Many English sparkling wines are undervalued compared to their Champagne equivalents, Stephen Skelton MW has told an international audience of 600 wine producers, buyers, marketers and media.

The renowned English wine industry consultant and Regional Chair for the UK at the Decanter World Wine Awards made the comment during a tasting of English sparkling wines at the ninth International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, this year held in Brighton.

Skelton explained that the UK currently had 2,000ha under vine in production compared with 38,000ha in Champagne, so in that context the sheer scarcity of English sparkling wine combined with demand made it more exclusive.

With the available land in the UK, he said the potential for sparkling wine production was 128 million bottles a year, compared with 310 million bottles for Champagne in its restricted production zone.

‘I don’t think in any way English sparkling wines are overpriced,’ said Skelton. ‘In fact I think many of them are undercharging for what is a very high-quality product.’

‘Britain is famous for its fruit – strawberries, apples, blackcurrants – and rightly so; it cannot be beaten. We have great acidity from our cool climate and great physiological ripeness from our long growing season. And that’s the same for our grapes.’

However wine writer and educator Jayne Powell criticised Skelton’s comment, saying it was overambitious for English sparkling wine producers to think that they could ‘get away’ with pricing themselves at the same level – or more – than Champagne.

Powell recently won a court battle in Australia with the Champagne regional governing body, the CIVC, for the right to keep her trade name Champagne Jayne.

‘You’re kidding yourselves,’ Powell responded from the packed floor of the Hilton Brighton Metropole ballroom. ‘Australian sparkling wine prices and sales were going up and up, but after the global financial crisis, everything that wasn’t Champagne plummeted.

‘It was only by Australian producers lowering their prices that kept that market going. If you [English sparkling wine producers] want prices at Champagne levels, you might be in for some trouble.’

Skelton agreed that not all English sparkling wine was yet at the quality level of being able to price itself alongside Champagne, but that the industry was still in its early stages. He also said the patriotism of British drinkers would be a key factor in its continues success.

‘If you take Cava or Prosecco to someone’s house they are not going to thank you very much,’ said Skelton. ‘If you take English sparkling wine, then people know what it cost and they will appreciate the quality. The Brits are very patriotic – we joke that anything that is not French is good – so I’m confident that people will buy local.’

There are 502 commercial vineyards in Britain, most under 5ha, with the majority in the counties of Kent (327ha), West Sussex (297ha), East Sussex (234ha) and Hampshire (229ha). Some 80% of new plantings are for sparkling wine, with Chardonnay (23%) and Pinot Noir (22%) the most planted varieties.

Production is currently 5.09 million bottles a year, of which 66% is sparkling, generating sales of 2.25m bottles a year. Skelton estimates that by 2018, 4m bottles of English sparkling wine will be produced, with 6m by 2023.

He said just 15 English wineries currently exported, and this should be a key future focus for the industry once production increased. Skelton added that producers should continue to specialise in vintage wines which added great variety to their offering – especially smaller producers who would not have the reserve wines or annual volume to ensure consistent non-vintage cuvées.

  • Stephen_Skelton_MW

    They’d love you more if you took English Sparkling Wine!

  • Stephen_Skelton_MW

    I think what I actually said was that the total market for sparkling wine in the UK is currently 128 million bottles.

    We have much more land in the UK that could be planted and our production could be much larger than the whole if Champagne. However, to increase plantings by anything like this is many decades in the future.

    Retail prices will fluctuate and there will be ups and downs but we do not have the stock to slash prices as they can with Champagne which is a much larger zone of production. OK. Lidl are selling an English Sparkling Wine at £14.99 but when that’s gone, it’s gone.

    The future of prices and production is unknowable (a bit like Brexit) so it’s all speculation. One thing I do know is that the product is good, Brits like it, and we have a huge patriotic local market. As long as we keep the quality up it will sell at prices that match Champagne in the middle. Not stupid £9.99 prices nor much over £50 (for now) and in this middle range UK producers can survive.

  • Stephen_Skelton_MW

    My screen says 310 million

  • Finn Denstad

    The article mentions that the annual production of champagne is 31 million bottles per year. It misses a zero, as the annual production is well above 300 million bottles per year…

  • It’s not that English sparkling wines are overpriced if you take into consideration the lack of economy of scale in producing these wines. The best are certainly at a par and even exceed some of the Champagnes in quality. What needs to be overcome is the PERCEIVED lack of price/quality ratio and the credibility factor that English sparkling wines can compete with the rest of the world. Have a look at my summary of the English Wines tasting in London earlier this month at http://www.winebehindthelabel.org/blog/english-wine-tasting/

  • colin trickett

    Agree entirely with Jayne Powell. The future of English sparkling wine is just as much tied to the correct market price as to quality. I find many people thankful when I take along a very good, sensibly priced Cav or Prosecco!