English Fizz – will the bubble burst?

Over the last 10 years, The English Wine Industry has built up to producing and selling approximately 2 million bottles of English Sparkling Wine.

For the vast majority of that period, we have been in a situation of undersupply, with even big players like Ridgeview and Nyetimber having to ration their wine to customers like Waitrose, and not able to supply new accounts, as there simply has not been enough wine to go round.

The huge boom in plantings in the late 2000’s has now resulted in enough vines in the ground, producing a crop, to make 4-5 million bottles a year. More vines have been planted since 2010, although the pace of planting has slowed a little.

The very poor vintage of 2012 has delayed the onset of this new volume hitting the market. We are now in the calm before the storm where new labels are springing up all over the place, but, as yet, without the capacity to make (or the necessity of selling) very large volumes.

All of this changes once the 2013 and 2014 vintages come on stream – both of which are predicted to deliver in the region of 4-5 million bottles (and maybe another 4 million in 2015, and potentially 4-6 million a year every year into the future).

There has been a scramble among producers to gain listings with the right kinds of customers, while supply is still quite scarce. Demand from gatekeepers is high, as buyers – tuned in as they are to the zeitgeist – are enthusiastically adding listings of new and exciting wines, in the quest for novelty and differentiation.

But this honeymoon phase won’t last for long once the oversupply starts to kick in, and producers begin to compete for opportunities to sell significant volumes of their wine. Rather as gin brands have proliferated in recent years, English fizz labels are two-a-penny, and many of them, while attractive propositions, have not yet built up any real brand equity, or consumer franchise.

The balance of power will shift away from the producers and towards the buyers, and producers who haven’t controlled their costs very well, or who do not control their own route to market, risk being squeezed out. Buyers can smell blood in the water, and won’t hesitate to exploit the situation ruthlessly if producers start to find themselves in difficulty.

In my view it is really important that in order to ensure a successful future for English Sparkling Wines, our producers do five things:

1. Remain fanatically committed to quality, and refuse to put out wines that may devalue the positive impression that prevails among the converted drinker that ‘English Sparkling Wine is better than Champagne’

2. Hold their nerve on pricing, and not start a race to the bottom in order to shift volumes of unsold wine.

3. Begin serious efforts to evangelise about English Sparkling wine in key export markets – especially the USA and China

4. Maintain a united front, and to work together to market the ‘English’ proposition, rather than squabbling about regional differences (which may develop in parallel, but should only ever be a supplementary designation).

5. Stop planting new vineyards, until demand once more exceeds supply.

I think that the history of New Zealand Sauvignon is a good model for how the market for English Sparkling Wine could develop.

This too was a premium product that was NOT cheaper than the French archetype, but tasted really good, if not better. It was marketed skilfully through a long period of undersupply, and just about weathered periods of significant oversupply without badly devaluing the proposition.

There were times when NZ producers flooded their existing markets with cheap ‘me-too’ brands, but they seem to have recognised the damage that this can do (and maybe still is doing), and have focussed on opening new markets (especially the USA), which has relieved the pressure somewhat, and helped to maintain a viable grape price.

There are a number of parallels with English Sparkling Wine, but I fear that unlike NZ Sauvignon, the difficulty we have in the UK is that all of the Sparkling Wine producers’ business plans are built on the majority of wine being sold at a price point equivalent to Grand Marque Champagne.

This may be achievable in the longer term for some niche, premium producers, and for the top tier of the larger producers, but don’t forget that the market for un-discounted Grand Marque Champagne around the world is quite small. In England, maybe 10 Million of the 35 Million bottles of Champagne we drink every year are sold at over £25.

In England, it is realistic that English wines could take a 20-30% share of this market over time, where patriotism, and ‘localism’ play a big part, but it is hard to imagine English Sparklers gaining more than a 5% share of the £25+ fizz category in other markets.

If you are a consumer in the USA, or Asia, buying a bottle of English Fizz may appeal once or twice as a curiosity, but there is little rationale for it becoming a regular choice when you can have ‘the real thing’ for the same price, or less.

Whether in England, or in New York, Tokyo or Berlin, selling 5 million bottles a year of English Sparkling Wine is not going to be easy.

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