Britain’s wine industry is booming. Grapevine plantings, over 98% of which are in England, have more than doubled in the past eight years, with a 70% increase in the last five years alone. According to Wines of Great Britain, the industry’s organizing body, 8.7 million vines were planted in English and Welsh soil between 2017 and 2021.
While sales of English wine have also increased, some experts worry that it isn’t enough to stave off an impending oversupply problem, when British growers and producers will struggle to find a consumer base large enough to meet the increase in production.
The rate of production, however, is difficult to predict in Britain’s erratic climate.
There were generous yields in 2018 and 2019, with 2020 offering a comparatively modest harvest. In 2021, very wet weather accompanied flowering. Consequently, the industry produced around 2.5 million less bottles than the 10 million bottle average of the three previous years.
“Indeed, at the end of 2021, many people were complaining of a shortage of wine, not a glut,” says Oz Clarke OBE, a British presenter, broadcaster and author of dozens of wine books, including English Wine and Oz Clarke on Wine.
An English wine shortage, however, seems unlikely to last.
“Sales during the pandemic have leapt as people have discovered the wines on their own doorstep, and as online buying has become more mainstream,” says Justin Howard-Sneyd, MW, a British wine consultant who has worked on many sides of the English wine industry as a buyer, marketer, winemaker and judge. “But after a brief pause, the planting is showing a few signs of accelerating again, and this will mean that very soon we’ll be making 20 million bottles a year in the U.K.”
Britain’s current five-year average for bottle production is less than half that figure, at 8.36 million bottles, according to Wines of Great Britain.
Clarke’s forecast for bottle production growth is more modest. “If England had three more vintages like 2018–2020…then we could see crops well over 10 million bottles become a regularity.”
Clarke agrees that a glut is possible. He adds, however, that, “it is completely impossible to predict. My feeling is that we may get to a position where it is more of a buyer’s than a seller’s market, rather than an actual glut.”
In addition to the unreliable weather, another challenge in predicting British wine’s future lies in the fact that most new vines, almost entirely comprised of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, have been planted expressly for the production of traditional-method sparkling wine. It’s Britain’s most celebrated style, but it’s one that requires several years of bottle age before release.
In his 2019 book The Wines of Great Britain, author Stephen Skelton, MW, one the country’s most eminent scholars on the subject, notes the large number of new sparklers that had yet to be released at the time of this writing.
“By my estimate 50–55% of all producers whose vineyards are currently planted with Champagne varieties do not yet have sparkling wines on sale—either their vineyards are too young to crop or the wines so far produced are too immature to market,” he writes. “Where this wine will sell is the elephant in the room of English and Welsh wine.”
If these predictions ring true and oversupply is indeed in Britain’s future, does it inherently spell doom and gloom? Not necessarily.
It could drive the prices of Britain’s traditional-method sparklers down. Some producers would go bust, others would be consolidated into bigger operations.
On the other hand, easier access to affordable fruit could open doors to more small producers, increasing creativity and experimentation and diversifying Britain’s wine landscape. Styles like pétillant-naturel and orange wine are already on the rise, as are organics and biodynamics. The country could see more tourism initiatives like urban cellar doors, as well as independent brands produced by contract winemaking facilities without vineyards attached.
Most agree that there is much greater potential for still wine, made from German-crossed, English heritage varieties like Bacchus and Reichensteiner, as well as from Champagne varieties. Rosé is a notable category to watch.
There will also be more nontraditional-method fizz, particularly those made in the Charmat or tank method, which can be produced at lower prices.
“Given the likely availability of many more tonnes of grapes, the £15-£20 [$20–27] range will grow fast as a price point,” says Howard-Sneyd. “Most wines are now aimed at £20-£35 [$27–47].”
Clarke warns the industry against treading too far down the nontraditional-method sparkling road.
“There has been an increase in the number of Charmat wines, some—especially when based on things like Bacchus and Reichensteiner—pretty good,” he says. “However, English wine needs to be careful about the Charmat movement. The U.K. has built its reputation for fizz on high quality and has persuaded an increasingly large section of the wine-drinking public that they are worth a high price. That’s a prize they should keenly protect.”
Most experts still seem to agree that, while English wine faces inevitable growing pains, the industry’s most exciting years are still ahead of it.