It has long been a "niche" market and the butt of cruel jokes. But the English wine industry is on the verge of a major breakthrough as a result of unprecedented "perfect growing conditions" throughout the season, which is likely to make 2009 a vintage year.
English sparkling wines in particular have been the biggest success story, producers and retailers say, enjoying record sales as their appeal has grown on the back of the recession. Waitrose – the largest retailer of English wines, with a 55% share of the market – last week reported a 163% year-on-year rise in sales of locally stocked English sparkling wines and a 97% rise in sales of nationally produced wine. It has also seen a 50% rise in sales of still wines.
Some of the former are now world class, regularly scoring above top champagnes in blind tastings, and likely to be best-sellers for Christmas.
At Denbies in Surrey – the largest single estate vineyard in the UK – harvesting of its 300,000 vines was completed at the end of October. The grapes have been pressed and are now fermenting in huge tanks, in preparation for bottling. Still wines will be bottled next year while sparkling wines will be bottled in four or five years time. Chris White, general manager of Denbies said: "This is an incredibly exciting time. Twenty to 30 years ago people didn't want to drink English wine because it was seen as rubbish and it was very difficult to sell. Now our biggest problem is producing enough of it."
Denbies' vineyards are on the North Downs – just outside Dorking - on land which has the same soil-chalk structure as the Champagne region of northern France.
White said that the warming climate and a critical mass of experience had all helped the industry drive up standards and improve quality. This year's good spring and warm, dry late summer and early autumn means the finest wine produced in the UK is likely to be arriving on supermarket shelves and dining tables next year
Overall production is still tiny compared with other countries. UK production is currently around 2m bottles, varying significantly depending on the vintage conditions, but less than 0.05% of the amount produced in France (6.9bn bottles).
The popularity of English wine has also soared on the back of environmental concerns, White explains: "People are drinking it because they are concerned about the carbon footprint. It is also lower in alcohol than many other wines – typically with an ABV [alcohol by volume] of 11.5%. And English sparkling wines are a top quality, affordable alternative to champagne."
Its Surrey Gold brand is now the best-selling English still wine. Denbies supplies wines direct to the House of Commons dining rooms and to government departments, and hopes its products will help to trumpet the best of British in the catering contracts for the Olympic Games in 2012.
Ken Mackay, wine buyer with Waitrose, said: "English wines are no longer a joke. The 160% increase in the sales of locally stocked sparkling wines is phenomenal. There is still an issue around price, as it cannot be produced that cheaply, but the quality has never been better."
The retailer's policy is to supply wines in-store from local vineyards as part of its local produce drive. This year the company also took the unusual step of planting 5 hectares (12.5 acres) of champagne grapes on its 2,000 hectare farm in Hampshire.
Julia Trustram Eve of the English Wine Producers trade body, said: "We're not calling 2009 a bumper year in terms of volume, but it will definitely be a vintage year in terms of quality; 2007 and 2008 were a wash-out in terms of the weather."
Sue Daniels, wine specialist at M&S, which stocks a small range of English wines, said: "I was visiting Chapel Down winery [part of the English Wines Group] just a few weeks ago tasting the quality of the fermenting wines, which were all looking to be excellent. The winery was delighted with the near perfect, vintage conditions."