Rathfinny

Brexit good for vineyards? Don’t bank on it

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 04, 2016
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There is a wave of euphoria going the rounds of some vineyards about how Britain’s wine industry will benefit from Brexit. I hope this is right but it won’t happen if we only look at the benefits and not at the other side of the balance sheet. Sure it will make our exports cheaper as long as it lasts. But remember, the reason the pound has gone down is that the financial markets think Brexit will be bad for economic growth partly because foreign-own industries such as motor manufacturing and financial services – which came here to be inside the tariff barriers – will switch new investment and people to Europe. This will lead to higher unemployment in the UK and a big blow to confidence and spending power which may lead to fewer purchases of the more expensive domestic wines.
Devaluation makes exports cheaper but also imports more expensive. Virtually all of the machinery to pick and process grapes – like the massive press that arrived at Rathfinny this week – comes from abroad as do the vines themselves and many of the gangs that pick them.
It is all very well to presume that Brexit will lead to the Government reducing tax on English and Welsh wines but this is unlikely at a time when there will almost certainly be a rising deficit that the Government is pledged to eliminate albeit over a longer perion than previously thought.
In these circumstances the Chancellor would have to be barmy to reduce the duty on wine when 98% of the proceeds would go to importers who dominate the market. And if he decided to reduce the duty on UK made wines alone in a discriminatory way then that would be sure to trigger a retaliatory trade war abroad.
There could be unexpected benefits. If agricultural subsidies are eventually reduced sharply then that might persuade more farmers to invest in a growing indigenous industry rather than farming subsidies.
I remain bullish about the revival of the UK wine industry and it will be improved by a lower pound. But the irony is that if Brexit succeeds (very unlikely in my view) then the pound will once again strengthen thereby removing a competitive advantage that arose from expectations that it would fail.

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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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Vineyards of tomorrow

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 14, 2014
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Colour changes at Bride Valley

WE HEAR a lot about well established estates winning prizes – but what about the vineyards of tomorrow? I have been looking at a few ventures still at the incubation stage and they couldn’t be more different. Bride Valley is at Litton Cheney set in beautiful Dorset countryside (above). Its sparkling wine is eagerly awaited within the trade because Steven Spurrier, who owns it with his wife Bella, is globally admired as a wine expert and is taking something of a risk in suddenly deciding to practise what he preaches by establishing his own vineyard in his seventies. It is a bit like a theatre critic deciding to write their own play.
 Among numerous distinctions Steven set up the Judgement of Paris in 1976 when wines from California, unexpectedly, beat top wines from France in a blind tasting dominated by French tasters but including himself. Now the taster is to be tasted – though judging by a rather delicious sample of  their Classic Cuvee 2011 (almost entirely Chardonnay) I had from of the few early bottles I don’t think he has anything to worry about.
Bride Valley covers 25 acres spreading across several lovely Jurassic shale hillsides. It looks equally good in summer or in Autumnal mists when the red and yellow tints can warn vineyard manager Graham Fisher of differing soil conditions underneath or nutrient deficiencies. For instance, although the land has a chalk base similar to the terrain of Champagne country too much chalk can yellow the leaves while sudden reddish tints can indicate fractured canes.  The grapes are made into wine at nearby Furleigh Estate which has won gold medals for its own wines. It is in safe hands.
   JAGAJAG in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, by contrast, is a vineyard without wine. At least, not yet. It has a fully fledged infrastructure – including fine rooms and a highly regarded restaurant – but no bottles to sell. In 2013, a good year for UK grape growers, Jagajag had to abandoned its crop as the fruit wasn’t good enough. But they persevered and with a much healthier looking crop in 2014 they are hoping to have bottles ready to sell for next year. The quality of wines in Wales, led by multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouth, has risen dramatically in recent years and it will be interesting to see whether Jagajag’s patience is rewarded.

Frank Myers at Wythall

WYTHALL, over the border in Herefordshire, is another contrast. It has grapes but no infrastructure from which to sell at the moment. However, if you are planning to attract visitors to a new vineyard then having a 500 year old mansion house is unlikely to prove much of a handicap. Frank Myers (above) has singlehandedly planted nearly 3,500 vines  on 3.5 acres at Wythall, near Ross-on-Wye which has been owned by the family of his wife (the Euro-MP Anthea McIntyre) since the early 17th century. And they have documents to prove it.
Frank –  a successful businessman in his own right – has had a dream about being involved with a vineyard ever since his childhood in the centre of Manchester where, he says, he rarely saw a tree.  The main field (above) curving off to the right looks a bit like a dog leg on a golf course. He admits he may have to cut a few trees down to admit a bit more light but is pleased with this first crop which is to be turned into wine by the highly regarded Three Choirs vineyard at nearby Newent which provides an ecosystem for dozens of growers in the area. If his plans pan out and the wine is good enough this will be a lovely vineyard to visit.
EVEN smaller is the vineyard on the Sussex/Kent borders planned by Paul Olding who has served his apprenticeship on an allotment in Lewisham, London where he has been making his own wine- up to 100 bottles of Olding Manor – for some years as a preparation to realising his and his wife’s dream of having their own vineyard. Now they have purchased land  in east Sussex at Eridge Green including 1.5 acres on which they will start planting vines in 2016 after tilling the soil for a year. It will be interesting to see how this develops and one wonders how many other enthusiasts have been starting their own small vineyards up and down the country to become part of the revival of UK winemaking. Let me know . .
LAST, but certainly not least is Rathfinny which I visited recently. Its first wine (all sparkling)  is not due for a couple of years but its plan to produce a million bottles of fizz from a planned 400 acres has already sent shock waves throughout the industry. Pessimists say there is no way they will be able to sell a million bottles without disrupting the nascent UK sparkling wine industry. Optimists point out that a million bottles is barely one percent of the UK domestic fizz market and the growing quality of English wine will see off the competition and boost exports.
THESE four examples are typical of what is happening in the UK where big growers are starting to think on a global scale while boutique vineyards are happy to service very localised – but premium – markets  from their cellar doors enabling them to retain the wholesale and retail profit margins.

Wythall, 500 years on

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager at Rathfinny

 The interesting fact is that well over 90% of all new plantings are of grape varieties that go to make sparkling – particularly the classic combo of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which is used for Champagne. I see no reason why UK wines should not go on from strength to strength. If they don’t then at least we will all be left with stocks of prize winning fizz with which to drown our sorrows.

 

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The grapes of Rath . . . Britain’s biggest vineyard takes shape

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 20, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Rathfinny’s first grapes

IF YOU want to speculate about the future of English sparkling wine look no further than the soft undulating hills of Rathfinny Estate in east Sussex, the biggest gamble in the history of this nascent industry. It has already had more publicity than most of the rest of the UK’s 400 plus vineyards put together even though it has yet to produce its first glass of wine. On a flying visit yesterday I had to content myself with a glimpse of the first grapes (see above) and I had to walk quite a long way down the vineyard even to see those. Cameron Boucher, the highly experienced vineyard manager from New Zealand (below) says they have already planted 150 acres of the 400 planned which would make it the biggest vineyard in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. He says the first of the smaller quantities of still wine will be produced next year, though it may not go out under the Rathfinny brand. It will be several years yet before its flagship sparkling has matured in bottle long enough to be released on to the market.

 

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager


 Mark Driver, who left a lucrative job in the City to plough £10 millions of his own money into Rathfinny, is in danger of giving hedge funds a good name. He is nothing if not ambitious, planning to go from scratch to selling a million bottles of English sparkling against the established giants of Champagne about 90 miles across the channel who share the same chalky geological strata as Rathfinny.
Some people think he is barmy, others that he will usher in the next stage of the English (and Welsh) wine revival as it ups its game from a niche product to a serious industry. Having in my previous career as a journalist chronicled the remorseless decline of the UK’s manufacturing base over 40 years, I find it refreshing to observe a fledgling industry with such juicy prospects.
Of what other industry in Britain could it be said that it has a world-class product yet barely one per cent of its domestic market? Most of the wine produced in Britain is sparkling and we regularly win top honours. In the recent prestigious Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships England scooped 11 gold medals and 14 Silver, more than any other country except France.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Vineyard guru Stephen Skelton (@spskelton) in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain, points out that most of the growth in sparkling wine in the UK has come from Prosecco and Cava selling at well under £10 a bottle, a market that UK sparklers shy away from and that three quarters of Champange is sold at less than £20 a bottle which won’t leave much profit for low volume UK producers.
But, if warmer summers persist, a larger output could bring unit prices down in Britain and nowhere more than Rathfinny which stands to reap economies of scale as great as any in Champagne and on land that is considerably cheaper. But two things will be crucial to its success: it has to produce wine that wins top medals and – something manufacturing industry never had to contend with – it needs a succession of good summers.

English Wine Centre

 

 

 Before visiting Rathfinny we had our first trip to the long-established English Wine Centre at nearby Berwick  (left) which combines a shop selling a huge range of English (not yet Welsh) wines with lovely gardens, a hotel and a delightful restaurant serving a high standard of food which we enjoyed along with samplings of English wines of which the Nutbourne from West Sussex and Surrey Gold whites stood out for us.
We decided to walk there from Berwick station along the Vanguard Way, a picturesque path along the slope of the downs which brings you out a few hundred yards from the wine centre. We were late as it took us a while to figure out that the path went straight through the middle of a field of closely packed with seven feet high rows of sweet corn where GPS is of limited use.

 

Follow Victor Keegan on @BritishWino or @vickeegan

His London blog is LondonMyLondon.co.uk

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