Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) Interview
Over the past couple of decades English wine has been winning its first international awards and as its consistency as a premium product has been established it is finally being embraced by the hospitality sector. Bill Lumley visits a vineyard and looks at ways the independent luxury accommodation sector can benefit from home grown vintages
These are exciting times for English wine. Land covering more than 6,200 acres across England and Wales is now dedicated to vineyards for grapes used to produce red, white, rose and sparkling white.
As the UK wine industry has matured over the past couple of decades, so has its worldwide reputation for excellence. Multiple awards for premium quality products are supported by a surge in demand in the hospitality sector for English and Welsh wines. At the end of May this year, Wines of Great Britain ran a campaign, English Wine Week, the function of which was to build awareness and to encourage and drive people to discover English and Welsh wines. The event served to demonstrate the level of demand.
Overview of WineGB
WineGB marketing managed Julia Trustram Eve tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast: “We are certainly finding an increased uptake from the on trade and hospitality side of things as well as wholesalers, retailers and of course the cellar-door sales at the vineyards themselves. A core part of the campaign is the activity and partnerships we develop with the trade, because they are the ones talking directly to the customers.”
She says it has been highly satisfying to see growth in demand in the on trade, along with the recognition that there is a very tangible place for English wines, that their customers are asking for them, and that they now need to deliver more to them. “There has been a warm and growing enthusiasm from the trade to actually do more with English wines,” she says.
But there remains an inadequacy in the promotion and availability of English wines, with visitors from regions such as Australia expressing their disappointment concerning such issues at English Wine Week. “This sends a strong message to us that there is an awful lot more we should be doing to encourage people who have moved up the scale in terms of promoting locality, local ingredients, local news and food,” Julia says. “There is a really powerful story to be told to independent boutique hotels, luxury B&B owners and innkeepers to enhance what many of them are already doing.”
Underpinning this growth in interest are the two facts that more wines are being produced than ever before in Great Britain, and that those wines are gaining world class status. “One of the best ways of generating interest is by demonstrating just how well we perform in competitions,” she says.
The first world-class English wines only emerged in the mid to late 1990s. Excellence in sparkling wines of Great Britain was spearheaded by the likes of Nyetimber and Ridgeview entering their wines in international competitions and gaining exceptional awards. “They turned people’s heads to realise there is a sector here in England producing something that more than matched the quality of wines from elsewhere,” she says.
The charge has been led by the sparkling wine producers, simply because more and more producers recognise parts of the UK have the right conditions, particularly in the southeast of England. Julia says: “Wine is concentrated in the southeast around Kent, Sussex Surrey and Hampshire, but is now stretching right across the south coast of England through Dorset and Devon and Cornwall and going further north. The further north you do go, the smaller the operations become,” she adds.
This means there are significant opportunities to plant great varieties and produce wine of the quality and standard that competes with other better-known wines. On the back of that there is a steady growth in the still wine sector. A number of the biggest UK sparkling wine producers such as Chapel Down have since become major brands, and the fact that they are producing volume means they can now distribute widely both in the UK and abroad.
“In any one particular region, your local wine producer is going to be producing both sparkling and still wine,” says Julia.
The growth has resulted from a combination of factors, including recognition of the UK’s ability to produce quality wine: sourcing the right soils, drawing in the right expertise, the right growth varieties compatible with the area where the painting is happening, and expertise in winemaking.
The wine sector in the UK has also benefited from a warming climate. “Climate has been changing for four and a half billion years, but right now we are on a growth curve, and in southeast England vineyards are reporting that they are harvesting two weeks earlier than they were 40 years ago,” says Julia. “This has opened up some new opportunities. Some 40 years ago it would have been a struggle to grow to any degree of ripeness the three grapes of champagne, chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir.”
We can now look forward to a steady availability, although the vine crop picked in one year is not going to turn into bottles on the shelf for another four to five years, so it is a slow process, she stresses.
Wines of Great Britain includes Welsh wine producers, among them one called White Castle near Monmouth, which produces a fortified wine, while in North Wales there is a producer called Gwinllan Conwy Vineyard. “The Welsh are extremely lucky in that there is support from the Welsh government to help promote their wines through the trade and through other sectors,” says Julia.
Tips for the on trade
A fair number of hotels, inns and B&Bs are already supplied with some good quality wines via wholesalers, some of which use more than one supplier, Julia says. “Most good wholesalers list at least one English wine. High-end accommodation business owners should look at the list and talk to their supplier, because they are likely to be suppliers of high-quality products.”
Independent hospitality business owners should look locally to see if there are any local vineyards, she says.
She adds that there are producers that will distribute their wines around the country. For geographical reasons most luxury B&Bs, inns and hotels are still not fortunate enough to have a vineyard on their doorstep.
“A lot of the bigger winemakers now sell to the on trade and hospitality via the wholesalers, and it is probably easier to deal with them that way, but you can always call them up,” she says.
Hospitality business owners who are interested in exploring the opportunities presented by English wines may wish to consider attending WineGB’s annual trade tasting in London on 4 September, she says. “It’s the biggest showcase of English produced wines attended by commercial wine producers around the country, where you can taste the wines, meet the producers and engage with them,” she says.
Spreading the word
Vineyards are where the grapes are growing, wineries are where the wine is made. Often the two are on the same site. Few of either however are blessed with their own on-site hotel. Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey is one exception.
The wine producer supplies distributor Matthew Clark, but it also has an open-door policy, and it encourages sommeliers to visit the site to pick what they like.
CEO Chris White tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast magazine: “We show sommeliers how the vineyard has evolved, and we give them a first-hand experience of the wines they want to choose for tasting.”
Notably he says Denbies likes to support the on trade with material that gives them an understanding as to what goes into the making of their bottle of wine.
“This is something we have done on site since we first opened. We try to encourage people to come to the site, but we can also deliver direct so they can offer their guests a full complement of our wines. Alternatively, if they wish to piggy-back on their own deliveries they can go through the distributor, which might make it a bit easier for them,” he says.
Denbies sells to many small independent hotels, he says. “Those are the ones we want to attract, because they are the one most interested in producing our vineyard slate range of wines.
They are a slightly smaller volume, slightly higher in price, and they are the ones smaller independent and boutique hotels want to show off with their quality.”
Chris’ father Adrian bought the Denbies estate in 1982. Prior to that it had been a cattle farm that was losing a fortune by the time it was acquired. “After the first couple of years he decided to sell the animals on the estate and to plan for another use for the arable land,” he says. “At the time he was talking to a geologist who pointed out to him the potential in the soil for growing grapes.”
Millions of years ago, before Britain broke away from the mainland, the North and South Downs of Southern England were joined to the Champagne region of France, giving them the same soil structure, south-facing slopes and terroir. Chris says: “We carried out a 30-acre trial, and in 1986 we decided to plant all 265 acres of the arable land as a vineyard.”
To begin with Denbies produced 16 different varieties. “It was very much a case of spread-betting at the time, seeking wine suitable for the English climate,” explains Chris. “We had been told not to bother with pinot noir, but we did so anyway, and it has since become the most widely planted grape variety in the UK,” he says. Denbies uses most of its pinot noir in its flagship sparkling wines but following very good years such as the UK enjoyed in 2018, it uses the grape for producing 100% varietal red wine, rosés, or as a blend into other reds.
Over the years Denbies has adapted the vineyard to suit popular tastes in wine but also in what it has discovered grows best. “There has been a lot of trial and error over the years, but it has proven to be very successful,” says Chris.
The industry has grown dramatically but is still very much a cottage industry comprising small vineyards. The taste and quality of English wine varies dramatically based on vintage but has been hampered by limited access to good quality winemakers, and the economies of scale have been insufficient. That scenario is now changing, Chris says. “We now have a degree of understanding of what we can grow well here in the UK, so rather than being slaves to producing anything, we understand what we can grow well in an English climate and we now concentrate on those varieties.”
For example, he says an English winemaker wouldn’t try to produce a full-bodied red any more than their counterparts would attempt to produce one in the champagne region of France. “We have to understand what we grow well, which is fruity aromatic wines, very high-quality sparkling wines, very good rosés.”
When first building the vineyard, they resolved to establish the right economies of scale to ensure they could justify buying state-of-the-art equipment that would both improve the quality of the wine and push down the cost of production.
“In the past 10 to 15 years year-on-year English wine producers have been producing more international award-winning wines, because the industry specialises in what it is good at,” he says.
“Customers and the trade have much more confidence today that we will reliably produce quality wines year-on-year along with consistency in terms of supply. If your sparkling wine features on a wine list, the last thing a sommelier at a luxury boutique hotel wants is for them to keep changing their vintages or being out of stock.
“Today hoteliers have full confidence that if they put us on their list, we will stay there for at least a good couple of years, because we have a reliable supply chain.”
Still at a fledgling stage and having to prove themselves to the mass market, but with demand at very high levels, English wineries cannot afford to produce a product that is anything short of top quality, unlike certain long-established neighbouring winemaking countries where quality is very often a case of hit and miss.
“English wine is at the premium end, and with many wineries focusing on sparkling wines where the disciplines required are very high, you don’t play at it,” says Chris. “When you are making that investment, you have to make sure you produce the best possible product.”
One notable change in recent years has been an upward shift in alcohol content. Both in old and new world wine-producing nations, the average alcohol content has risen quite dramatically, yet English wines are still at the lower end of the scale, at the point where other wines used to be just a few years ago: English wine is still produced at 11-12% alcohol content, while the level in a lot of new world wines is up to 13, 14 and 15%.
Chris says: “That shift in alcohol content is changing taste in wine. Because the percentage of alcohol is going up it probably means you want to drink less of it, to avoid being in danger of feeling a bit ropey the next day.”
This has played into English wine’s hands, he says, because we are still producing wine at the lower end of the scale of alcohol by volume.
When Chris’ father acquired the property, at its heart was a farm building that had been there for well over 200 years that was converted into a bed & breakfast in 2000. Chris says: “It has been very popular since the day we opened, and occupancy in the last couple of years has reached an average year-round level of 90%. In the local area people are crying out for accommodation,” he says.
“We knew from the potential number of rooms and facilities that there was a potential to make it a much more all-embracing offer for our customers, so two years ago we set about developing the B&B into a hotel, increasing the number of rooms and offering new facilities. We previously just had a breakfast room and now we are offering a full-blown brasserie restaurant that overlooks the vineyard.”
The owners have also developed an outdoor al fresco dining space in a patio area and several cabanas that are heated, and which provide light at dusk time when guests may enjoy wine and cheese while looking out over the vineyard.
Chris adds: “We now have a bar which we didn’t have before, and we are making use of the cellars in the old farm buildings. The bar will be open to residents and the general public,” he adds.
As part of phase one of the new hotel the restaurant and bar opened in July along with the first 10 bedrooms. When the hotel is fully opened with all 17 bedrooms and all facilities, he will seek formal accreditation. “We are still deciding which accreditation body to go with at the moment,” he says.
The hotel has accessible rooms for disabled users as well as several suites with interconnecting rooms. “We like to think we have thought of everything in the offer we have in our hotel,” Chris says.
When the owners embarked on the project to create the hotel two years ago, a key aim was to have the building sit and blend into its natural surroundings in the vineyard both from an aesthetic point of view and environmentally in keeping with its surroundings. Chris says: “Our goal was to make it 100% carbon-neutral, something that two years ago was a bit of a stretch. However, over the last 18 months as new technology has become available, we have been able to install state-of-the-art Tesla batteries throughout the hotel and solar panels, which means during the day we can produce up to 22 hours energy with our panels and we can store up to 15Kw in our Tesla batteries.
“This means that the hotel is now completely carbon neutral: the energy we produce during the day not only stores energy we use during the evening when we need it most, but it also stores up the hot water for showers and other use in the hotel during the day, and at night it fills up the batteries. All the excess goes back to the grid.”
One of the biggest challenges the hotel development has thrown up has been sticking to budget, says Chris. “There have been opportunities through the design for example to renovate the entirety of the old facility and add a restaurant and put in a bar, which we didn’t conceive in the very early days.”
He adds: “Ensuring we remain carbon neutral has presented immense challenges, and at times it did not seem remotely viable in terms of return on capital employed, buying so much state-of-the-art equipment, but it works. It was a bit more expensive, but I think it was a price worth paying.”
It was also something of a challenge, he says, to achieve the goal of ensuring all the rooms overlook the vineyard. “We wanted to ensure there were unimpeded views of the vineyard from the restaurant you see the garden lawn of the hotel and the vineyard itself with no gates or fences
Also, we have a enomatic machine in the hotel that enables guests to load up their room card and can taste all of our wines and when they find the one they like they can use the machine to administer a full glass rather than a taster and drink it at their leisure.
We supply many of the local hotels and inns and a lot of their guests visit our vineyard. Meanwhile most of the food products we use in our restaurant are locally sourced. At the moment the menu includes lamb from the estate. Even the lambs are fed on spent products from the brewery. Because we are as local producer, we like to follow that ethos for the products we sell and the food we sell in the restaurant.
Changing guest profile
The original B&B was used by many people visiting the area for business or attending events at Denbies. Chris says: “Having opened the first 10 guest rooms, we have already noticed the customer profile has changed. Future bookings are from people coming to stay on leisure as a destination rather than using it for a stopover while they are attending our events within the visitor centre, and we have more families staying.
The remainder of the rooms are opening as we go to press and by the end of the first two weeks of August it will be fully operational. All 17 rooms have already been booked out towards the end of August.
Denbies is unique in being able to offer luxury guest accommodation. “It will bring more customers to the site. The fact that it gives us an opportunity to sell our wines direct to the customers makes it much more rewarding because you can see enjoyment in the product that we have taken many years to craft. Rather than just selling to the trade or supermarkets, it’s nice for some of our business to involve selling directly to customers through the restaurant or through our shop. There we get direct feedback on the wines, which is very useful for our product development.”
Having the hotel also means those visitors that are driving are not restricted on the wines they can try out and enjoy, he says. “They can stay here have a few guilt-free drinks without having to worry about driving home.
“Also, when they are drinking and overlooking the vineyard, we can tell hem the exact spot those grapes came from to produce that glass of wine, which is really exciting for the customers. They then walk away from that experience with a much greater understanding of the way their wine was produced on the south-facing slopes, giving them a much more embracing experience than simply knocking back a glass of wine.”
Being able to offer local produce and giving the customer what they want. Not everyone nowadays wants a full English breakfast. Often, they want a big spin on the continental side of things, or they want to experience adaptations of a breakfast meal such as smoked salmon with scrambled egg or various royal dishes with muffins and hollandaise. The perfect breakfast means being as flexible as possible serving products that are sourced locally. We use a local supplier for our salmon. They source the fish but a lot of the smoking of the salmon will be done on site. Our coffee is also sourced by the local producer who will visit the sites in places like Columbia and the coffee is roasted and blended locally. We know where the product has come from
We use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and we use them for different purposes. They are not all linked together.
We find Twitter is more fast paced interacting mainly on the wine level with win professionals and local suppliers and other local traders, principally on the wine front.
We tend to use Facebook to target our family market, so it is a lot slower paced than Twitter. We use it put out word of promotions, tours, wine tasting and any other special events we are doing and so forth, reaching out to an altogether different market that tends to be people that are also visiting the estate so I’d probably say Twitter is a far wider catchment.
Instagram we really use for the impact of the beauty of the estate so we really try to avoid using it as a sales vehicle unless we are doing as promotion that may lead into what wines you might want to buy for Christmas
UK wine data
In the 40 years to the end of 2016 the area of vineyards in the UK grew by more than 1,000% from less t5han 600 acres to more than 6,200 acres, a period of growth interrupted by a drop-in area in the period 1993-2004. It was from 2008, just as the global economic crisis began to take its toll on many businesses, that ironically saw the start of a strong revival in wine area.
Wine-growing area overtook levels of the early 1990s, and in the decade since then the UK’s wine-growing area has more than doubled.
Figures for the number of bottles of wine produced in the UK have only been available since 1989 when 2.9m bottles were produced and in the 30 years since then numbers have fluctuated between 1m in 1997 and 6.3m in 2014.