fizz

Can Britain make sparkling wine as well as posh fizz?

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 12, 2015
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RathfinnyUKvine
Rathfinny (above) has gone into high quality fizz in a big way -but no-one competes at the cheaper end.

BRITAIN’S motor industry is brilliant at manufacturing custom-built premium cars but no good with volume cars (at least until overseas buyers showed us how). Is it the same with sparkling wine? English and Welsh sparkling wines have done amazingly well, regularly winning gold medals against the rest of the world including Champagne. At the recent International Wine Challenge (IWC) England won a record 14 gold medals compared with 30 by France which has hugely more vineyards.
But at the cheaper end of the market it is a different story. Prosecco, that lovely sounding – if ancestorally challenged – Italian sparkling wine has swept all before it at the £5 to £10 a bottle end of the market. It has seen off Cava, the Spanish equivalent – though made slightly differently – which once dominated the lower end of the UK market. It hasn’t seen off cheap English sparkling for one very good reason. There isn’t any.
I can’t think of a single English vineyard producing sparkling wine at under £10 a bottle. As a result, although UK sparkling is a great success story it can’t hold a candle to Prosecco in terms of quantity. According to Mintel, sales of Prosecco rose an astonishing 75% in Britain in 2014 to approaching £1 billion and overtook Champagne for the first time. Since Champagne sales also rose strongly Britain’s balance of payments on sparkling account is getting much worse despite the success of British fizz.
Why can’t we produce affordable sparkling? After all, our farmers produce lots of high volume food from peas to asparagus. Why not a British Prosecco? During the IWC tasting day I asked a number of our leading vineyards whether they had thought about moving into the sub £10 market. Only one said it was contemplating such a move. The others quoted the same reasons for steering clear: heavy investment, lack of economies of scale, lower yields per acre in the UK, changing fashions etc. Stephen Skelton, the wine expert, says in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain that the sub £10 a bottle matrket is not a price sector that uk producers “want to, or can afford to be in”.
He may well be right but this sort of reasoning does not stop us from investing in other farm products. If Britain’s farmers were faced with £1 billion imports of a cheaper form of carrot they would respond immediately. Is it just because noone has tried?
Prosecco is much cheaper to produce than Champagne-style wines which have to be matured in bottles over a number of years. It is fermented in tanks rather than bottles and can be ready to sell in a matter of months so it’s good for cash flow.
Of course, there is the major question of branding. What could we call it? Prosecco has a posh(ish) image even though it could soon lose it by becoming too cheap (I bought a bottle in Aldi recently for £5.29p of which £2.63 was duty and when you add in Vat, transport and production costs it doesn’t leave much, if anything, for profit). Other Proseccos sell for up to £10 or more so there is still a lot to play for.
Prosecco used to be the name of the grape as well as the region – so British vineyards could have marketed similar wines under that name. But Italy wised up. It is still the same grape – Glera – but since 2009 Prosecco can only legally come from the region. That’s what I mean by ancestorially challenged.
Britain’s challenge is to find someone bold enough to produce it on a big scale and then sell it under a catchy name to satisfy the exploding consumer demand for cheap Prosecco-style sparkling wines. In other words to do what Rathfinny – which is planting over 400 acres – is doing at the premium end of the market: Think big and reap economies of scale. Is there anyone out there ready to to take the risk?
(Edited version of an article in UKvine, the new magazine dedicated to English and Welsh wines)

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A toast to the 400th anniversary of the Englishman who invented champagne

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 25, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

Merret’s house is the second one on the right

It is 400 years since the birth of Chistopher Merret (1614 – 1695), the Englishman who first set out the principles of how to make what is now called Champagne. Dom Perignon came along much later. This weekend, the place where he was born – Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – is holding a small Festival of Fizz to celebrate this little-known occasion. In Merret’s time Champagne was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired factories able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques. There was a shift to coal because wood was being prioritised for the navy because the Government was worried that a shortage of wood might affect the building of ships.
These days even the French admit that the English invented the “méthode champenoise”. Indeed the first mention of the word “Champaign'” anywhere was in English literature of the time.
While being delighted that Winchcombe is staging a festival this weekend  I am surprised that  the booming English and Welsh sparkling wine industry, which is awash with international gold medals, didn’t use the opportunity for a big marketing effort. I only heard about the festival two days ago when I read an eye-catching tweet from Oliver Chance of Strawberry Hill Vineyard (@englishbubbly) who said that Strawberry Hill was the nearest sparkling wine producer to the birthplace of the inventor: a great pitch but be careful, Oliver if you bump into @elgarwine – they could have a counter claim!

I am very grateful to Jean Bray, historian and journalist, – who is giving a talk on Merret at the White Hart Winchcombe at 6pm this Sunday (25th) – for guiding me to the house where he was born, a former pub called the Crown, on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street (see above). It is presumed, she said, that he was educated at the local grammar school – an Inigo Jones building now called Jacobean House – on the same side of the road opposite the church (just as it is presumed that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school though there is no actual evidence in either case). There are brass plates to his parents in the church on the right side wall as you enter (see, right).
Merret was a bit of a renaissance man excelling in other fields including compiling the first list of  birds and the source of fossils. The son of a mercer, he went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden (which had a large vineyard in those days) and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn where Dickens was baptised. I am sure the fizz festival will be a deserved success and I wonder whether it will spawn a bigger idea. Could it do for Winchcombe and English sparkling wine what Hay-on-Wye did for second hand books?
Meanwhile, we should all raise a glass of English fizz this weekend to toast Christopher Merret, the man who chronicled the invention of méthode champenoise before the French turned it into one of the most successful brands ever. Now is the time to bring it all back home.

The local grammar school built by Inigo Jones (above, eft)

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