Wine tourism is a global industry that is crucial to the financial success of many of the wine regions of the world. England’s wine industry is no exception. Wine tourism in England is still in its infancy, but with new entrants and more facilities being added every year this is an exciting time for tourists and vineyards owners alike. Don’t miss out!
In a survey in 2022 by WineGB (which represents around 80% of wine production in the UK), almost 80% of vineyards, of all sizes, ranked wine tourism as “very” or “extremely” important to their business.
Why wine tourism is important to English wines
As well as offering tourists a fun day out, wine tourism means vineyards can sell directly to consumers (“cellar door” sales which maximise profitability), recruit new customers, build customer loyalty, and raise brand awareness.
For a relatively new industry, like English sparkling & still wines, one operating in such a price-sensitive market as the UK (a market dominated by the supermarkets), being able to sell, and build relationships directly with consumers is fundamental to success.
Particularly for the small & medium sized vineyards which represent the majority of English wine production.
The prize on offer in getting wine tourism right could be vast. California, arguably the founder of modern wine tourism, and the most developed, had almost 8 million wine tourists in 2022, spending $8.5 billion.
Of course, English wine tourism is an infant in comparison, however like all infants it is already making its presence felt.
English wine tourism may still be in its infancy, but it is making some significant steps forward.
WineGB’s annual survey for 2021-22 identified “a key factor in the shape of the industry which perhaps was not foreseen pre-pandemic is the stratospheric rise in the importance of wine tourism and the direct-to-consumer sales channel.
WineGB’s annual survey points to an overall increase of 265% in cellar door sales in the past 2 years, representing 57% of all sales in 2021.”
How wine tourism develops
It is worth looking at how wine tourism has developed in other regions of the world, as it offers some interesting insights into what the UK currently offers and how it may develop.
There are three common phases in the development of wine tourism:
Phase 1 - recognition of the region’s wines and their quality
Phase 2 - wine tourism gets into its stride
Phase 3 - reputation as a wine tourism destination
English sparkling wine is firmly in phase 1. With an English Sparkling wine winning Best in Show in each of the past four years in Decanter Magazine’s World Wine Awards, English Sparkling wines are being increasingly recognised for their quality.
It is during this first phase that some wineries start to invest in facilities like tasting rooms, vineyard tours and wine clubs to attract customers and promote their wines. This is evident in the UK, with many established wineries already offering these facilities and with hardly a month going by without press articles about new planning applications being made.
Some established, often larger vineyards have moved into the second phase where facilities are extended to include food and wine pairing events, cafes or restaurants, wine education, and music events like Jazz in the Vines.
Offering tourists options for visiting vineyards without driving are key building blocks to further development.
Modes of transport which capture the imagination are particularly good, like the Napa Valley Wine Train which started in 1989 and is still going strong. Here in the UK, I particularly like what Sussex-based Great British Wine Tours have done, using the iconic bright red London bus for their tours.
English wine tourism is ideally placed
With a number of positive forces colliding English wines couldn’t be better placed to benefit from tourism and the resulting sales potential.
Firstly, climate change has meant that England is now firmly in the cool-climate zone. The one inhabited by Champagne 30 years ago. This means the viability of English vineyards now, and in the longer term is a reality, with the ability to make increasingly consistent high quality sparkling wines.
The second positive force is the availability of large amounts of agricultural land suitable for vineyards for wine production. Land that has not yet been planted to vines and costs a fraction of the value of land in established wine regions.
Research over the past six years has helped in providing key data, particularly from the University of East Anglia led by Alistair Nesbitt and Stephen Dorling. Their latest research in 2022 has looked at climate change projections for UK viticulture to 2040. By mapping these changes, they have been able to identify land which is currently underdeveloped for viticulture. They have highlighted my home area of East Anglia as one of England’s sunniest regions which is currently the least developed.
Not surprisingly this is attracting large investment into English Sparkling wines. From existing landowners recognising the potential of their land for wine production, new entrants buying small amounts of land to make their own artisanal wines, and the big established Champagne and sparkling wine brands like Taittinger and Freixenet buying land or existing businesses.
The demand for wine tourism is here now
The potential is not just on the supply side. There is increasing demand from consumers too, with a recent VisitBritain survey suggesting 42% of inbound tourists would enjoy a visit to a winery.
It’s not just foreign tourists, the UK has experienced a significant rise in “staycations”, with UK’s home-grown visitors looking for more places to visit and events to attend in the UK.
And demand isn’t just in the summer. Speaking recently to Linda Howard of Gifford’s Hall in Suffolk, their last tour of 2022 was 10th December, and the first of 2023 was on 3rd February.
What does the future hold?
With increasing vineyard investment, WineGB’s 2021-22 annual survey identified that the number of vines planted each year had averaged more than 1.6m.
This, together with more vineyards offering tours and tastings to promote cellar door sales, has resulted in the development of companies such as organised wine tours.
At the moment these organised tours are few and mainly focused on vineyards in Sussex and Kent, being the closest vineyards to London (the dominant tourist destination in the UK). And arguably home to the largest concentrations of the most developed wine tourism facilities.
As mentioned earlier, Great British Wine Tours are using an historic big red London bus to run their tours in Sussex. English Wine Tasting Tours pick up from London to take tourists around the vineyards of Kent, and Vine + Country focus on food and wine pairing on their tours of Sussex and Kent.
As these support companies increase in number and scale, and other companies catering to the tourist trade see the potential of wine tourism, the market will accelerate.
English vineyards themselves are part of the process, beginning to work together to provide online tools to help tourists discover them. Examples include Wine Garden of Kent and Vineyards of the Surrey Hills, founded by eight Kent vineyards and five Surrey vineyards respectively.
WineGB has identified wine tourism as key to the development of the wine production industry and they will be working on several initiatives to help their members maximise this crucial sales channel.
As part of this, I am working with WineGB's Eastern region on identifying ways of developing wine tourism in the East of England.
One of the great advantages we have in Britain is the ability to learn from other wine regions where wine tourism is already well established. As someone who has travelled extensively, I have seen how wine tourism can develop successfully.
Using the experiences of other regions gives the UK the opportunity to learn from them, and tailor our tourism to maximise the unique qualities of the English wine industry.
England is a beautiful country, and its vineyards are in some of its most attractive locations. Vineyard tourism gives local and overseas tourists alike the opportunity to experience the countryside and taste great wine.
I think you can tell I am a fan.
Particularly whilst the industry is still young, tours and tastings can offer the opportunity to meet the growers and makers themselves.
That situation won’t last as the industry develops. Don’t miss out!