As questions once again buzz around how expensive homegrown wines can be, Ben argues no good English or Welsh wine can consider going cheap. The compromise to do so would not only be poor business practice but is realistically impossible. Can English and Welsh wine be less expensive? Sure, but that comes with time and scalability – and they’re never going to compete on low prices with wines from the continent.
On social media you get a great deal of gaslighting. In a world of fast-reducing attention spans, perhaps it’s unsurprising that swathes of keyboard warriors on both sides are getting more and more extreme to sip on the remnants of attention of a million scrolling eyeballs. And while I might pretend to take a holier than thou position in my general contempt for social media (and my own obvious succumbing to it), it only took a Guardian article on cheap British wine to set me off.
The article sees the newspaper’s commissioning editor Coco Khan send off a series of listicle questions to Sam Linter, WineGB’s director and head of Bolney Wine Estate, as part of their ‘Conversations with Experts’ series. I should say from the off that I think Sam is one of England’s best winemakers, and she undoubtedly understands the English wine market better than me – and most others, too. Sam and her team successfully led Bolney Wine Estate to become one of England’s most successful estates, acquired earlier this year by Freixenet Copestick, who said they had found the “perfect winery”. They are now one of many larger English wine producers who can take advantage of investment to grow production and retain quality, including the build of reserve wines to release new non-vintage and mature bottlings of sparkling wine.
But while Sam does a very good job of rebutting the idea that climate change is good for anyone, and explaining that the inevitable progress of an emerging market to an established one is to create more choice at competitive prices, it isn’t firm enough on one key point: ‘British’ wine can’t afford to be cheap.
The question whether we will ever see English or Welsh wines drop to the price of wine from the continent is pointless. Yet it is asked all the time. Just google ‘Why is English wine expensive?’ and you’ll find a plethora of press and internet comments discussing it, and almost every home winery justifying their pricing in blogposts, to keep you busy for months.
We are decades from a winery being big enough to even consider competing on price
As Sam rightly says, labour and land in the UK is expensive. Moreso than it is on most of the continent. However, that’s not unique to the UK. Land prices are through the roof in sought-after French AOCs. The price of land and labour is true of California, too. However, these regions still manage to produce less expensive wines. The reason here is scale.
Remember wineries are businesses. Just like in business, a degree of scale is required for it to commercialise and compete. There must be a decision, at some point, to either grow your margin and quality at a lower volume, or compromise to build growth and reach a scale to reduce your price. Chapel Down, the UK’s largest scale winery and publicly listed company, still charges £15/bottle for its still white wine. In the winery’s 2021 report, they sold 1.5m bottles of wine – a new record. That made up 8.5m bottles of wine produced in Great Britain as a whole (according to WineGB’s September 2022 report). According a report from JancisRobinson.com, the French wine region of Bordeaux alone produced 440m litres of wine in 2020, making up the equivalent of around 586m bottles.
It would take decades of investment for England and Wales to reach anywhere near similar volumes – and that’s ignoring the fact that land for vineyard projects is in increasingly short supply.
Yet the problem is so much bigger than the UK
Let’s say that the UK decides to go all out at vineyard production and compete at scale. Even with that buy in, the business strategy to do so doesn’t make any sense. Wine is a saturated market. Global volumes are down, value is up. People are drinking less and trading up – others aren’t drinking at all, especially among younger generations. So where is the case to flood the market with more volume?
This is where a preferential tax system starts to lose its fire. The government is attempting to justify their new tax rate on alcohol by saying it presents an opportunity for the lower alcohol wines made at home to compete with made abroad. However, without a vast increase in the scale of UK production, any %abv tax reduction – if any – would be negligible on reducing the final RRP to compete with cheap continental wines.
Even if you did manage to adjust taxes to a point where a winery could scale their production of Bacchus, or some other reliable early ripening grape, how would you convince a market spoiled with choice to buy enough of it? Bacchus needs to be drunk young, when it’s fruity. Finding enough people to switch from their New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, White Burgundies, or South African Chenin Blanc to the elderflower and soft citrus tones of a Bacchus is going to take a PR company with a magic wand and a bottomless bank account, especially if those Bacchus wines start to be made by wineries that put quantity above and beyond quality.
Nevertheless, wouldn’t that be sad? Why not make a Bacchus that can compete on the international stage and win hearts and minds instead?
Wine is for everyone: in principle it’s a grand idea, but not every wine can – or indeed, should – aspire to be for all
I am not arguing that English and Welsh wines could be less expensive. I am rallying against any ambition that they should be cheap, or the business case for mass-produced homegrown wine.
I also understand the more ideological, moral standpoint that wine should be accessible to all, and that not everyone can afford to spend £10 on a bottle of wine, let alone £15 or more for an English or Welsh one.
But in reality wine shouldn’t be a commodity. It isn’t essential for anyone to drink wine, as much as merchants like me would like more people to buy it. We all know alcohol doesn’t do us any good, health wise, but it does give us pleasure. Whether that’s in the taste or in making memories with friends, wine is a luxury. I’d love a world where we drink £15-£20 bottles every other week, as opposed to £5 bottles every other night. It would make the point of opening a bottle of wine so much more worthwhile.
The average bottle of wine sells in the UK for £6-£7. That means most of us think differently. It means, most of the time, wine is bought along with the weekly food shop and doesn’t need to be a luxury. I may not agree that that’s a good thing, but I would say there’s no reason for English and Welsh wine to aspire to be a part of that. Not because it’s better than those wines, and certainly not because it’s any better than the people who buy those wines, but because it physically can’t be. The compromise would be too great; to our land (buying the land, treating it sustainably, and son on), to our values (paying your labour fairly being one example), and to our wine.
English and Welsh wine should continue its gleeful journey to learn, to better itself year on year, and to produce wines that we can proudly enjoy. Our homegrown wine trade should be emblematic of drinking less but drinking better.
What do you think? Are English and Welsh wines too expensive? What price would you pay and what compromise would you make to get there?