A relatively new player in the market, English wines have found their mark over the past decade. Even outshining the Champagne houses of France! Indeed, these are halcyon days for the British wine industry. Across the nation, particularly in England, the wine sector is witnessing rapid growth. Growth combined with a burgeoning reputation for creating stunning wines across the world.
A phenomenal period of growth
By the end of 2020, there was a total of 3,800 hectares of land under vine. This number has more than doubled in just eight years. In the last five years alone, 8.7m vines have been planted.
What does that mean for production?
British wine producers will never be able to compete in terms of quantity with the major players in Europe. Or even the likes of California, South America, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand. However, what it lacks in quantity, vineyards across the country are making up for in quality, with critical praise and awards for its still and, in particular, its sparkling wines.
So, where are these award-winning wines being produced? What are the key grape varieties and wines bringing much cheer? What makes the English wine industry stand out?
Location, Location, Location
Much like the TV series of the same name, vineyard location is essential. Grapes need the right climate and the right soil – or terroir, to use the French term used by the industry – to produce a succulent harvest.
In the UK, 98 per cent of the 800 or so vineyards are in England. With the other two per cent in Wales, the Channel Islands and Scotland – yes even Scotland! Vineyards stretch all along the south coast from Kent to Cornwall. Meanwhile, producers can also be found in East Anglia, which also benefits from a similar climate, and dotted around the country in the Midlands and Yorkshire. The majority of vineyards are found in Kent, Sussex (East and West) and Surrey.
Habitually, the south-east of England benefits from a warmer, drier climate. This explains why those counties are the center for wine production in England. In addition, it also has ideal limestone chalk soils for vines to grow – which is exactly the same as those across the channel in Champagne. It is, therefore, no surprise that in 2015 the famous Champagne house Taittinger announced it was acquiring land in Kent, given the soil and climate are very similar to those of northern France.
Looking back at the history of English wine, Britain’s oldest commercial vineyard can be found in Hampshire’s chalky South Downs. Hambledon was established in 1952 by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones. It gained a new lease of life under new ownership in 1999. In terms of size, the largest vineyard in the country is Denbies in Surrey. It has 265 acres of vines, and is amongst the largest producer of English wines.
Choosing the perfect grapes
Given that the climate and terroir match those of France’s champagne region, it is no surprise to find that main grape varieties grown in the UK are the same that go into the world-famous fizz.
Data from WineGB show that Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grape varieties account for 75 per cent of the grapes grown. Lesser-known varieties – Bacchus and Ortega – are the next prevalent. Bacchus wines are produced in Kent and Norfolk getting a lot of praise from wine critics.
Internationally recognised English wines
Where English and Welsh wine producers have excelled and enhanced the reputation of wines from these shores, is in producing world-class sparkling wines.
Internationally recognised, the sparkling wines are in two distinct categories. A Classic Cuvee, signifying it has been made from the three classic champagne grape varieties. Then there is the Blanc de Blancs, which is often exclusively made using only chardonnay grapes. In 2020, sparkling wines accounted for 64% of the 8.7m bottles produced.
Coming in the slip stream of highly-regarded sparkling wines, are English still wines, which are on the rise in terms of production and quality. English still wines are hampered by the vagaries of the weather more and also the price point at which it can appeal and compete in the marketplace.
But it is improving. Primarily whites and rosés, chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Bacchus are the main grape varieties. There is no doubting the quality of still wine produced, with a definite hint of experimentation using other grape varieties as part of the blends.
Award-winning English wines
It is just the prices that can be hard to swallow as opposed to the wine itself. As for the impact of the English (and Welsh) wine scene. This was demonstrated in the results of the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards. Indeed, a Kent-made 2011 vintage Brut won a coveted Best In Show award – one of just 50 presented.
The awards emphasised the UK wine industry’s strength in depth. Alongside one Best in Show medal, UK wines won two Platinum and nine Gold medals, as well as 81 Silver and 51 Bronze.
In conclusion, British wine has come of age. It has cemented itself on the international stage and its success is encouraging expansion with more land becoming home to vines. Experimentation and a desire to harvest new grape varieties, will push the industry further. Without doubt, the British wine scene’s boom looks set to continue for many years.