With nearly all the grapes now harvested across the country, UK wine producers have moved from being ‘happy’ with them in September, through to ‘delighted’ earlier this month, to ‘ecstatic’ post vintage.
Some have even described it as the ‘vintage of the century’ – a phenomenon that was previously only thought to affect growers in Bordeaux.
‘Honestly, hand on heart this is the best crop I have ever seen in my 17 years at Ridgeview, phenomenal!’ said Ridgeview’s vineyard manager Matt Strugnell.
Meanwhile, UK wine veteran Peter Hall of Breaky Bottom in East Sussex told the BBC that it was the best vintage he’d seen in 45 years of winemaking.
Conditions for UK wine have been perfect pretty much throughout the season. A cold winter made for good vine dormancy; warm, still weather during flowering was followed by perfect fruit set; while one of the warmest, driest summers on record brought the naturally large crop to ideal ripeness.
Clement weather throughout the early autumn also meant that picking was carried out in near perfect conditions, with some producers even leaving grapes on the vine long enough to experiment with making late harvest sweeties.
Unusually, producers are not just optimistic about the quality of grapes for sparkling wines, but for still as well.
‘For those who have planted in the right places and dared to aim for still, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have really seen something very special, with incredible flavours and balance that should produce world-class still wines,’ said Liam Idzikowski, winemaker at Lyme Bay in Dorset.
Hush Heath in Kent has picked red grapes at 94 oechsle, which would give a wine of 13% abv, while the feedback on star whites Bacchus and Ortega is also hugely positive. Across the country, estates are bringing in record harvests, with most picking three or even four times as much as they did from last year’s frost-affected vintage.
‘The main problem has been dealing with the sheer size of the harvest,’ Rathfinny’s Mark Driver told Imbibe. ‘We ordered six new tanks in July, when it was clear that it was going to be [a]good [vintage], but they were only fitted last week!’
The area under vine has more than doubled in the last ten years, from 1,106ha in 2008 to 2,554ha today. Last year’s UK wine production came in at around 6m bottles. But with the perfect conditions allied to several years of heavy vineyard planting, 2018 is expected to be at least two- or possibly even three-times that size.
Indeed, the only challenge for the domestic industry this year could be finding a home for all the extra bottles. An estimated extra four to eight million bottles of 2018 sparkling English wine could hit the market in three years’ time.
Some have wondered, possibly mischievously, whether the extra volumes will be sold to existing sparkling markets such as France, Spain and Italy. Certainly a growing number of producers are looking to export to receptive Brit-friendly markets such as the US. But with the on-trade still very much key to sales in the home market, it is more likely to be up to the country’s bars, hotels and restaurants to take advantage of what is clearly the best vintage in living memory.
At Fuller’s, director of wine Neil Bruce replaced all their non-vintage champagnes with English sparkling wines in 2017, ‘because consumers were ready and the quality was certainly there. I wish we’d had the guts to do it a year earlier!’
Roger Jones, a long-time champion of UK wines at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn is confident he can take up the slack. ‘We have five English and Welsh wines on by the glass and 20 on the list,’ he told Imbibe. ‘It’s a huge selling point for us. We’ll definitely be taking more and selling more.’