Time to rethink Grape Britain

Views from south Devon’s Sharpham Estate vineyard, where they make sparkling, white, red and rosé wines (c) The Lemon Grove

Grape Britain may be a catchy quote for a newspaper headline or social media post, but it also suggest an intriguing change in climate, attitude and opportunity for the British, notably English, winegrowers. Longer, warmer summers over the past 20 years have finally seen bottles filled with English, mostly sparkling white wine, winning prizes. English sparklers are no longer simply a token of fun; thin, very acidic and generally undrinkable. Todays vintages are not just opened for amusement or by friends and family of the producers. The most popular grapes varieties grown in English vineyards are are classic Champagne-region grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, as well as Bacchus and Ortega.

Wine production in England at Sharpham Wine & Cheese
Tasting a rosé at Sharpham Wine & Cheese (c) The Lemon Grove

The country has always has the right geography and soils for grapes but not always the right climate. Weather and temperatures have fluctuated over the centuries with wine, mostly white, being produced by religious orders in the Middle Ages, for example around the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, in places such as Colchester, York and Shrewsbury.

The fundamental techniques of wine growing have barely changed over 1,000s of years but as researchers from the US-based Kellogg School of Management wrote in early 2019, wine is “an industry where brands succeed not simply by making wines that please consumers. Instead, producers strive to make something great and novel—something beyond consumers’ imaginations. They then compete to influence critics, experts, and the media, who in turn shape the tastes of distributors, retailers, and, ultimately, drinkers”. Can English winemakers leverage social media to reach these stakeholders.

Modern times sees marketing and branding of social media useful not simply to increase sales, which is of course desirable, but also used by wine makers to understand how tastes are shifting and how to perhaps shape their wines as blends or vintages. So, do winemakers craft their wines to please their customers? Ultimately wine growers have always (mostly) grown grapes and made wine to attract buyers, but social media has created an unprecedented immediacy of interaction. In the US, winemakers have been chasing recognition from the points system created by wine critic Robert Parker in the 1970s and published across the various media formats of the Wine Spectator media group. Parker and his fellow points system advocates created of categories of wines that have sought such recognition. In the UK, points systems are offered by magazines such as Decanter, while supermarket chains often create their own system, reflecting the demographics of their customers and their spending habits.

Social media written for and about the English wine scene has also created a mini-genre in the vast scope of food tourism. It’s no longer enough for vintners simply to sell to wholesalers and wine shops, they need to engage the end consumer with Instagrammable labels and star-architect designed wineries. Mark Driver, owner of the vast Rathfinney Estate in Sussex, says on his website: “We hope to sell approximately 10-15% of our production from our cellar door and into the local market,”, says. The company has an active social media presence. “But wine tourism is more than just accommodation and wine tours, it’s about brand building and educating people about how wine is made and what traditional method sparkling wine is all about. (Modern) vineyards are fairly new in the UK so we need to explain how wine is made and that Sussex sparkling wine is a hand crafted product”.

The wine is a Pinot Noir dominant blend and was launched in the summer of 2019, is described as a 2015 vintage Blanc de Noir English sparkling wine.

“This blend [has] notes of red apple skins and light red fruits, and is being heavily featured in online posts, wine and travel blogs, meeting the growing demand for stories for food and wine tourism,” says a spokesman for the vineyard. Rathfinney is now one of over 200 vineyards open regularly to tourists across England and Wales.

Climate change is shaking up the temperate weather systems that flow around England bringing with it consistently rising temperatures that have attracted wine makers from both within the country and further away, notably the Champagne region of France. There are now over 450 winners in the country

combining to produce over 3.2million bottles per year. Most of the flourishing vineyards are found in the south-eastern and southern counties including Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and then further west to Hampshire and Devon. Many lie on the same attitude of the northern French region of Champagne.

So as vines have been planted so have websites, newspaper columns, magazines, organisations being seeded. In May 2019, the industry trade body Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) released the latest planting figures confirming that around 3 million vines were planted tin the previous year – equating to an additional 690 hectares of vineyards and a 24% increase in the overall land now under vine. British vineyard labels are no longer simply hand drawn designs, apparently sometimes by the vineyard owners’ children. Today, branding and marketing agencies are introduced to the project at an early stage. “We hope to sell approximately 10-15% of our production from our cellar door and into the local market,” Driver says. “But wine tourism is more than just accommodation and wine tours, it’s about brand building and educating people about how wine is made and what traditional method sparkling wine is all about. Vineyards are fairly new in the UK so we need to explain how wine is made and that Sussex sparkling wine is a hand crafted product.”

Ultimately there’s lots of potential for English wine brands to harness social media to reach and engage with consumers while promoting loyalty. “Brands only need to see how craft brewers have used social superbly and often as their core marketing channel. English wines might be winning awards for their quality but there is still opportunity to engage customers more intimately through well crafted social media. “There’s a huge audience of engaged food and drink lovers using social media to talk about and share their passion,” says Clarity. These audiences offer huge potential to the makers of English wines and can let smaller businesses punch above their weight and change the way makers make and drinkers drink Grape Britain wine.

Bruce

I am freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise; culture and travel. I have also written about the global upstream oil and gas industry, shipping and current affairs. Based in London, I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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