The South East can quite rightly claim to be the heart of English wine with over 220 vineyards currently producing. At the start of English Wine Week, Nick Mosley talks to Sussex growers and wineries about how the industry has faired during lockdown and what there is to look forward to over the coming nine days.
English Wine Week is an annual promotion organised by Wine GB – the national wine marketing body – to raise awareness of English wines and their wide availability across the country through retail outlets – from supermarkets to independent wine merchants, hotels, pubs, bars and restaurants.
With lockdown rules now relaxed, vineyards across Sussex will be throwing open their cellar doors to welcome visitors from 19-27 June; offering tours, tastings, special offers and other activities such as the opportunity to picnic amongst the vines.
Following the challenges of the past year, it’s an opportunity for local winemakers to reconnect with both trade and consumers. With hospitality closed for a prolonged period, a significant part of their usual customer-base disappeared overnight. However, many have successfully adapted to the situation with online sales and opening on-site retail.
“Lockdown has done us a favour”, said Simon Woodhead, winemaker and proprietor of Stopham Estate near Pulborough.
“Our direct to consumer sales increased ten-fold when people were stuck at home. We saw a surge in people wanting to support local whilst on-trade venues were shut”.
Kirsty Goring of Wiston Estate Winery near Washington agrees, and sees the coming months as a boon for wine tourism.
“The desire to purchase wine via our website and cellar door has increased dramatically over the last 12 months”, said Kirsty.
“The interest in local and national vineyards has been partly driven by consumers looking for outdoor and UK based tourist attractions in a post-pandemic world”.
Research by Wine GB prior to the pandemic revealed that 26% of existing grape growers in the UK were planning to plant new vines, reflecting the demand for quality English wines not only here in the UK but also internationally.
Although around three quarters of production in Britain is ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine – produced in the same manner as the wines of the Champagne region using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier that thrive on the chalky soils of the south coast – the developing skill and experience of winemakers means still wines are now more than holding their own in national and international competitions.
“Our Stopham Pinot Gris is our top selling wine, known and loved by many in Brighton and across Sussex. It's a deliciously complex, fruit driven wine with aromas of mango and passion fruit and flavours of ripe peach”, said Simon.
“It has won the Independent English Wine Awards trophy for best English still wine for two years in a row so if you're choosing a must-have wine for English Wine Week this is a perfect choice. We’ve a special offer on our website for a case of six of our wines for £79.95 plus free local delivery”.
Kirsty is equally proud of the Wiston Estate Rosé 2014, created by head winemaker Dermot Sugrue and cellared for seven years.
“It’s an outstanding gastronomic wine, quite unlike any other English sparkling rosé”, said Kirsty.
“It has incredible complexity of nutmeg and cardamon notes, alongside refreshing cranberries, rhubarb and rose characters”.
A fairly recent new entry to the English sparkling wine market is Fitz, who are based in Worthing. Uniquely, they produce their sparkling wine in the ‘charmat’ method which is the same process used to make Prosecco in Italy.
“Fitz offers a new price dynamic with customers having the chance to drink English bubbles at Prosecco prices”, said Oliver Peniston-Bird of Fitz. “This opens up English wines to a wider audience and is beneficial to all producers as a starting point for consumers”.
“It’s a more approachable, softer and easier drinking wine. I think the industry were pensive about what we were up to but having won multiple awards for both our white and pink sparkling, the question of quality is answered and the fact that we are now having to increase production is proof in itself”.
As an emerging wine region, the UK is still a small national producer with total production of 10.5 million bottles in the 2019 harvest, however around half a million of those bottles are exported to markets including Scandinavia and North America.
"Our export partners have been incredibly supportive of Wiston Estate Winery and continue to order more frequently and in higher quantities”, said Kirsty.
“We also see more international interest and conversations with other markets and have recently started distribution into Singapore”.
Back home, as consumers become more familiar with English wine there is a clear increase in demand from both the hospitality industry and retailers.
“The restaurant trade has more English wine listings than ever before”, added Kirsty.
"We believe the UK will be explorative through the next 24 months in visiting English vineyards and wineries to build on their knowledge and enjoy the local accessibility of these fantastic wines”.
Find out more about English Wine Week and how to visit Sussex vineyards at www.winegb.co.uk.