English sparkling wine has forged a proud reputation as a premium product made in the Champagne style. But a new producer is looking to defy convention with a Prosecco-style wine made in England. Finn Scott-Delany visits Divergent Drinks in Sussex.
The reputation of English sparkling wine has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with the finest examples beating Champagnes in blind taste tests, and becoming a must-have inclusion on high-end restaurants’ wine lists.
Made using the traditional Champagne method, and often sharing a similar price tag and premium branding, English sparkling wine has so far steered clear of the mid-market.
Divergent Drinks, a Sussex-based producer, is looking to be the first to take this tentative step with its new sparkling wine Fitz, a rebellious take on the category.
Aiming to bridge the gap between Prosecco and entry level Champagne, Fitz is a self-styled outsider, a “right royal bastard” according to its own tagline.
The cheeky tone of voice plays on its unconventional charmat production method - by English standards at least – making it the outcast of the domestic industry, the name Fitz a historic prefix for an illegitimate son.
This interloper status is not unfounded – Fitz is not allowed to market itself as ‘English sparkling wine’, PDO legislation reserving this description for English wines made using the traditional method.
Due to its often sweeter taste profile, and shorter, mass production, the charmat is often looked upon as downmarket, with the English industry wary that the likes of Fitz culd devalue their hard won reputation.
Divergent Drinks insist their product is merely a different take on a crowded category, using mostly alternative grape varieties (seyval blanc, reichensteiner, madeline angevine, as well as the more familiar chardonnay), and producing a more fruit-forward, yet still brut wine (7g of residual sugar per litre), for what they say is “crowd-pleasing” product.
“We are based in England, the grapes are grown in England - we just use a different production method”, sales and marketing manager Oliver Peniston-Bird says.
“We’re doing something different, we’re promoting English wine, we’re prompting diversity
“But we got a cease and desist letter from Wine GB, telling us we need to take the words ’English sparkling wine’ from our Instagram. It seems a bit harsh.”
With the political tides turning, and a realisation that cheap European imports may not be as readily available, Peniston-Bird believes the time is right for a new take on English wine.
“Prosecco sales have gone through the roof in this country, English sparkling wine is doing very well, and politically things are changing – for better or for worse, depending on your point of view”, he says.
“We thought there are going to be changes in the way wine is imported.
“It’s a case of style, price point, a shift towards local products – and maybe rising costs, with tariffs changing. It’s also providing people with more choice.”
Part of the Dan Cahill-led Essential Fruit, Fitz launched just two months ago, and currently retails in the off trade at £20, with a key focus is in the on trade, where it sells for around £36 a bottle.
Still relatively premium in terms of price compared to mainstream prosecco, the goal is to bring the retail price down to around £15 in future, once better scale can be achieved in deals with grape suppliers.
Having recently launched, the company is starting local, building accounts in Sussex restaurants and bars, and targeting premium independents in the on trade.
Producing 20,000 bottles last year, the target is to produce 100,000 this year, and if all goes according to plan, to upsize the production facilities the following year.
Grapes are sourced from a variety of suppliers around the country – in Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Shropshire – and harness managing director Dan Cahill’s established connections in the fruit trade.
Divergent Drinks aims to grow its own vines at some point, though with start-up costs for charmat tanks already fairly high (around £1m for Divergent’s production facilities), grape growing was prohibitively expensive initially.
Fitz has other aces up its sleeve. Rather than using isinglass, Fitz is vegan friendly and uses nitrogen floatation to clarify the wine, a feature it is hoped will appeal to the growing demand for vegan friendly food and drink.
The company, whose wine wine-making is led by Gareth Davies, also plans to make its first rosé this year ready for consumption next year, in what is seen as a logical next step for the pink-loving English market.
And with JD Wetherspoon chariman Tim Martin’s outspoken views on Brexit leading him to find replacements for some European drinks such as Champagne, could there be an opportunity for Divergent?
“We sent a tongue in cheek email to Wetherspoons after they took champagne off the menu”, Peniston-Bird says.
“If he takes prosecco off he will struggle to replace it, and we have discussed making a different product with a different label.
“At the moment though we are aiming for a slightly different market.”
Product watch: England’s home-grown prosecco?
English sparkling wine has forged a proud reputation as premium product made in the Champagne style. But a new producer is looking defy convention with a Prosecco-style wine made in England. Finn Scott-Delany visits Divergent Drinks in Sussex