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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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