Blog post

In rude health

Big wine story of the last week? It has to be the news that Chapel Down has acquired over £4m of equity funding to expand its operation.

Admittedly, this is the kind of sum that Constellation (as was) used to lose down the back of the sofa, but in the context of the English wine world it’s a truly sizable investment.

The team from Tenterden plan to use it for building a brewery for their Curious Brew range, and to plant more vineyards. It’s proof of three things: firstly, that their business model is sufficiently robust to attract investment at a time when most businesses are finding it hard to borrow £5 for a packet of fags, secondly that craft and unusual beers are enjoying a resurgence and they’re right to cash in on it, and thirdly that English wine is still on a bit of a roll.

The planting of the first vines at the Rathfinny Estate – slated to be a 400 acre vineyard by 2020 – in Sussex last year was a big step-up in the way the industry is perceived – as a serious business proposition, not just a passion for hobbyists.

And I think, there’s been a huge change in attitude amongst the sommeliers that I speak to as well. When Imbibe launched just over six years ago, most of the on-trade (including home-grown sommeliers) saw English wine as a vague curiosity; something to be viewed with a patronising pat on the head but not something to be taken seriously.

That’s no longer the case. English fizz is all over wine lists and (to a lesser extent) supermarket aisles. And people aren’t listing it out of altruism or patriotism; they’re listing it because it’s good.

Over the last couple of years in the Sommelier Wine Awards we’ve seen the country going toe to toe with other fizz producers and emerging not just unembarrassed, but with credit. Last year the country picked up half a dozen medals, including a couple of Golds. This year it was twice that.

New wineries seem to be springing up all the time – and making stuff that really merits a serious look. From a personal point of view, I’ve been impressed with Mike Roberts’ work at Ridgeview for a long time, but it’s heartening to see half a dozen new arrivals – Jenkyn Place, Coates and Seely, Hush Heath, Biddenden and Henners occur to me just off the top of my head – pushing hard too.

It’s all proof of an industry in rude health.

This being England, of course, there’s a ‘but’… In this case, two of them.

Firstly, the 2011 and (particularly) 2012 vintage. Cold, wet and problematic almost from budburst to harvest, the latter was a stinker across Europe, and it remains to be seen how the UK coped. Badly, I should imagine. In this most marginal of climates, volumes and quality are sure to be down, and it’s to be hoped that this doesn’t mean scores of delistings or hyperbolic misery stories in the press.

The other danger is, in a sense, that the industry has moved from oddity to accepted member of the wine world. It’s hard to justify ‘les anglais sont arrivés’ style headlines when everyone with half a brain knows that this is no longer news.

So, how to move on from here and create a compelling new narrative for the industry?

Stories like Chapel Down’s big new investment are a good start. British wine needs others to follow their lead.

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