Could English wine be on the cusp of hitting the big-time?

It looks like a scene from Languedoc. Or maybe the Napa Valley. Row after row of vines, with volunteers wearing sunglasses as they harvest the vines in the autumnal sunshine.

SHROPSHIRE STAR ( JOHN SAMBROOKS ) 16/10/2018..Volunteers picking grapes at Halfpenny Green Vineyard, Upper Whittimere Farm, Tom Lane, Halfpenny Green, Bobbington.................................................................................................................................  .............................
SHROPSHIRE STAR ( JOHN SAMBROOKS ) 16/10/2018..Volunteers picking grapes at Halfpenny Green Vineyard, Upper Whittimere Farm, Tom Lane, Halfpenny Green, Bobbington................................................................................................................................. .............................

Vineyard owner Clive Vickers leans into the container to admire the impressive crop.

"The crop should make about 100,000 bottles of wine when in an average year we would expect about 60,000 to 80,000 bottles," says Mr Vickers.

But this is not the South of France, or the sun-kissed foothills of California. This is the West Midlands in October.

Halfpenny Green vineyard in Bobbington – a hard-to-describe location equidistant between Dudley, Stourbridge and Bridgnorth – is celebrating a bumper crop this year, thanks to an Indian summer offsetting a chilly start to the spring.

English wine and Welsh wine – neither of which are to be confused with the inferior 'British wine' which is usually made from imported grape juice – has seen a phenomenal growth in popularity since Mr Vickers helped his father plant the first vines at Halfpenny Green in 1983.

Back then, English wine was something was still regarded as at best a novelty product one might sample at an agricultural show, and by many onephiles as something of a joke.

But not any more.

According to WineGB, the body that represents UK winemakers, sales of English wine grew by 30 per cent last year to about seven million bottles. And far from being something that one might have occasionally sampled out of curiosity at an agricultural show, English wines are now very much the mainstream, with Halfpenny Green wines now being stocked by discount supermarket Aldi.

But many experts in the industry believe this could be the start of something much, much bigger, with the UK on the cusp of joining New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa as one of the great New World wine producers, with some of the punchier forecasts suggesting sales could hit the 30 million mark over the next couple of decades.

And while a couple of decades ago the very mention of 'English wines' might have been met with the classic Gallic sneer by our French cousins, that is certainly not the case any more. Six years ago the famous champagne house Taittinger paid £1.5 million for 170 acres of land in the Kent countryside, and is now investing a further £6 million on a new winery to replace its existing buildings. The vineyard had its first full harvest last year – wine-growing is not a business for those in the search of a fast buck – and its first non-vintage wine, which will be sold under the Domaine Evremond brand, was bottled this year.

Also spotting the potential for English viticulture are Russell and Janet Cooke, who last year moved from the United States to take over the Kerry Vale vineyard in Shropshire.

As at Halfpenny Green, Kerry Vale is celebrating a bumper harvest, which has yielded almost 12 million tons of grapes from the five-acre site between Bishop's Castle and Montgomery.

"The last month has been incredibly busy, but also very exciting," says Mr Cooke.

"Harvest time is the culmination of a year's worth of work on the vineyard, and determines our future wine production capabilities. This year’s harvest has been very successful and I’m really looking forward to tasting the fruits of our labour, once the pressed grapes have been turned into wine."

According to marketing manager Nadine Roach, whose parents Geoff and June Ferguson planted the vineyard in 2010, the crop will be enough to produce 12,000 bottles – something that is vital in an industry which depends as much on the weather as it does on demand from the public.

"This harvest should keep us going for a couple of years," says Mrs Roach.

"It's really important to stock up as we didn't do too well last year.

"This year it was cold in April, but the conditions have been more or less ideal since then, with a particularly sunny September."

While Kerry Vale is something of a minnow in even the embryonic English wine trade, it nevertheless employs seven people and plays a significant role in the local economy.

Mrs Roach says there has been a noticeable increase in demand over the past decade as people's attitudes begin to change.

"We've been really busy this year," she says.

"We didn't know how the lockdown would affect us, but the online sales did really well."

Mrs Roach says bottle sales are up 20 per cent compared to last year, with a significantly bigger increase in sales of wine consumed on the premises.

"This indicates more people are trying English wine which could be as a result of an increase in education and understanding about English wine nationally," she says.

Mrs Roach says wine tourism is also a growing industry in the West Midlands, with people travelling from as far afield as London and Manchester to visit the small vineyard.

"A lot of people will stay in the hotels in Bishop's Castle that serve our wines," she says.

"They will then come along to visit us. But also, people will come to visit us and stay in the hotels because they don't want to drink and drive."

While there has been considerable increase in English wines in recent years, the industry has two major hurdles to overcome compared to its more established counterparts: the unpredictable British climate, and the cost. English sparkling wine typically costs about £30 a bottle, and with budget supermarkets offering champagne at little more than a third of that, although the English wine growers will argue that there is no comparison between their artisan products and the mass-produced fizz from across the Channel.

But Mrs Roach says the complicated and punitive duties on English wines also puts the industry at a disadvantage. She says in some cases the duty alone can often cost more than the wholesale price of some European wines.

"Wine duty in the UK is £2.23 for a still bottle and £2.85 on a bottle of sparkling wine," she says, and with supermarkets offering still wines from £2.99, it is not hard to see why that is a problem.

It has been widely reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will address that anomaly in next week's Budget, as he seeks to turbocharge the growth in the UK wine industry.

Mrs Roach is sceptical.

"It will help, but we will still be taxed much more than other European countries," she says.

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