How the government can support English Winemakers – and why it should
Twenty years ago, ‘English Wine’ was one of the shortest jokes in the world; ‘English’ was the set-up, ‘Wine’ the punch-line. Production was a measly 1 million bottles per year, a shadow of the amount produced on the continent. Worse still it was aimed mostly at the bottom of the market.
Today however, over 500 commercial vineyards produce 6 million bottles from grapes grown on over 6300 acres of land. English Wines, especially sparkling ones, have won countless international awards, and are routinely served at state and royal functions. They create an economic bedrock that supports rural communities and moreover, do much to inspire national and local pride. Yet English winemakers have not received the support they deserve from the national government. They have, instead been consistently punished through constant rises in excise duty and misguided regulations.
Excise duty, the most onerous tax from which English Wine producers suffer, is one of the highest in Europe. Having risen every year bar one for over a decade, it now stands at £2.50 per bottle; in France, by comparison, it is 2p per bottle. In Italy and Spain, it is nil. Though duty is paid on any wine sold in the UK regardless of provenance, English producers are disproportionately penalised: unlike their peers on the Continent, they pay duty on every single bottle they produce, as soon as they produce it, no matter its intended destination. This renders English wine uncompetitive internationally, and is one of the chief reasons for its limited success abroad. Only 4% of English wine production being exported. Despite the publicity this problem has received, including being mentioned in several Commons debates in the past few years, the Government has not so much as acknowledged, never mind solved, it.
In this sense, the comparison with beer is an apt and surprisingly stark one. This industry – in many ways English wine’s big sister – has received sustained support from successive Chancellors, who have frozen excise duty on beer almost every year since 2002. Small-scale producers have received further support: breweries are relieved from paying any duty on their first 500,000 litres produced in a year; the rate payable then rises gradually with production up to 6 million litres per annum. Partly as a result of this, Britain now has more breweries per capita than any other country in the world, and British real ale has experienced a resurgence not only here, but internationally, and is now lauded by the very same people for whom such ‘warm British beer’ was once a source of mirth, rather than admiration. A similar scheme for English wine would greatly help domestic producers – especially the many nascent ones, who would be able to market their first offerings at more affordable prices to make up for their products’ sometimes more variable quality.
With the tax burden on English winemakers as great as it is, one might expect the government to be vehemently supporting the industry both at home and abroad. In fact, the contrary is true: In 2005, the UK left the OIV (the body responsible for global wine standards) citing excessive costs. This decision is now widely seen as having been a short-sighted, myopic one. Perhaps, given it was taken by Mr. Blair’s government. Yet calls to re-join the OIV have been met by the Chancellor with vague, perfunctory promises to do so once Brexit is a fait accompli. As a result of this needless procrastination, Britain currently has no seat at the table when it comes to important international decisions on the future of wine production and distribution at a global level.
To the government’s credit, the recent introduction, between 2015 and 2017, of PDOs, or Protected Designations of Origin, both for English wine generally and for individual regional wines (e.g. Sussex wine), has helped protect its reputation and put in place clear, if still somewhat weak, rules on allowed and disallowed practices in its production.
Yet one major labelling problem remains, to wit: the use of the term ‘British wine’. This name is used to describe wine of inferior quality that simply happens to be fermented and bottled in Britain. The grape juice used for this ignoble endeavour is imported from anywhere in the world with few checks and little care for the grapes’ provenance, style, and maturity. It generally yields nigh-undrinkable concoctions that are as akin to English wine as Buckfast is to Port.
‘British wine’ and ‘English wine’ are, unfortunately, easily confused – and indeed synonymous to the layperson, who, having even once made the fateful mistake, is unlikely ever to purchase English wine again. The cost of this, both reputational and financial, to English wineries is immeasurable. It is high time for ‘British wine’ to disappear, if not as a product – for some might enjoy it, de gustibus – then as a label fooling consumers.
Solving these issues will not benefit only the thousands of people employed in the production and distribution of English wine. Nor is the calculus purely a commercial one. Though wine production in this country is already a £100M industry, and is projected to reach – purely in retail value – £1bn by 2040, the benefits of viticulture on local communities is far greater than that.
Local and national pride – the beliefs that both one’s city, town or village as well as one’s country are special places that are worth preserving and supporting – has always been mainstays of the Conservative (and conservative) ethos. Yet both are reaching historic nadirs throughout the country; many find it increasingly difficult to find concrete reasons to be proud of their nation and of their town. High-quality viticulture, though not sufficient on its own to reverse this course, offers precisely such a reason. One need only look at our Continental neighbours to understand just how important wine production can be to national and especially local identity.
It is true, of course, that the volume of production in England will never reach Italian or French levels. Yet the fact that English Sparkling Wine’s every success is already so enthusiastically fêted in our press suggests quality matter more than quantity when it comes to national pride. Locally, the effect is even greater. Asti, Bordeaux, and Chablis are proud towns in large part due to the metonymously named wines produced there. But one needn’t travel so far afield: Tenterden, in Kent – to name but one example – now has its name writ large on every one of the hundreds of thousands of bottles produced there every year by one of England’s largest wine producers. More than 50,000 tourists a year visit the winery there – many of them interested not merely in the wine, but in the village and its history. It is difficult to imagine any other industry doing so much to instil local pride in a rural community.
The future for English wines looks bright. Yet there is one entity that has brought nothing but hail and frost upon the industry: the government. English wine is not only a commercial success story. It provides thousands of jobs in rural communities, and is a source of local and national pride. For the good of English winemakers, of country-dwellers, and of wine drinkers everywhere, the Conservative government must finally recognise the potential of the industry and support, rather than punish it.