Red and white (and blue) – the rise of English wine

Ahead of English Wine Week 2018 (May 26 – June 3), we look at the burgeoning business of home grown bottles and get the insider view from Court Garden’s Hugo Corney.

English wine is not new – evidence suggests that it was the Romans who introduced vines to these shores. It is only in the last sixty years however, that the true potential of English wine has been realised, both in terms of quality and value.

Today, English and Welsh wine is a growing concern, with interest and investment in the industry at an all-time high. One million grape vines were planted in the UK in 2017 alone – the largest number planted in a single year.

English Wine production in numbers

According to industry body WineGB, there are 502 commercial vineyards in the UK. Together, these vineyards cover 2000 hectares and in 2016, produced 4.15million bottles of English wine. In 2020, the figure is set to be closer to 10 million.

Hugo Corney in the Court Garden winery
Hugo Corney in the Court Garden winery

The producer view – Hugo Corney, Court Garden

Originally a sheep farm – as referenced by the ovine neck label on its Classic Cuvée bottle – Hugo’s parents Howard and Jenny Corney planted the first vineyard on their Sussex farm in 2005 “to hedge against the peaks and troughs of livestock farming”.

Court Garden is now an award-winning wine producer, making both still and sparkling styles from red and white grapes. There are fewer sheep these days, though they can still be found grazing amongst the vines in the winter.

Howard and Jenny Corney on the Court Garden vineyard
Howard and Jenny Corney on the Court Garden vineyard

Located just 50 miles south of London and 10 miles north of Brighton, Court Garden is situated in the South Downs National Park. With its sunny aspect, rolling hills and Champagne-like chalky soils, it’s a key English viticulture area.

“Our winery is only 100 metres from the vineyards”, says Hugo, “and this enables us to press the grapes as soon as they are hand-picked and to capture the true flavours and aromas from the Court Garden vineyards.”

As any keen gardener will be aware, the great British weather can play havoc with even the hardiest of perennials. For those in the business of grape growing however, it can spell disaster.

“Our production volumes vary as a result of only using our own grapes and the weather plays a very influential role in determining the yield for the year.  Our volumes are on average 25,000-30,000 bottles but have ranged from 2,000-40,000 bottles.”

Good grapes

Sparkling wine accounts for 66% of English wine production, but interest in home-grown still wine is growing. While the former is very much inspired by the techniques and traditions of Champagne, there is no such direct comparison for the latter.

Without a centuries-old formal tradition to guide producers in terms of the techniques and grape varieties best suited to their situation, many have ventured beyond the familiar grape varieties in search of others more suited to our climate. Yes, you will find English grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but you’ll also find the improbably-named Madeleine Angevine and Huxelrebe.

The Court Garden vineyards
The Court Garden vineyards

Alongside the familiar Champagne varieties grown at Court Garden (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir), the Germanic (but rather Game of Thrones-sounding) Dornfelder grape has proved very successful and can be found in the estate’s Ditchling Red.

“Both [Pinot Noir and Dornfelder] grow successfully in northern Europe”, says Hugo, “they require less sunshine temperatures than more familiar higher alcohol and higher tannin reds.”

“With low tannins and light alcohol (10-11% ABV), the Dornfelder is ideal served chilled alongside summer alfresco meals.”

What’s next for English wine?

With production predicted to double by 2020 and new wineries opening all the time, is there a risk that English wine production will outstrip demand? Not if the growing interest from external markets continues, reasons Hugo.

“The market will decide on the appetite for more English wine and as knowledge of English wine spreads, as too could demand.”

If English wine’s potential comes down to the quality of the products being made, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. English wine has long enjoyed critical acclaim and can count numerous high profile awards among its accolades.

“At Court Garden we endeavour to make the highest quality wines we can. The national and international awards we have received to date gives a nice endorsement that we are on the right track.”

Why not try Hugo’s wine for yourself – during English Wine Week, you can buy two Court Garden wines for £35 (usual price £39/£40). Explore the wider English wine range, featuring Nyetimber, Coates & Seeley and Bolney Estate.