Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene on why it’s English Wine’s time.
Doug Wregg is Buyer and Marketing Director at the internationally renowned wine importer, Les Caves de Pyrene. Passionate about artisan, organic, low intervention wines, Les Caves represents hundreds of producers from over 20 countries. In an exclusive post for Marasby, Doug tells us why new wave UK wines deserve a place at the table.
A long time ago, in a universe far far away, when I was taking my blind tasting paper in the WSET Diploma exam, I was confronted with an unknown white. I sniffed said mystery-wine deeply, thought for a moment, reached down into my deep reservoir of inexperience and wrote down confidently: “English Reichensteiner from Somerset.” (It was a Marlborough Sauvignon, as it happens). It was utterly unlikely, of course, that the wine examination board would select an obscure hybrid grape variety from a county not renowned for producing wines probably made by some amateur who happened to have bought a house with some vines attached to it, to bamboozle this unwary taster.
The point of the story is that I wanted the wine to be English. The idea of such a thing at the time was hilarious, even preposterous! How far we have come since then. Joking aside, however, UK wine culture didn’t just start yesterday. We know that the Romans introduced the vine to Britain as early as 43 BC. Romans, of course, loved wine, and wine consumption was a common pastime in the villas and garrisons.
English Wine Emerges
Although Britain has now been one of the centres of the world wine trade for centuries, England’s oldest commercial winery, Hambledon, was only established as recently as 1952. The first English wines I tasted were in the late 1980s, usually from Germanic hybrid grapes. The wines were by no means offensive if herbaceous grape juice was your cup of nettles, but at the time certainly did not indicate that there was much potential in this country to produce a high-quality product.
Various factors, some coincidental, conspired to bring UK wine to wider attention. The UK, particularly south-east England, had been identified by wine cognoscenti as having a climate (and soil type) akin to parts of the Champagne region. Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay were thus widely planted with the objective of making English sparkling wine a more serious commercial proposition. The naturally high acidity of the grapes could first be tamed and then made more complex by means of long ageing on the yeast lees, blending across vintages and adding a healthy dosage of sugar to soften the wines further. So far, so Champenois.
UK wines were soon being entered into competitions, with each success heralded with critical fanfare. In 2004, a panel judging European sparkling wines awarded most of the top ten positions to English wines. English still wines also began to pick up awards in global wine competitions, notably in the Decanter and the IWSC World Wine awards.
Such results undoubtedly created an enthusiasm for planting more vineyards to fulfil the prospective increasing demand. As the English could seemingly out-Champagne the Champenois, investment and expertise poured into the country, including from several Champagne houses. UK wine was making the transition from enthusiastic amateurism to corporate professionalism.
Still or Sparkling?
This conflation of UK with “quality sparkling” was useful at the beginning in that it created a strong brand identity for UK wine as a whole. By 2017, 68% of wine produced in England & Wales was sparkling, and by 2018 production had risen to 10 million bottles. Undeniably expensive to produce, these sparkling wines could sell for a premium when they were eventually released.
However, sitting on stock for 3-5 years, waiting for the maturation process to work its magic, meant that usually no return was seen on these wines in the short term. As a sensible financial fix, wineries began to add still wines to their range.
Making a quality still wine is a very different matter. For a start, the vineyard must be set up in a way that ensures the grapes can achieve maximum ripeness. In our relatively cool climate, such ripeness is difficult to attain consistently.
The New Wave of UK Wines
The UK scene did not have much to offer when I started buying for our company, which specialises in artisan organic, low intervention wines. Whereas a few individuals were experimenting with organic farming and there was the very occasional flirtation with biodynamics, the resultant wines did not seem to be a convincing reflection of those earthy farming philosophies. Any wine culture needs its outliers to develop.
For us, it was a meeting with the self-effacing Will Davenport, a farmer in Rotherfield in East Sussex, which made us view English wine in a more positive light. The main difference between him and others was his single-minded determination to establish healthy vineyards by eliminating chemical inputs. Those that place the greatest value on sustainable farming methods tend to be the most likely to proceed to the next level and make the best low-intervention wine. As wine journalist, Lisse Garnett, observes: “New wave still wine radicals are crucial. Their open-minded experimentation has opened (and is opening) the way further for still English wine.”
The new wave of UK wines arrived comparatively recently, partly as a result of the bonanza 2018 vintage. This was the year the weather gods smiled and bestowed bountiful bunches of healthy grapes. There were so many ripe grapes at harvest time that vignerons enjoyed the rare luxury of having lots of options to make different styles of still wine.
Other concurrent movements were helping to catalyse change. In the UK, the frequency and scale of artisan growers’ fairs dedicated to wines made from organically, biodynamically and regeneratively farmed vineyards were attracting a new group of open-minded sommeliers and wine buyers. At the same time, a growing number of young drinkers, communicating their preferences through social media, and wanting to buy additive-free wines from ethically-farmed vineyards, were prepared to go and seek out such wines.
Covid lockdown also had an unexpectedly profound effect on the fortunes of new wave UK wines. Having additional time and money to spend on wine, consumers were seemingly becoming more adventurous and happier to trade up. The specialist independent retailers had an unparalleled opportunity to communicate directly with their captive audience and guide their drinking choices. We witnessed an exponential growth in the sale of “naturally made wines”, in particular those from our English artisan producers.
As a wine company, our decision to list the growers we did, was not to fill a UK-shaped gap in our portfolio, but rather to make a statement about the individual qualities that certain UK wines possess. Having the wines on a list is only the beginning. Educating and tasting with both trade and consumers is the next part of the job.
To that end, we organise a biennial event called The Real Wine Fair, a who’s who of the natural wine world with approximately 170 producers from 21 countries attending. We had nine producers from the UK pouring their wines for the 2022 edition, and I was delighted to see that their stands were amongst the busiest at the fair. A fascinating range of wines were on show: not just whites, reds and rosés, but traditional, pet nat and ancestral-method sparkling wines; orange/amber wines; wines vinified in amphorae, eggs and Georgian qvevri; wines from a tiny walled garden in Lymington, Hants to the forested hillsides of Wales.
The Future of New Wave UK Wines
When we first started working with Will Davenport in the early 2000s, we sold around two pallets (around 1,2oo bottles) of English wine per year. We now work with six producers and, in 2022, we sold 25,000 bottles. Not to supermarkets nor high street chains, but small independent retailers, bottle shops, bars and restaurants. Still wine constituted approximately 60% of those sales. Demand was undoubtedly being driven by the curiosity (and enthusiasm) of consumers.
As the crowded wine market forever churns, UK wines must rise to the challenge of both trade and consumer expectations. While retailers may happily showcase a selection of wines from small UK producers, the restaurant sector has yet to fully embrace home-grown talent. There are a few reasons to account for this. Firstly, the relative lack of exposure to the wines and resultant lack of awareness about UK wine in general. Secondly, pricing. The cost of making a wine in the UK is exorbitant – the price of grapes, rents, dry costs, machinery, labour all contribute to the unavoidably-high selling cost of the wines. Thirdly, despite more curious and adventurous sommeliers, there is still a sense that, as a quality option, only the classic sparkling wines merit their places on serious wine lists. All this needs to be addressed.
UK wines will develop down multifarious paths. A wide palette of grape varieties has been and is currently being planted (Pineau d’Aunis from Sussex? Welsh Albariño??). Regional differences are slowly being embraced. More informed discussion is taking place about soil types and microclimate.
English wines should be judged for what they are, rather than for what they are not. Climate change, greater professionalism, individual genius and dedication, as well as an openness to experiment, create the preconditions for change.
In the future, we will see even more careful farming and astute natural winemaking. Hand-crafted English and Welsh wines already sit proudly in our portfolio alongside our many hundreds of others from 20+ countries. We sell them as wines made with the same spirit, but also with their unique point of difference.