- by Chris Mercer
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English wine industry hitting its stride
Humour flowed freely across the tables of England's wine estates at their annual tasting this week, be it jokes at Champagne's expense or light-hearted jibes at anyone making outlandish proclamations about their future business.
But, there is a steely edge to English winemakers these days that was less evident a few years ago. And the industry is in a better place following a 2013 harvest that is expected to yield a record 4.5m bottles.
Land under vines has doubled in seven years and 500ha have been planted in the past two years alone, according to trade body English Wine Producers.
'We've just signed a deal in Brazil,' says a bow-tie sporting Christian Seely, arriving back at his tasting table for Coates & Seely Britagne sparkling wine. The estate he shares with long-time friend Nicholas Coates is producing around 55,000 bottles annually. 'We see our cruising speed at 100,000,' he says.
Seely, who is already MD of Bordeaux negociant AXA Millesimes and manages Chateau Pichon Baron, is not alone in eyeing export markets for English wine. Gusbourne Estate this week agreed a deal to export to Estonia, via the Balen distributor, which also sells Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in the country.
Hambledon Vineyard's owner, the former food and drink equities analyst Ian Kellett, believes his Hampshire estate can achieve sales of around 1m bottles in the next decade, with two-thirds heading abroad.
Charles Simpson, the English owner of Domaine Sainte Rose in France's Languedoc Rousillon, will next week begin planting 40,000 vines on their recently-acquired estate in Kent. Charles has just returned from a trip to the US, where Sainte Rose is available in 18 states and where he says he encountered much interest in English wine.
For all the ambition, profits are still hard to come by. Chapel Down served a reminder of English wine's financial fragility last month, when it reported net profits for 2013 of just £28,450, versus £246,541 in 2012. It blamed the fall on two tough harvests in 2011 and 2012, which raised costs and significantly cut wine production.
Frazer Thompson, Chapel Down's chief executive, was philosophical about the results. 'If you look at the stats, having two bad years in a row like that only happens around once every 20 or 25 years,' he told Decanter.com at this week's annual tasting.
Chapel Down completed a funding round last year that secures its finances for the forseeable future, he said. Outside investors, he added, are more willing to consider throwing money the industry's way.
It helps, of course, to have heavyweight backers, and Chapel Down now has John Dunsmore on its board. Dunsmore headed up the UK's largest brewer, Scottish & Newcastle, until it was carved up by Carlsberg and Heineken in 2008 and subsequently earned praise for turning around the fortunes of Magners cider maker C&C Group.
Other important supporters of the trade include UK government business secretary Vince Cable MP, who will officially open Rathfinny winery in East Sussex next week.
With Plumpton College in Sussex having just launched an MSc in Viticulture and Oenology, and a new research centre based at the institute, the English wine industry also has important academic underpinning.
But, there is without doubt a long way to go. Charles and Ruth Simpson explained how their presence in Languedoc keeps them grounded. 'When we talk about it to winemakers down there, they say it's impossible.'