Demand for sparkling wine has bubbled up in the past few years, cementing its place as one of the UK’s favourite drinks.
Although prosecco has benefitted the most from this trend, outselling champagne for the first time in 2014, there’s a challenger on the sparkling wine scene that’s being made a lot closer to home.
That new rival is English sparkling wine. In contrast to traditional British wine, made in the UK with imported grapes, the new breed of native wines are fully grown and manufactured in England and Wales. Surprisingly perhaps, England has a similar climate and soil type to that of the Champagne region, meaning it excels at sparkling wines according to Giles Cooper, head of marketing at BI Fine Wine.
Now, one of the sector’s most critically acclaimed producers, Gusbourne, believes the summer’s Brexit vote could spur more people to buy English wines in a move to “drink British”. It is eyeing up expansion into the tourism industry as well.
Nestled in the hilly Kent countryside around a 20 minute drive from Ashford is the headquarters of Gusbourne.
The company’s founder and chairman Andrew Weeber, a former orthopedic consultant, bought the estate in 2004 and began planting vines the same year.
Visitors to the Gusbourne estate might be left disappointed if what they expect is a backdrop of an old, crumbling chateau steeped in centuries of viticultural history. Its main winemaking building and office is effectively a silver, metal barn.
Appearances can be deceptive though. Gusbourne-grown wines were first released to widespread acclaim in 2010 and last year the group won six gold medals at global competitions despite it still being a modest producer. Gusbourne now has 231 acres of vines at two sites in Kent and West Sussex.
Around five to 10 per cent of production each year goes towards producing still red or white wines, though this is discretionary and if the year isn’t right, the company won’t make it.
In 2013, the company became the first English winemaker to list on the London Stock Exchange. Gusbourne is almost two-thirds owned by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, who Weeber describes as a “supportive, but hands-off” shareholder.
Sales reached £473,000 last year, though continued investments also resulted in an operating loss of £1.12m. In July, it launched a bond issue to raise up to £10m to put towards capital expenditure on its recently-planted vineyards and equipment.
“We want to be able to export big and to guarantee larger production,” Weeber told City A.M. during a stroll through one of the Kent vineyards.
“With wine, you need a market, and we’ve got a market. We’re located on the edge of one of the greatest wine-consuming cities on the planet. London is a key market for us, because it’s an opinion setter.”
By the end of next April, Gusbourne is setting its sights on entering the wine tourism market, opening a visitor centre with a shop, events venue and, later, will begin conducting wine tours over the summer.
Weeber’s drive to entice in visitors after only a few years of producing vintages might be driven by his South African heritage. Tourists to Cape Town and the surrounding region are almost inevitably drawn into vineyard excursions and wine tasting sessions, which Weeber has taken careful note of.
Although some of the UK’s other major winemakers, such as Nyetimber, sometimes offer tours and tasting, Weeber is aiming for it to be an integrated part of the business.
In the medium term, Gusbourne is angling for 50 per cent UK sales, 25 to 30 per cent of its turnover to come from cellar door sales and the rest to be exported.
“Our biggest market is and always will be the UK,” Weeber added. “But the next stage is trying to draw people here.”
Gusbourne’s home counties tourism drive is likely to be lifted by the move towards staycations that has been prompted by the drop in the pound, though the growing reputation of the quality of English sparkling wine will also continue to give it a boost.
“It’s amazing how far English wine has come over the last ten years. There’s just no comparison in quality to what it looked like a decade ago,” Cooper added.
The only thing on a year-by-year basis that could upset growth is the weather.
“We’re an island nation, so you deal away with predictability when you start,” said Jon Pollard, Gusbourne’s vineyard manager. “You’re at the mercy of the Atlantic weather systems.”
At the time City A.M. visited, the 2016 harvest looked set to be strong, though any tastes of this year's vintage will need to wait until 2020. Gusbourne has an eight-year cycle, taking four years from planting a vine to reach full production and wine resting in the bottle for a further four years. ‘Til 2020, then.