Sparkling prospects

In yet another summer of British sporting success and Royal revelry Jane Gray raises a toast to increasing English wine production and the first ever English sparkling vintage to win gold at the Effervescent du Monde international wine competition.

Brits don’t need much excuse to indulge in a cork-popping frenzy. Victory in the Ashes and last month’s royal birth provided a great excuse to get some fizz on ice again having just cleared out the empties after Murray’s Wimbledon win.

But while most are ready to splash out on some sparkling wine for almost any patriotic purpose, not to mention birthdays, christenings, exam results or any other special occasions, how many British citizens back up the revelry by buying British bubbles?

Increasing numbers, says the English Wine Producers Association.

Furleigh Estate wine vats

While it is a little early to assess the impact of the birth of Prince George on sales of English sparkling wine the association’s marketing director Julia Trustram Eve says they are hopeful it will produce a similar effect as the Jubilee and Olympic celebrations did last year and the Royal Wedding the year before.

Name nuance

If you’re looking to buy wine which has been grown and produced in the UK, it’s worth noting the nuance between English or Welsh wine and British wine.

While the latter may be matured and bottled in the UK, it is not in the same quality league.

British wine may be made from grape juice concentrate imported from locations such as Eastern Europe.

It tends to be much cheaper than English or Welsh wine and is sweet.

“In the year of the Royal Wedding, those producers that responded to our survey showed an increase in sales in the first quarter of the year of over 50% compared to the previous year. Furthermore, Waitrose, the leading high street retailer of English wine, reported that their English sparkling wine range saw 23% increase year on year in June this year.”

And it’s not just bubbles that are doing well. English wine in general is increasing in popularity and a new era of quality in the industry is being hailed at highly regarded events like ProWein, the largest international trade fair in the northern hemisphere for wine producers.

There are around 1500 hectares of vineyards planted in the UK, around 128 of which have wineries for production. The vineyards, who have been able to make the significant capital investments required for production and who have the expertise and man power to make their own wine, buy up grapes from the rest.

Volumes of wine produced from year to year are subject to the vagaries of weather conditions, like any product which relies on a farmed crop, but on average, the UK makes about 3 million bottles of wine a year.

You may recognise the names of some of the biggest producers from the shelves of UK supermarkets where they are growing in prominence. Chapel Down, based in Kent and Nyetimber and Ridgeview in Sussex are the biggest selling brands.

The finesse of fizz

Press technology for the production of sparkling wine is different to that used in still wine production.

“The pressing process for sparkling wine is more refined and requires greater precision,” explains Rebecca Hansford, co-founder and owner of Furleigh Estate.

“The grapes are pressed by a balloon which gently inflates inside the machine. This method is used instead of harsher pressing methods because, for sparkling wine, you must only extract the first, the very finest, juice from the grapes.”

Traditionally, Champagne master would sits and judge the pressing process by eye. Today, advanced computer controlled presses like those used at Furleigh Estate, are programmed to get the process right first time – resulting in less wastage and better consistency of product.

There are many up and coming labels however and more producers are reaching the stage when they can make the additional investments in equipment and expertise required to produce sparkling wine. Ms Trustram Eve says this is a mark of maturity for a winery.

Furleigh’s first

Furleigh Estate, based in Dorset is one such rising star. Established in 2005, its very first still vintage, a red wine, immediately started winning medal in local taste awards and the company won its first international awards in 2011.

The producer’s big ambitions however, were always pinned on producing sparkling wine which carries better cache as a premium brand and can return higher margins.

With this in mind, the firm invested in a computer controlled Champagne press and other specialised production equipment for sparkling wine. And in 2009 produced its first sparkling vintage.

Today, Furleigh Estate makes £40,000 bottles of sparkling wine as well as 10,000 bottles of still wine year and has just taken the last instalment of a Department for Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) funding package which has enabled the company to expand production capacity.

“The Defra funding contributed thrity per cent of the cost of the capital investment we wanted to make,” says Ms Hansford co-founder and owner of Furleigh Estate.

The grant came in recognition of the vineyards collaborative work with local farmers to help them make the most of their arable land. “We’ve been encouraging neighbouring farms to invest in vines, so that we can buy up their grapes to make our wine,” explains Ms Hansford.

The strategy ensures farmers are producing for local customers, getting a good price for their harvest, and helps Furleigh increase volumes without having to expand footprint, increase land management costs or look for grapes from further afield.

The Defra grant sought to perpetuate this collaboration says Hansford. “They put in around £45,000 and we contributed the other 70%.”

Glass half full but challenges remain

You won’t be surprised to learn that the high level of duty applied to the sale of alcohol is a major challenge for wine producers in the UK – as indeed it is to all manufacturers supplying to the UK market.

“Duty is an inevitable reality,” comments the English Wine Producers Association’s Trustram Eve. “Though some of our members feel government could help by offering some small concessions on duty to UK-based producers – similar to those extended to smaller breweries.”

For Rebecca Hansford at Furleigh Estate, the main issue around duty is its impact on cash flow. “It’s not always appreciated that duty must be paid by the manufacturer on the day the product leaves their premises, while the customer may not pay for receipt of it for 30 days or more,” she explains.

Another unavoidable cash flow and financing challenge for wine producers, particularly sparkling wine producers, exists in the need to fund a big gap between start-up costs and first revenues.

It takes seven years from planting the vines to having a sparkling wine ready for market compared to about four years for still wines,” explains Trustram Eve. “So a lot of investment has to be made before you can reap the results and this is one of the key challenges for industry growth.

It is a challenge which vibrant entrepreneurs are tackling head on however and Trustram Eve says that the seven year time lag is currently hiding a whole new raft of English sparkling wine producers who established their vineyards in recent years.

“This enabled us to extend our temperature controlled storage area and double capacity through the acquisition of a second press and additional tanks. We also used the money to invest in some automated labelling equipment.

Furleigh Estate is significantly smaller than some of its main rivals in the UK, all of who face the additional challenge of overcoming the anonymity of English sparkling wine in the marketplace.

As the opening of this article indicates however, progress is being made to market the UK’s growing prowess in wine production.

Awards and accolades obviously help, and Furleigh Estate is gathering these apace. In July this year it won the Independent of Sunday Best Vineyard in Britain Award and scooped a gold medal in the 2012 Effervescent du Monde competition – a global competition which last year had 552 entries from 24 countries.

Furleigh Estate’s Classic Cuvee 2009 is the first English Sparkling wine ever to win a gold medal in this competition.

While it is focussed on the UK market, mainly through on-trade routes to market, Furleigh is also exporting small quantities. A particularly promising partnership is blossoming with a Japanese importer and Hansford says she is discussing the possibility of participating in a UKTI-led trade mission to Hong Kong.

Overall, UK wine producers are unsurprisingly small game in international markets, but the English Wine Producers Association hopes that government’s support for the growth of ‘Brand Britain’, both domestically and abroad, will help increase consumer thirst for their member’s vintages. “Around 5%-6% of total production is exported at the moment. But we are confident that this will rise in the next few years,” said Trustram Eve.