28 FEB 2019: Is it thanks to global warming, or is it just that the time has come for the UK’s wineries to thrive and shine? There are now over 500 commercial vineyards in the UK (England and Wales) and some 165 wineries. At the gala dinner this winter organised by Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) and hosted by the Worshipful Company of Vintners, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall added royal glamour to an already glittering success story.  

The Duchess is President of WineGB and a Liveryman of the Vintners’ Company. Her connection to wine is through her father, Major Bruce Shand, who was a wine merchant. The Duchess herself grew up in Sussex, one of the main wine-growing regions of England.

Speaking at the dinner, she said, “Since becoming President of WineGB in 2012, I have witnessed our wines going from strength to strength in quantity and, even more importantly, in quality”. She added, “I’m delighted that our wines will have an even higher profile in this country and abroad. As you all know, our wine-makers make a huge contribution to tourism in this country”.

Last year’s record production volumes hailed ‘a vintage year’ for 2018 which broke all previous records for production. (The 15.6 million bottles were well over double the last record volume of 6.3m bottles in 2014.) The wine industry of Great Britain called it a ‘seismic change’ with significant growth in vineyard acres and predicted major growth in rural employment, tourism and exports.

Higher volumes are predicted in the years to come due to ongoing expansion of vineyards across the country. Acreage planted has grown 160% in the last ten years. Last year alone over 1000 acres (405 hectares) were planted and this year vine plantings may exceed the 2 million mark. The wine industry is now considered as one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in the UK.

With this comes a boom in wine travel as the ever-increasing number of vineyards and wineries open to the public create a new growth area for tourism in the UK. “This is an immensely important component in the financial viability of many vineyard regions around the world,” said WineGB’s Chairman, Simon Robinson.

“The benefits here spread beyond the vineyards to the pubs, restaurants, hotels and retailers within those areas – thus boosting the rural economy.” Several regional vineyard trails are underway and WineGB is now actively engaged in discussions with central and local government and tourist boards about developing this important sector.

My own experience visiting Kent’s Hush Heath Winery near Staplehurst in 2017 was a delight and indicative of more to come. At the time Kent was home to about 50 wineries. The majority of the production (about 66%) was sparkling wine, about a quarter still white wines and the rest red or rosé. Hush Heath Winery was renowned for its award-winning Balfour Brut Rosé, a bubbly made in the champagne method using the same grape varieties as in Champagne, namely chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

The family owned 400-acre estate has vineyards, apple orchards and ancient oak woodlands which visitors may tour followed by a tutored tasting of their wines and ciders. I found the Balfour Brut Rosé elegantly worthy of its awards but also enjoyed trying the winery’s still wines from chardonnay and pinot noir varietals and sparkling ciders made from Cox, Russet and Bramley apples. https://hushheath.com

Chapel Down in Kent is one of Britain’s best-known wineries. Fans of their world-class range of sparkling (made in the champagne method) and still wines include Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver. Chapel Down has even delivered to No 10 Downing Street, as well as Ascot Racecourse. After taking one of their daily guided (1 hour 45 minute) tours which include a tutored tasting, visitors can finish the day in The Swan, Chapel Down’s two AA Rosette and Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant specializing in modern British cuisine. www.chapeldown.com

The importance of sparkling wine production in the UK is reinforced by the arrival in recent years of two Champagne houses, Taittinger, who have purchased 170 acres (69ha) in Kent and Pommery with 100 acres (40ha) in Hampshire. Sparkling wines are still the dominant style of wine produced in the UK (71%).

In wine award competitions, some notable firsts were achieved last year: the Sommelier Wine Awards saw the UK awarded more medals than Champagne, the International Sparkling Winemaker of the Year Award in the International Wine Challenge was awarded to Cherie Spriggs from Nyetimber – a first time win from outside Champagne (and the first female winner); and for the first time an English wine producer (Ridgeview Wine Estate) won ‘International Winemaker of the Year’ in the International Wine & Spirit Competition.

As to wine tourism, I’m sure tourists will be raising a glass to more and more great UK winery experiences in the near future.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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