Can a bottle of English sparkling wine be worth £195?
Gusbourne thinks so.
Welcome to In the mood for wine — a weekly newsletter on wine for the next gen of wine lovers and investors. This week’s WineLeaks, a curated overview of the wine market, is postponed to tomorrow at 10 a.m. (London time). Today, instead, I’ll share my thoughts on England’s most expensive wine — Gusbourne’s Fifty One Degrees North.
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You can find all the links to this newsletter’s past editions on this page, from a special edition dedicated to tech and NFTs in fine wine, to the St-Emilion reclassification and on the topic of wine liquidity.
As a wine professional, sometimes I forget that I get to taste some really expensive wines for free. And with that nonchalance, I headed to 19 Greek Street in Soho to the launch of Gusbourne’s “most exciting wine yet” (that’s what the invitation said).
It turned out to be not only their most exciting wine yet, and not only their most expensive yet, but also England’s most expensive wine.
Fifty One Degrees North is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from the much-lauded 2014 vintage. A lot of people in the industry were in a frenzy about the release of this wine, as CEO and chief winemaker Charlie Holland kept his cards close to his chest.
As we gathered around the table Holland starts with the story behind the name, Fifty One Degrees North. It is a nod to the co-ordinates of the small pocket of Kent where Gusbourne’s winery is situated, paying homage to the perfect conditions of the surrounding landscape. Nonetheless, Holland explained that it also references (and challenges) the traditional notion of the optimal latitude for wine-growing — historically, considered to be between 30- and 50-degrees latitude on either side of the equator.
“And here we are,” he solemnly declares “at 51 Degrees North, making excellent wine”.
Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier and Gusbourne Ambassador, guided us through the tasting in a way which, I thought, was quite enlightening. As Rhys says, “It’s about showcasing the building blocks we have available at Gusbourne. And it’s our attention to detail during our base-wine grading and blending process that lets us identify particularly intriguing, special wines to highlight unique areas of our vineyards and the vines within them.”
We tasted a total of 4 wines in addition to Fifty One Degrees North. All from the 2017 vintage and single-vineyard, the first two were Blanc de Blancs and the third and fourth were Blanc de Noir.
Blanc de Blancs 2017, Selhurst Vineyard, West Sussex. (£89/bottle) At 100m above sea level, it’s Gusbourne highest spot of all, and the first parcel to get picked during harvest. The cuvée is defined by its chalk, minerality, elegance and precision.
Blanc de Blancs 2017, Commanders Vineyard, Kent. (£89/bottle) 10-20m above sea level and characterised by clay sand soils. One can find warmth, an amazingly ripeness and concentration, and complex fruit. Quite an incredible wine.
Blanc de Noir 2017, Down Field, Sussex. (£89/bottle) Defined by the flint in the terroir. Interesting texture and generous fruit character of ripe orchard fruits and a hint of red berries.
Blanc de Noirs 2017, Boot Hill, Kent. (£89/bottle) Dominated by clay. Generosity in the orchard and stone fruits combining with delicate spice. Broad and rounded on the palate which brings an extra dimension.
At last, Fifty One Degrees North was served to us three times from the same bottle “as you would drink it at dinner“ and accompanied by three subsequent courses.
Fifty One Degrees North 2014. (£195/bottle) Factsheet Grapes were selected from the best plots, to construct a blend of Chardonnay from the silky and intense clay and sandstone in the Kent vineyards (64%) and bright and structured chalk and flint grown Pinot Noir from their West Sussex vineyards (36%). At this point, it became clear what Rhys had wanted us to understand: the “building blocks“ of Fifty One Degrees North and the combinations available to Gusbourne. There is no denying that 2014 was an exceptional vintage —a long warm spring gave way to summer flowering and rain in August before the early-October harvest, the result of which produced a tremendous consistency and quality of grapes. Fermented predominantly in stainless steel tanks, with a 10% in old oak, to build texture mid-palate and on the finish. 80 months ageing on lees. Built to age. The wine was served with scallops, rabbit and ice-cream and it never once eluded to shine.
The Market Dynamics
While the craftsmanship and the quality of the wine are undeniable, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the price. £195 per bottle. It’s the sort of price tag associated with top champagnes such as Krug or Dom Pérignon.
Is it too much for an English Sparkling wine?
I would like to take the emotion out of this discussion. As a faithful believer in the invisible hand of the market — the correct price is the one buyers are willing to pay. It’s driven by supply and demand.
The supply is limited, very limited. Less than 4,000 bottles of Fifty One Degrees North were made, which are now available via Gusbourne’s website or at Fortum & Mason (their exclusive launch partner) from October, and in selected restaurants (in London at Trinity). For comparison, Dom Pérignon made 3 million bottles of their 2012 vintage.
More generally, English sparkling wine is scarce. In 2021, a total of 6.1 million bottles of sparkling wine were made (WineGB report), a number that is darwfed when compared to the 320 million bottles of Champagne shipped (the total number of bottles produced is not disclosed).
Production of English sparkling is externally constrained by three factors:
At 3,758 hectares under vine, planted vineyards in the UK still account for a small area. For reference, Burgundy (notoriously a small wine region) has a total of 24,000 hectares under vine. Expansion is cautious because selecting the right sites is crucial to overcome the UK’s climate and rainfall.
Production is dependent on vintage. Due to global warming, the UK has seen in recent years a more favourable climate for wine growing; however, it remains a challenging cool climate and yields remain somewhat unpredictable.
Producers holding back reserves. In bumper harvests, like the 2018 vintage, enough grapes were picked to make 13 million bottles of wine, meaning that some producers still hold reserves. Like in Champagne, most producers hold large stocks of reserve wine which can be used when individual harvests are weak or lacking in some element, or when yields are reduced as a result of adverse weather conditions.
Demand — and in particular domestic demand, is very strong.
67% of English sparkling is sold direct to consumer, which allows winemakers to enjoy higher margins on sales and build their own brand reputation among domestic consumers.
And, against such a small production, demand is growing steadily at a 30% (ann.) rate. In 2021, 5.9m bottles of sparkling wine were sold. With such strong internal demand, it only leaves crumbs for exports (a mere 4%).
Simon Thorpe, CEO of WineGB, mentioned: “There is a good chance that in 2022, sales of English and Welsh wine might be larger than production.“
In such a market environment, Gusbourne has adopted the only strategy possible to increase its sales. Returning to the invisible hand, as the supply of English sparkling wine is constrained by external factors discussed above, the most strategic approach is to craft exceptional wines that can be sold at a premium to collectors.
While English sparkling has got some way to go before investors reliably add it to their portfolio (read: English wine in the secondary market), plenty of collectors are adding some to their cellars. As in the last decade, southern England is seeing some warm and dry years, such as 2014 and 2018, buying carefully from these best vintages could be the right strategy.
And I believe this experiment, if you wish to call it as such, to be a very interesting calculated risk for Gusbourne but more importantly, a leap forward for the brand “English Sparkling”. That’s why quite a few industry players have expressed excitement, including competitors (who shall not be named!).
Victoria Moore, in her Telegraph article writes: “This isn’t just about price. It’s also about gravity”, going on to quote Brad Greatrix (senior winemaker at competitor Nyetimber) who makes the point that if England is to be taken seriously as a winemaking country, “it must have bottles that collectors want to put in their cellars. That means excellent wines that will improve with age.”
Read more on English saignée.
In the mood for wine (a.k.a. Sara Danese)