English sparkling wine has been on a roll for a few years now. After all it was back in 2010 that Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée 2003 was judged the world’s best sparkling wine at Bollicine del Mondo; the same year that Ridgeview won Decanter’s International sparkling wine trophy with their Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006. Since then the vineyard area in England has reached an all time high, driven largely by new plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with sparkling wine in mind. So perhaps it’s time to ask, who are the best producers of English sparkling wine?
There are already many competitions which attempt to assess the quality of individual English sparkling wines, including the Decanter WWA, the International Wine and Spirit Competition, the International Wine Challenge, the UK Vineyards Association Competition and the Judgment of Parson’s Green. These will be joined later this year by the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships. There’s certainly no shortage of competitions out there which English sparkling wines can (and do) enter and also a great number of medal-winning English sparkling wines.
One approach to determining the best producers is to pool the results from the various competitions and to see who’s won the most awards. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when assessing producers (as opposed to individual wines) you want to see how they have performed over a period of time. Yet many English sparkling wine producers were established quite recently and may have only entered competition this year. Producers such as Langham and Sugrue Pierre have produced some outstanding individual wines, but do not yet have a substantive track record.
Secondly, producers often don’t enter the same wine into every competition, indeed they often don’t appear to enter a particular competition at all. (I say “appear” because competition organisers are notoriously protective about providing information on wines which fail to win awards.)
Thirdly, judgments have to be made as to what medal tallies actually mean. Some producers may enter five or more wines into a given competition, whereas other producers might have restricted themselves to a single entry. Different competitions appear to award a significantly higher proportion of gold medals to wines entered. So should a gold medal from competition x have equal worth to a gold medal from competition y? And how does a producer with say three silver medals compare with another producer who has a single gold? None of these questions have simple answers, so involve matters of judgment rather than spreadsheet calculations.
The final results shown below are based on compilations from the five competitions listed above for the period 2010-2014. Producers with track records for only part of this period are disadvantaged and have not been pro-rated in some way. In this sense the classification resembles the approach taken by Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer in their Classification of New Zealand Pinot Noir. Presenting the results for English sparkling wine in terms of three classes seems appropriate given the current size and development of the industry. All the producers listed in the classification have produced noteworthy wines and there are many other producers not shown on this classification who are undoubtedly striving to enhance the quality of their products. This is a very exciting time both for producers and consumers of English sparkling wine.
The vineyard area of England & Wales has increased every year since 2004 according to official figures in the UK Vineyard Registry which is maintained by the Food Standards Agency.
For 2012, the total vineyard area of England & Wales was estimated to be 1,438 ha, of which 90% was bearing. The vineyard expansion which has occurred in the current cycle since 2004 differs from previous plantings in several key aspects. These include the scale of investment, rate of planting and increased use of technology to map soils and ensure precise planting patterns. Yet the most important and long-lasting change is in the choice of cultivars that have been planted.
In 2004 the UK’s most planted cultivar was the hybrid varietal Seyval Blanc (94 ha) followed by the German crossing Reichensteiner (89 ha). Plantings of Chardonnay at that time were a mere 36 ha. Fast forward to 2013 and Chardonnay has become the UK’s most planted cultivar with 327 ha, closely followed by Pinot Noir with 307 ha. The spectacular growth of these two cultivars follows the recognition of the very high quality potential of the English sparkling wine category. Almost all recent investment into the English wine industry has been directed towards sparkling wine and the cultivars of choice are those used so successfully in Champagne.
Whereas Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made up 13% of the UK’s vineyard in 2004, by 2013 they occupied 44% of a much larger national vineyard. The English wine industry is very much nailing its colours to the mast of sparkling wine and, judging by the quality from producers such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Camel Valley, this looks to be a very sound move indeed.
Wine Standards, a branch of The Food Standards Agency, is the Government organisation responsible for keeping records of vineyards in the United Kingdom. These records are maintained in a Vineyard Register which is updated annually.
According to the Vineyard Register for 2013/14, there are 448 commercial vineyards in England & Wales. Additionally, there are 89 hobby vineyards, meaning that their owners do not sell any production which might come from them. The total area of these 537 vineyards amounts to 1,520 ha. The majority of vineyards are located in southern England, but they extend north as far as Yorkshire and The Humber, and westwards into Wales.
A comprehensive database of individual vineyard plots is also maintained by Stephen Skelton at EnglishWine.com. He records a total of 599 vineyard plots, with a total area of 1,640 ha. The reason for this discrepancy compared to the FSA’s Vineyard Register is probably due to the under-reporting in the latter of non-commercial vineyards.
The data at EnglishWine.com has been used to produce a chart of the vineyard plot size distribution for England & Wales. This shows that almost half of all vineyard plots are <1 ha and that ca. three-quarters of all plots are <2.5 ha. Currently there are only two vineyards which are greater than 50 ha. Denbies Wine Estate hosts the largest vineyard in England and Wales (107.3 ha) and is the only one to exceed 100 ha. The relatively small size of many vineyard plots in England & Wales means that economies of scale are limited and production costs, of necessity, will be on the high side.
The area of land given over to vineyards in England & Wales has increased markedly and rapidly from a low of 761 ha in 2004. The increasing reputation of English, especially English sparkling, wines has driven this growth and has attracted the attention of wealthy investors such as Lord Ashcroft. Future investment into the industry over the next few years will likely see the establishment of vineyards larger than the current norm and given over to those cultivars most suitable for producing sparkling wine.