white wine pour

This week, the vineyards of southern England are either beginning their harvest or nervously checking the forecast.

Throughout October our domestic vineyards and wineries will be at their busiest. All forecasts seem to suggest the grapes they pick will be as good as, or better than, the other very good years we’ve had recently.

English wine has been on an upward curve for a number of years, but now it feels like it is gathering some significant heft. Chapel Down recently reported significant upturns across all key financial metrics: off-trade sales up 25%, on-trade sales up 20%, gross profit margin up to 55%… the list is long and impressive, not least given the wider economic malaise.

And it’s not just them. There are quite a few English wine brands expanding, increasing and growing their distribution, overall awareness and general performance, including Ridgeview, Nyetimber and Camel Valley.

Each owes a huge debt of gratitude to “the crazy ones” who first saw the opportunity in the 80s and 90s. These were the men and women who saw the possibilities in some small parcel of south-facing, gently sloping, chalky land and thought they’d have a go – people like Mike Roberts, or Stuart and Sandy Moss.

The vineyards they created and inspired now produce outstanding liquid (if you haven’t tried any yet, what are you playing at?). Whether still or sparkling, English wines now more than hold their own at international awards, are often preferred in blind taste tests in France, and are considered a premium import in many markets.

Arguably just as importantly, they have all resisted the urge to create some kind of English generic equivalent to champagne, prosecco and cava, preferring instead to build their own individual brands.

What wisdom, in what was an immature sector. I first heard the idea of an English generic name being laughed loudly out of the room by the visionary Frazer Thompson, then the main man at Chapel Down, with the argument of a man well-versed in brand creation: why would we seek something generic when we can build and own something specific? Brands are what deliver value to consumers and shareholders alike. 

I love seeing this sector evolve physically, with more parcels of land being identified and converted. These are often in southern England, but we’re also creeping more into the Midlands. The Finnish winemaking region has now applied for recognition to the EU – and if you can grow grapes there, it makes Yorkshire, Northumberland and Scotland seem more “in play” (I know it’s not quite that easy, but you take my point).

So yes, the great houses of English winemaking will be busy making their products for the next few months, but make no mistake: they are even busier sponsoring, activating, partnering, developing comms and building their brands all year round. Here’s to them all.