Spirits and Pressures are High During England’s Sparkling Wine Harvest

Worker picks wine grapes for England harvest
Harvesting grapes at Gusbourne / Tyler Zielinski

The hardest and latest vintages are quite often some of the most successful,” says Charlie Holland, head winemaker at Gusbourne in Kent, England. He counts his 2021 crop of sparkling wines among these ranks. “We aren’t scared about this vintage at all, and we think that it’s going to be a good one.”

While Holland is confident in the caliber of the 2021 wines, it was not an easy vintage for winemakers across the U.K. The growing season included one of the country’s wettest and coldest summers in recent years, which caused rain-induced disease pressure and frost risk all the way through May 2021. 

Tractor in vineyard for 2021 England harvest
For winemakers across the U.K., the 2021 vintage wasn’t easy / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

“The growing cycle, which was elongated this season, meant that the grapes had an extended hangtime,” says Holland. “This had a huge amount of impact on the flavor intensity of the grapes and wines.” 

These grapes required careful winemaking. 

“Because of this growing season’s conditions, the 2021 wines will have pristine acidity, and it won’t be the ripest vintage, meaning that these wines will likely need a bit of lees aging and time in the cellar to come through,” he says. He likens it to a winemaker’s vintage, saying it will reveal the differences between experienced English wine professionals from their less adept competition. 

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Brexit and Beyond

The year’s challenges extended far beyond the vineyard. A global shipping container crisis impacted exports to key markets, and many businesses had to devote time and decision-making to an array of logistical headaches surrounding supply chain issues.

“Brexit has been a challenge due to the cost and administration associated with customs checks, and transporters’ reaction to these challenges in the context of the global container crisis,” says Duncan Brown, Gusbourne’s head of exports and travel retail. 

These market struggles were felt across the English wine industry. Some adapted their businesses by pivoting to retail and direct-to-consumer sales to make up for income lost from other channels.

Brexit and the pandemic also led to staffing shortages at harvest time. Since late 2019, an estimated 1.3 million non-U.K. workers are estimated to have left the U.K. — many of whom returned to their birth country as a result of the pandemic. But, instead of returning to find work in the U.K., many European labor workers were deterred by the tougher post-Brexit immigration rules, leading wineries to rely on local, less-experienced talent for yet another year.

The new crop of harvest workers required additional training and oversight than their more experienced predecessors. In East Sussex, Ridgeway Winery partnered with a nearby university to offer training and workshops, with the promise of a job interview at the end. Six newly trained attendees worked Ridgeway’s harvest as a result. 

Staff in vineyard during 2021 sparkling wine harvest
Brexit and the pandemic led to staffing shortages at harvest time / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

Some wine professionals see silver linings to these challenges. While fewer workers meant slower picking during the 2021 harvest, the pace allowed vineyard managers to monitor grape quality more closely than in years past. 

Jon Pollard, the chief vineyard manager at Gusbourne, believes the team’s small size meant everyone got closer. He spoke on the telephone with everyone he hired “at least twice before they’ve even turned up for harvest, and it’s been nice having that connection with the people, creating a sort of local community.” 

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A Rising Tide

Since modern English wine is relatively new—the first Champagne varieties were planted in Sussex on the limestone-rich South Downs by Nyetimber in 1988—English producers have embraced collaboration to help improve their regional category as a whole. 

“I think that many of the English winemakers are collaborative,” says Holland. “We do share information, which sometimes may seem counterintuitive, but I think we all recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats, so we all want to be helping each other as it’s in the category’s interest to do that.”

Winery worker harvests grapes in England 2021
The diversity of England’s sparkling wines is an asset, winemakers say / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

In the U.K, consumers have embraced the wines, making English bubbles one of the best selling categories of sparkling wines in the country. Nobuko Okamura, chief sommelier at Pan Pacific Hotel in London, says consumers’ affinity for homegrown products led her to include a robust selection of English bubbles on her list. 

“Breaky Bottom is a personal favorite,” says Okamura. “Winemaker Peter Hall’s wines are superbly made and only made in tiny quantities which makes them very special. Gusbourne’s rosé, and Rathfinny’s Blanc de Noirs are also worth noting.”

Globally, English sparkling wines have steeper hills to climb. 

“There are only a few wine lists in New York that I have seen that have it, and it is not something that guests and sommeliers are drawn to naturally,” says Hannah Williams, Beverage Director of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “In my experience, the price point tends to be higher for the better examples of English sparkling wine, so it is often priced around the same as a bottle of grower Champagne. Without it being local or more affordable than Champagne, it can be a challenge to sell.”

Gusbourne vineyard
Gusbourne vineyard in Kent, U.K. / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

Lack of international distribution and awareness can be challenging, too.

“I have to say that my perception of English sparkling wine was only changed this past year,” says Williams. After attending a guided tasting, “I was truly shocked by the quality of the wines,” she says. “That week I brought home a bottle for my boyfriend to blind taste as he’s a buyer in the city, and he couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a grower Champagne. We have both loved it ever since.”

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As his 2021 vintage nears release, Gusbourne’s Holland remains confident about the bright future for his and all English sparkling wines. The diversity of the category is an asset, he says.

‘We’ve moved on from everyone making similar wines, to each brand having stylistic differences because we now know we can make quality wines here in England,” he says. “We’re all just finding out what we believe, stylistically, is the right thing to do with the sites that we’re learning to operate on.”

Published on January 27, 2022
Topics: Harvest