Why does English wine seem so expensive?
When we launched The British Wine Cellar, we were overwhelmed with support – our aim was to make buying English & Welsh wines really easy and enjoyable, and the feedback we had was that we’d done exactly that!
There was one comment that kept cropping up, (in spite of us matching wine cellar door prices) – why is English wine so expensive?
Now, before I delve into my answer, I want to break down the question a bit.
‘expensive’ is a term that’s relative to each individual, and the circumstances in which they’re looking at something. You will no doubt have looked at a purchase someone else has made and thought it seemed a bit expensive. Other people may well have looked at something you’ve purchased before and thought the same.
A lot of people use the term ‘expensive’ when what they actually mean is ‘poor value for money’, or that they simply don’t associate those kind of costs with what they usually buy.
So, why are people perceiving English wine to be expensive? The answer lies in what people are comparing it against, and the differences between the two.
The majority of wine sales go through the major supermarkets – in this environment, price is king. Supermarkets want high volume products that customers don’t have to consider too much before buying. By far the biggest volume of sales are in the £5-9.99 price bracket.
If the majority of wines sold in the most popular place to buy them are £5-9.99, it’s easy to see why most of us see that as being the benchmark all other wines get compared to.
When I’ve spoken to people in detail about their thoughts on the price of English wine, everyone was comparing it to the price they would “usually” pay for wine. Where do they “usually” buy their wine from? Supermarkets.
Now let’s have a think about the wine section of your local branch of Tesco. You can walk into pretty much any branch of Tesco and find the same selection. They work on huge economies of scale when it comes to buying wine (or anything for that matter!).
As a winemaker, what’s it like to supply Tesco? You have to be capable of producing big volumes. Tesco have almost 4000 stores – whilst the smaller stores don’t have as many wines as the big stores, it’s still a huge task to keep them in stock all year round. As a winemaker, you’d have to have large production capabilities – Tesco won’t take kindly to being left with gaps on shelf.
What else would be involved? Supplying the likes of Tesco requires huge amounts of administration and a strong supply chain operation, amongst other things.
It’s easy to see why the wines in Tesco are from big companies who own lots of big wineries, with big capabilities.
In England, we’re a few hundred years late to the party on the winemaking front, certainly compared to our European neighbours – that type of scale just isn’t common here.
The scale that we produce to has a huge impact on the cost of producing wine in England vs in other countries.
Let’s compare the cost of producing an English wine against a supermarket favourite – Prosecco.
I really like the way John Hawkins compares the two – see infographic below.
Whilst yes, the two are both sparkling wines, they are different sparkling wines, made in very different ways, by wineries running very different setups, in vineyards with very different challenges. Prosecco is the most consumed sparkling wine in the UK – the economies of scale associated with the kind of volume we import are huge.
It’s not just the production costs that are high – the risks are much higher here too. The famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view!) Great British weather carries huge risks for vineyards here. Will we have enough sunshine to allow grapes to ripen fully? Will we get enough rain at the right time? The big threat to vineyards in Britain is frost, and it’s a topical one at the moment. Following one of the warmest April’s we’ve ever had, we actually had frost in May! This damages opening buds and young shoots, and has the potential to significantly affect the yield.
One way to prevent frost damage is to light large candles (bougies) in between vines – see this image from Albury Organic Vineyard in May this year. It’s a pretty amazing sight, especially when it’s dark! But it’s certainly not cheap or easy to do.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the costs of production, but hopefully you get the drift; that all of these factors drive up the cost of making wine in the UK.
So, hopefully you all feel like you know a little more about what goes into making English wine, and why it’s more expensive than wine you would usually buy from a supermarket!
That leaves one question – why buy it, if it’s going to cost more than supermarket wine?
The answer to that I think depends on your point of view.
To many people, merely knowing that you’ve bought something homemade in Britain, that’s less mass-produced than a supermarket brand, would be enough of a reason to pay a premium.
There are many family owned vineyards in England & Wales, and some lovely stories of people escaping the rat race in the city to live their dream of owning a vineyard. Again, if you like buying something with a story behind it, that’s been produced in small batches rather than something mass-produced by a corporation, there is a lot of appeal in buying English wines.
The best reason however (in my humble opinion!), has got to be the taste. England and Wales can produce some incredible wines in a range of different styles.
See my video here of tasting one of my favourites from Sixteen Ridges in Herefordshire – yes, it’s similar in style to a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but close your eyes and it takes you to the rolling green hills of the English countryside! It has what I describe in my tasting video as a wine similar to Sauvignon Blanc, but with a very English twist.
Winbirri’s Bacchus from Norfolk hit headlines in 2017 when it scooped the “Platinum Best in Show” at the Decanter World Wine Awards – it was essentially declared “the best white wine in the world”. The price? £14.99 a bottle.
I recently hosted an English wine tasting where I was challenged to find a rosé that a non-rosé drinker would like, and a red that a non-red drinker would like. I succeeded on both counts. The person who thought they didn’t like rosé in fact didn’t like the fruity, sweet rosé that’s common in most shops and restaurants. She was won over by a bone-dry, delicate rosé from Sixteen Ridges in Herefordshire. The non-red drinker was put off red wine by heavy reds with lots of tannins (that gum-drying sensation you feel when drinking red wines) – the solution? A smooth, easy drinking English Pinot Noir from Bolney Estate in Sussex. I absolutely love seeing English wines succeeding where other wines have failed to impress!
When we founded The British Wine Cellar, we wanted to make sure we stocked wines to suit all tastes. I know I’m biased, but I think you can’t go wrong with English wines, and that, to me, is worth paying a bit more for 😉