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Published:  23 July, 2008

New technology, new investment, new quality initiatives and award-winning products. Has the English wine industry finally managed to shed its "home-made, low-quality image"? David Williams reports

Received wisdom about English wine, number one: "The people who make English wine are retired landowners with too much money and enthusiastic amateurs with not enough skill." Received wisdom about English wine, number two: "As a wine-producing nation the British make great beer." Received wisdom about English wine, number three: "Nobody in their right mind wants to drink it, unless they happen to be on a day trip to a vineyard." It is this kind of prejudice which, over the years, has prevented the 382 vineyards and 115 wineries that make up the English wine industry from being taken seriously in the UK. However the signs are that things are changing, with change emanating from an unlikely source - the British Government. Last year the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) awarded the English wine industry funding for the first time in its history. Though small in size (23,000, to be matched by a further 23,000 raised by the industry itself), the grant has enabled the United Kingdom Vineyards Association (UKVA) and English Wine Producers (EWP) to work together and bring to fruition a number of schemes to raise both the quality and the profile of English wine. On the quality side - the responsibility of the UKVA - the money is being used to provide incentives to join the English Quality and Regional Wine classification schemes and to provide courses for winemakers in the latest oenological practices. Stephen Skelton, chairman of the UKVA, said at the time the grant was announced: "We are greatly encouraged by the progress that is being made within these grant-funded projects. Every wine-producing country in the world has a quality-wine scheme and we are pleased to have this boost to our own version." On the marketing side, taken care of by EWP and its energetic marketing director, Julia Trustram Eve, the grant has been used to fund promotional work including a new website - -featuring news, press cuttings and history; and an English Wine Week involving visits to vineyards and a media campaign (see panel). It has also been used to fund the EWP English Wine Marque, a standard mark which qualifying producers can reproduce on their bottles and on plaques in their vineyards. Trustram Eve explained: "The Wine Marque is a visual endorsement of the quality in English wines. That quality is verified through the wines gaining Quality or Regional wine status, and also, to kickstart the use of the Wine Marque, wines that have gained an award in one of the three main competitions (the IWSC, IWC or the English & Welsh Wine of the Year competition)." The design for the marque was finalised last month, and according to Trustram Eve has already been greeted enthusiastically by the trade. "It's making good progress, with a number of vineyards having already applied to use it," she said. "It will be particularly helpful on the retail shelf, as it will enable the consumer to see immediately that a bottle is worth trying, and we have had some very positive responses from the major retailers who welcome the use of a quality symbol on the wines they stock." So what is behind this sudden desire to take English wine seriously? Trustram Eve reckons it is down to a shift in quality in English winemaking. "Producers can't expect to make shoddy wine and get away with it anymore," she said. Trustram Eve reckons the rise in standard is particularly apparent in English sparkling wine. "Our sparkling wine has made the trade and press sit up and take notice," she said, pointing to the medal-winning success, and rave press reviews for Ridgeview and Nyetimber's sparkling wines, among others, as evidence. It is an opinion which is shared by Paul Bastard, category manager for wine at the Co-Operative Wholesale Society, who has recently commissioned an own-label sparkler for the 600 Co-Op stores under his remit from Chapel Down. The wine came out top on Food and Drink last month, leading to the customary jump in sales that only Oz Clarke can deliver. All the same, Bastard says the decision to go ahead with the listing was a bit of a "risk, but with our own-label we are trying to move away from the staples. We also list a Spanish sparkling red which is just as risky, but we are not here to do what everyone else does. We want to plough our own furrow. Having said that we have no doubts about the quality of the product. In terms of quality, sparkling wine certainly has the best chance of succeeding in the UK." Mike Roberts who heads up Ridgeview, an East Sussex-based winery exclusively devoted to sparkling wine, is even more effusive about the style. In fact Roberts - who says the wines created at Ridgeview are made under every Champagne AOC rule, bar being grown in the region - sees sparkling as the only quality-wine area where England can compete with more established producing nations. "I use some natural extractive logic," Roberts explained. "How much still Chardonnay do the Champenois make? What is the point, when you can make a product that will sell for more, and be of a higher quality? We have lovely acid levels here, and our geology is almost identical to that of Champagne. It seems evidently sensible to me to make a high-value, low-volume product, where we can compete, rather than a low-value, high-volume product where we can't." The suitability of the English climate and soils to growing high-quality sparklers means that most of the major English producers are concentrating a lot of their efforts on the sparkling market. However, not everyone involved in English wine shares Roberts' belief that making still wine in England and Wales is an entirely thankless task, far from it. Bastard said he thinks "there are some other lovely wines being made in England," and mentioned Woking-based outfit Denbies as a particular favourite. Trustram Eve said: "I believe we produce some first-class still wines, on the whole using white varieties. There are some very talented winemakers in this country." Kevin Shayle, vineyard manager at Three Choirs agrees, but takes a more pragmatic line. "You have to do both still and sparkling. The sparkling is to impress and be seen to be making quality. The still is to satisfy our supermarket customers." The problem with all this is the tricky business of hitting the price points and providing the products the multiples desire. As Nicky Branch, chairman of English Wines plc (a company formed last year after the take-over of Lamberhurst and Carr Taylor by Chapel Down), said: "Shifting the price points at the multiples is like getting blood out of a stone." So difficult in fact, that according to Mike Allen, general manager at Denbies, his company has stopped trying to shift them. "We were in a lot of supermarkets before, but we pulled out of most of them because on every bottle that was sold, we lost money." In at least one area of the off-trade the absence of Denbies is not a problem. According to Sara Brook, one of the company's buyers, the English wine renaissance has yet to hit the shelves of Wal-Mart UK. The company stocks Three Choirs' basic white blend in 75cl and 25cl, but little else. "To be honest customers aren't ringing us up asking for more English wines," Brook said. "The one thing we have done is to put the local wines on the shelves in Kent. Basically we have the offer there, but we have no plans to increase it." Bastard, too, has problems finding space for the still products. "A still white wine at 7.50 would be a minority product," he said. "We have trouble shifting Spanish, Italian or Portuguese still white wines at that price, so we simply wouldn't have space for it." Despite this difficulty, Denbies, English Wine plc, Three Choirs and others are maintaining listings in a number of multiples. What's more, they are selling a considerable amount through their own retail outlets. According to Trustram Eve "more than 50%" of English wine is sold through visitor centres and "farmgate" retail outlets. For Allen this has obvious advantages. "We get more than 250,000 visitors a year to our vineyards and most of them will go home with a bottle of wine, plus we get the correct mark-up in our stores which you simply can't get in the multiples." It seems that at least one clich about English wine remains (foot-and-mouth notwithstanding) partly true - people still drink it on day trips to vineyards. As for those other two pieces of received wisdom Let's just say that if British breweries continue to close at the same rate you might start to hear people saying the following: "As a beer-producing nation, England produces some excellent wine."