the consumer and not from within the industry. Jacob Leadley

A generic name for quality ESW is still quite divisive and so far very few suggestions have been appropriate. We at Ridgeview have long championed the name ‘Merret’ as a generic term chosen in honour of Christopher Merret who lodged the processes of making bottle fermented sparkling wine in the early 1800’s. I feel we need to establish ourselves as an industry especially overseas before such things become of any concern. Simon Roberts

If there is a need for a generic name, then ‘British Fizz’ is not the answer in my view! It lacks the premium and aspirational associations that could make sense. Personally, I am not sure there is a need for a generic at all. The significant potential of this industry will be realised by the strength of individual producers of scale and their brands. Sub-dividing still further by counties makes even less sense given major producers in this country source grapes across boundaries… this risks confusion at all levels including, crucially, for the consumer.Mark Harvey

Christopher Walkey

Co-founder of Glass of Bubbly. Journalist and author focused on Champagne & Sparkling Wines and pairing them with foods.