English wines to drink to: Mary Fagan toasts the success of our new industry

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The Independent Online
LATE on a warm summer evening, the vast amphitheatre of neat rows of vines looks like a picture from Champagne or Chablis. Only the greenness of the scene tells you that this particular vineyard is not in France but in the heart of the English countryside.

Denbies, the newest and largest of England's vineyards, is just outside Dorking in Surrey. It is built on the same chalk escarpment that emerges on the other side of the Channel in Champagne country. Its owners, however, are fiercely proud of its Englishness and regard the new venture as evidence of growing confidence throughout the English wine industry.

Although the first planting at Denbies was in 1986, it takes about four years before the vines yield wine and the official opening of the vineyard and the Californian-style winery and visitor complex was in April this year. According to Richard Brooks, the sales manager, the aim of the plush centre is not just to increase revenues, it is to educate and convince the public that English wine is worth drinking.

This is a message already getting through to the wine trade's buyers. Not so long ago the buyers, particularly those from high street chains, would have considered the idea of stocking home-grown produce a bad joke.

The fact is that English wine is on the way up after decades of hard work by the pioneers who rebuilt the industry after the Second World War. The first attempt failed around 400 years ago after the dissolution of the monasteries. Its revival about 50 years ago was inspired by people such as Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at Hambledon in Hampshire. Now there are 440 vineyards in England and Wales.

Only recently, however, has English wine done well in international competitions and - with mixed consequences - gained European Community recognition. As if inclement weather and a sceptical public were not problems enough, success has brought new obstacles.

The 1992 vintage topped 26,000 hectolitres - 2.6 million litres - surpassing the 25,000- hectolitre milestone at which EC restrictions come into force. This means that growers cannot plant more vines unless for the production of 'quality' wines. That in turn means that no hybrid grape varieties can be included - a huge problem for UK vineyards as some of England's hardiest and most popular varieties with the ability to withstand the British climate fall into that category.

One hybrid, the Seyval Blanc, is used in half the British vineyards, depriving many good wines of 'quality' status. Ironically, in 1991, a Seyval wine - Tenterden Reserve - won the Gore-Browne Trophy, regarded in the English wine industry as the supreme accolade.

The Government has yet to impose the ban and is not expected to do so this year or next. The English Vineyard Association, which represents the interests of many growers and wine makers, maintains that the ban should be shelved until an average of 2.5 million litres is produced over at least five years.

The 'quality' wine issue poses a further problem for UK growers. EC regulations state that the same wording cannot be used on ordinary table wine and quality wine. This means that there cannot be the simple distinction of 'English table wine' and 'English quality wine'.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has tried to overcome the problem by introducing a standards scheme under which wine can be labelled 'Quality Wine of the Southern Counties'. It has not gone down well. According to Commander Geoffrey Bond, who runs the EVA: 'That offended many people who do not think of themselves as Southern Counties. I do not see why we cannot keep it simple and use the word English for ordinary wine and for better products. It is yet another EC regulation which is not relevant in this country.'

The result has been widespread boycotting of the scheme. Even vineyards indisputably in the South are up in arms as they want to have the word English on all their labels. The upshot is that consumers have no guarantee that one wine on the shelf is any better than another, irrespective of whether they carry the 'quality' designation or not.

That said, the average consumer is probably more concerned about price. Few English wines cost less than pounds 4; many are about pounds 6 or pounds 7. And they are up against cheap and often perfectly palatable wine flooding into the UK from all over the world. The Government offers no home advantage to English wines, which have to bear the same pounds 1 duty and 17.5 per cent VAT as every foreign bottle.

All other EC countries have a far more helpful approach to their wine sector. Excise duties range from zero in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal to a few pence in France and up to 18p in Benelux countries. Even Denmark, where excise was 53p a bottle until recently, has cut the rate by 13 per cent. Commander Bond also points out that other EC countries often have subsidies for vine growers and wine makers. 'It is the old problem of there being no level playing field,' he said.

The help given to other wine producers by their governments is hard for an indigenous UK industry, which supplies only 0.5 per cent of the wine consumed in its home market. Mr Brooks at Denbies also says UK producers spend more protecting vines against frosts and other vagaries of British weather and that they cannot keep up quality if they charge less.

On the bright side, English wines are now firmly ensconced in almost all large supermarket and high street off-licence chains. Commander Bond speaks of enthusiasm at tastings and murmurings from his members that sales are rising.

Internationally, competitors acknowledge that English wines can be good, even excellent, by their own standards. At the last International Wine Challenge, English wines took a respectable number of silver and bronze medals although they have yet to achieve a gold.

Perhaps the key to building on this success is the effort now being made by groups of producers and wine makers to pool their marketing and promotional efforts. Now that they have a product to be proud of, they need to knock harder on the doors of those who can recognise quality and spend money on it.

(Photograph omitted)