In conversation… with Sue Daniels

Sue Daniels, Marks & Spencer’s in-house Winemaker and Senior Technologist, speaks to Vineyard about substantial uplift in sales of English wines, her excitement for the future, the importance of sustainability, wine tourism and quality.

What is your role at Marks & Spencer?  

I have been with M&S since 1982, but specifically the beers, wines and spirits team since 1995. I’m currently one of two in-house winemakers and am responsible for sourcing and blending delicious quality wines. I look after England, Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Germany, Austria, Greece, Romania, Italy, South Africa and USA. 

I have a BSc Hons in Food Science – as winemaking degree courses weren’t really a thing in UK when I started back in 1978. I also have the WSET diploma (Wine and Spirit Education Trust). My winemaking skills have been honed on the job with M&S experts and fantastic suppliers. 

Are you seeing a continuing rise in interest and sales in the English wines sector?  

Absolutely. M&S has always been a big supporter of English wines and as a retailer are excited about the quality and opportunities that have grown over the years. It’s particularly exciting to see customers get on board too – and we have seen great lifts in sales on the year: Sparkling +89% by volume and Still (white) +58% by volume.

Is the M&S English listing likely to expand?

We currently have 15 English wines in stores, including still, sparkling and even one English rosé in a can. We are always reviewing the range and looking at new opportunities and wineries which is one of the most exciting parts of the job, and as interest and sales increase, so hopefully too can our range.

Have Covid-19 and Brexit affected sales of English wines? 

I think there will be a continued interest in English wine with or without Brexit or Covid-19 as the quality is really there now. Deliciousness and quality are the most important factors for wine, without these customers won’t return to buy more. As consistency and quality has increased so has demand. It is really important that the whole UK industry is on board with this. For a certainty the interest in buying local has helped – but if they don’t love the wines people will not come back – and we can see people are really enjoying English wines.

Which are your best-selling English wines? 

Sparkling is the largest seller but still wines are gaining traction – our English Lily white and rosé, made in partnership with Denbies are stars of our range. I love working with John Worontschak and his team at Denbies. The sparkling rosés from Chapel Down and Hush Heath just pip their white sisters in terms of volume.

How do you select your English wines? 

On quality and from wineries with sustainable credentials, so factors like membership to the WineGB Sustainable Wines of Great Britain scheme is also important. We establish long term partnerships where possible and have worked with Denbies, Chapel Down and Ridgeview for more than 10 years. We visit each year (when possible) to discuss styles and blend as appropriate. Equally we have developed new lines as the opportunities arise. M&S have worked for the last five years with Hush Heath including adding two new still wines to the range, a Chardonnay Ortega and a rosé – which I think are really great wines.

The future? 

I think the future is rosy for English Wine generally, with the interest in buying local and the improvement in quality that the industry is now consistently delivering. There will always be challenges not least of which is climate change. On the one hand as summers are warmer, ripening may be more consistent but as we have seen extreme weather event such as frosts and hail are bringing other challenges. I also think that availability of suitable land may limit supply. 

How can producers help support sales? 

I believe a joined-up approach is important. The industry needs to help everyone to achieve the right quality so consumers can be confident in buying any English Wine. I think that wine tourism with excellent vineyard and tasting experiences, and cellar door sales are becoming ever more important. Linking this to where the wines are available in mainstream retail will help augment these. 

What about non-traditional fizz from England? 

M&S are always looking for new and innovative products. Charmat and Frizzante are styles which work well. I do think clear legal labelling is key to differentiate styles so the customer can make informed choices when they buy the wine. It is always important to keep all options open and not close the door to any new product opportunity. The world of wine is huge and there are many other regions that will leap in to fill market gaps. 

Do you have any favourites?

If I have to choose, sparkling wine is my first love – and I love all of our English Sparkling wine. But I am particularly fond of the Chardonnay Ortega still wine from Hush Heath as it is great to champion grapes away from the mainstream. 

When you are not selecting wines for M&S what do you like to do?

Sharing good wine and food with my husband and three young adult children – which we have done rather a lot of during lock down. I am also lucky to have ties with the beautiful Island of Jersey so given the opportunity and the weather, I’ll be out on the sea paddle boarding.

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