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English sparkling wine ‘undervalued’, says Master of Wine

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.

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