English wines don’t tend to figure on most people’s radar.
Usually relegated to niche farm shops or tucked away in a dusty supermarket corner, they don’t get much of a look-in next to the classic Italian and French. But times are changing. The English wine industry has been quietly bubbling away (literally) for years now and people are starting to take notice. Brexit rolled around, the pandemic locked us up and now, the wine on our doorsteps is having a real moment. Sales at Waitrose, which stocks more than 100 English and Welsh wines, rocketed by 46 per cent against 2020 from January to May alone this year; so what’s behind the sudden boom?
For the winemakers, it’s been a work in progress. As temperatures rise across the UK (thanks, climate change), the grapes growing on our chalky soil have thrived, with vineyards across Kent, Sussex, Essex, Devon and Cornwall all flourishing. In the past 10 years alone, there have been six wine vintages (when there are enough quality grapes from a single year to make a batch of wine), compared with just two in the Noughties. But there’s also a PR element to English wine’s popularity. Ivan and Charlotte Weightman, the duo behind South Downs vineyard Wolstonbury, recognise the need for trust to be built in a wine that’s relatively new on the global scene. ‘It takes time to grow vines and make wine, and equally it takes time to build confidence. A new player in that global market has to form an identity as a whole so that consumers can know what to expect,’ the Weightmans explain.
Wolstonbury, a 90-acre farm at the foot of Wolstonbury Hill, planted its first vineyard in 2015 and now has nine acres of chalk vineyard growing Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. While sparkling wines hold a sizeable 71 per cent share of the English wine market and are what most people are used to on home soil, still wines are being chosen now more than ever, too. ‘I think the pandemic and Brexit have fast-tracked [the boom in English wine] to an extent — consumers are keen to shop locally,’ Charlotte says.
Chris White, CEO of Denbies Wine Estate, one of the largest wine producers in the UK since 1986, has also found a silver lining to the pandemic. ‘Our wine sales over the past year have experienced a 500 per cent increase, which has gone some way to offset the drop in our hospitality side of the business,’ he says, as Denbies usually offers tours, tastings and a restaurant. Wolstonbury also found a golden opportunity to start selling its wine at its Cellar Door shop last Christmas, after walkers had exhausted their lockdown routes and found a slice of escapism at the vineyard.
The community aspect of sourcing local wine isn’t lost on its producers. Chapel Down, England’s leading wine producer, recently launched a campaign celebrating its growers, pickers, shareholders and customers to create a more ‘democratic take on the [sparkling wine] industry’. ‘We know consumers are not engaging with the overly polished, exclusive sparkling wine messaging of old,’ explains chief commercial officer, Mark Harvey. ‘They want to connect and be a part of the community behind their brands.’
The Weightmans are equally invested in the community around their business. ‘For us as wine makers, we gain enormous experience from our consumers. They want to buy into a story, a dream and feel a little bit part of it. We haven’t met anyone through our door who is not excited by buying locally.’ And if the past year is anything to go by, they’re not likely to.