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Pushing Britain’s prestige fizz potential

Published:  05 January, 2024

The launch of a smartly-packaged £395 English sparkling wine may show quite some chutzpah, but as James Lawrence reports, it’s not alone in helping nudge the category into triple figure pricing.

Last year brought much good news for UK wine producers; vintage 2023 was a resounding success, while exports continue to grow at a slow (but steady) rate. Meanwhile, the tourism sector is being given a major shot in the arm, and the international awards keep rolling in for both still and sparkling wines. The modern UK industry, although just over 65 years old, seems to have caught the imagination of the wine-drinking public. And it's a good job – over 50% of all sales are direct-to-consumer transactions, conducted without a hint of proselytising from your local merchant.

However, for all the encouraging developments, what really caught my eye in 2023 was the autumn launch of Silverhand Estate's new prestige cuvée, KYNG. Priced at £395 per bottle with packaging (though just £249 without packaging), it set a new benchmark in industry chutzpah – that amount of dosh would net you two bottles of Dom Perignon 2013. But, unlike certain other luxury sparkling wine brands, the volumes available of KYNG are truly minute; 50 units of the inaugural release can be purchased via the company's DTC channel. For just under £400 you'll get an English Blanc de Noirs, matured on its lees for five years and made from organically grown fruit at the Silverhand Estate in northwest Kent. I can't comment on the liquid inside the bottle, however, but let's assume it's a cut above.

Thus, all the marketing cues are in place: small volumes, glitzy packaging (each bottle is housed in a wooden box that doubles as a wine cooler), and an ambitious price tag. But would this work on a larger scale? Can our nascent sector forge a niche market for deluxe British fizz?

I'd love to think so. We have the climate, we have the tools, and we have the talent. What we lack, of course, is an established pedigree and the ability to compete with Champagne's volume and renown. It's early days, in global terms, and there is no British equivalent of Krug or Cristal. But a willingness to promote wines at over £70 is growing all the time.

Gusbourne and Nyetimber remain market leaders in this regard. The former launched Fifty One Degrees North in 2022, at a cool £195 a bottle, and offers its customers a 'Collectors' membership scheme: each quarter, Gusbourne chooses three of its most prestigious cuvées to send to subscribers, including preview access to new releases. “This is something we've seen a spike in sign-ups for this year which shows the growing interest in high-quality English fine wines and reinforces English wine's rising popularity,” says Jonathan White, marketing director at Gusbourne.

Over in West Sussex, Nyetimber produces Prestige Cuvee 1086 (the first English prestige cuvée) and the single-vineyard Tillington, priced at around £150 and £100 respectively.

Yet their competitors have no intention of letting Nyetimber and Gusbourne dominate the supply of upmarket fizz. Although the macroeconomic climate remains challenging, investors are confident that this premium tier has the potential to grow and compete directly with Champagne. Indeed, when I interviewed key stakeholders about their plans for 2024, expanding the £70-plus segment was a recurring theme.

“Yes, I think there is still incredible potential for growth, we’ve seen it over the past 10-15 years and I think we’ll continue to see it in years to come. More and more English wine brands are producing premium wines and I feel ESW is already competing with Champagne – certainly in terms of space on wine lists and on shelves – and expect this to be even more so across the price points in the future,” enthuses Jacob Leadley, CEO, Black Chalk Wine.

He continues: “Black Chalk will introduce two premium sparkling wines to the range in 2024. While these new releases might not break the £100 mark, it's a significant leap for a smaller producer like us and an exciting addition to our offering. They’re far more technical wines and they really show the quality and purity of the fruit we grow here in Hampshire. Further down the line we’ll be adding a single vineyard sparkling wine to our range, which will only further highlight the quality of the fruit we grow, but also our understanding of how to make that fruit shine in the winery.”

Other wineries I spoke to have similar plans to up the luxury ante, however, they were reluctant to divulge further details at this point.

Steve Daniel, head of buying at Hallgarten & Novum wines, believes that “there is no limit to the potential for premium English sparkling wine; the quality is there and the awareness of top-end producers is becoming more commonplace, particularly with the wine-savvy consumer.”

He also observes that any demographic willing to pay over £100, or even over £200, for a bottle of Champagne, would probably be willing to pay similar amounts for a deluxe bottle of home-grown fizz.

“Below the £100 level, the quality of English Fizz is largely comparable to Champagne so there is no reason why the price can’t grow alongside Champagne too,” he says.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply. It's very early days, the volumes are relatively tiny, Champagne has an obvious and gigantic head start, yada yada. But while there may be a limited number of spaces on restaurant lists and retail shelves, an increasing willingness to branch out from Champagne – and a very buoyant DTC channel – offers hope for this still-peripheral prestige category.

“In the past couple of years, there has been a big question mark raised for Champagne, as the border of Champagne can’t be moved, and it is a time-consuming wine to produce,” says Lucas Reynaud Paligot, assistant head sommelier at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, London. “We did a blind tasting with the guys from Champagne, and found that the wine that really blew us away was one from England.”

Leadley also observes that “consumers are increasingly appreciating the diversity and quality of English wine, and there's a growing segment of enthusiasts willing to invest in exceptional, limited-production wines.”

He adds: “I think the perception of English fizz is shifting from being just a budget-friendly alternative to Champagne to a category that can stand on its own, commanding higher prices for exceptional quality.”

Provided that the industry remains disciplined and resists the temptation to expand too quickly, the crème de la crème of Great British wine should have a bright future ahead.