A year ago some media commentators questioned whether the rush to capitalise on the popularity of English wine would lead to an oversupply issue. But in reality, some producers report being unable to meet demand at home. Others are seeing potential for further growth in exports. Oversupply doesn’t seem to be a problem that faces the industry just yet.

Increasing production volumes as new vine plantings reach maturity may push some producers to the brink of capacity in their own wineries. This will encourage the contract wine market to expand and evolve. Contracting out any stage of the winemaking process may hold appeal to growers for several reasons.

  • New growers might seek a way to delay a significant initial capital outlay on their own winery set up as their business, and their vineyards, become established. This kicks problems like planning permission and waste management into the long grass too.
  • Increasingly, winegrowers can build a brand without having a winery at all thanks to the high levels of quality and technological sophistication available through contractors.
  • An established vineyard may find their winery is simply not big enough to accommodate an increasing volume of fruit at harvest time.
  • Contract wineries are likely to have access to winemakers of significant experience.

It doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” approach. Naturally, contractors offer a full service where they receive the grapes and return filled, labelled bottles. But it is also possible to engage their services for a discrete part of the process. For sparkling wines, it may be convenient to have wines riddled and disgorged at another facility. Smaller wineries may not have access to riddling lines with fill height detection, for example, so by contracting this section of the process out there could be an improvement in the quality and consistency of the finished products.

Choosing to have wines stored off site may also be a valuable option for businesses to deploy. Contractors usually have temperature controlled storage to allow for secondary fermentation or general maturation as wines become ready for sale. This service can be of huge benefit where space is at a premium, as well as a valuable time saver.

Categories of contract providers

  • Dedicated, contract-only wineries like Defined Wine and Divergent Drinks.
  • Businesses which produce their own brand but also run a contract service alongside – this can form a smaller or larger proportion of their work, depending on the set-up of the operation. Wineries set up in this way include Itasca Wines, who make their own wines under the Penn Croft label, but reserve most of their capacity for contract winemaking clients. Conversely, Hambledon Vineyard devote most of their capacity to their own brands but have space for a small allocation of contract clients.
  • Partnership arrangements.

Settling on which type of service to use will be an individual decision. Factors like geography and pricing will be significant drivers, but also the type of wine that is required and the processes that will be needed to make it. It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want the outcome of the relationship to be, and to be prepared to communicate that plainly.

As well as having winemaking services available, some contract businesses also have teams that work on distribution, so it may be possible to negotiate an arrangement with some contractors that assists with selling the wine once it has been made too.

Whatever arrangement you settle on, make sure that the financial arrangements are carefully documented. This may include putting considerations like payment terms, pricing structures and any additional fees and expenses down in detail in the contract to help prevent misunderstandings and disputes. It also helps to maintain transparency throughout the arrangement. Many wine contractors will already have a standard form contract that they will be able to adapt to suit each client, but don’t be afraid to ask for more clarity if it isn’t detailed enough for your satisfaction.

Potential benefits

Contract winemakers are likely to have larger facilities kitted out to a high specification which may well significantly exceed the standard of production technology that a smaller winery would routinely have access to. This could include anything from conveyors to move grapes to the press, individual tank heating or chilling and in-house laboratories for wine analysis.

Contractors will also have an experienced in-house team who can work with clients to employ the most suitable winemaking methods to achieve the desired finished wine. Keeping communication channels open but trusting the experts to get it right can free up much needed time back at the vineyard for getting hands on with the never ending list of chores amongst the vines and allow for a greater focus on sales – elements that it may not be as practical or relatively affordable to outsource.

As the contract winemaking industry evolves, the range of services available is increasing. Contractors are aware that growers may have very specific requirements for the way their wines are produced, such as keeping the process sustainable or organic, for example. There are now five contract UK wineries that have been certified under WineGB’s rigorous Sustainable Wines of Great Britain scheme. These are Denbies, Defined Wine, Divergent Drinks, Haygrove Evolution, and Three Choirs. If the grapes have been sourced from an accredited vineyard and made by one of these producers, then the Sustainable Wine Scheme logo can be used on the bottle labels and product marketing.

Litmus Wines, the contract side of Denbies, are not just WineGB accredited but also have organic and biodynamic Demeter certification. It’s important to do your research and have an initial consultation with a potential contractor early so that you can ensure that your values and way of working align.

Potential drawbacks

While contract winemakers work hard to make sure that good levels of communication take place and their clients are kept well informed about the winemaking process, by its very nature contracting out production gives a hands-off approach to producing wine. This may be difficult for people who are accustomed to micro-managing every aspect of their business – but it may also be a good experience for some to let go of the reins a little bit!

The biggest worry most producers will have is about quality control. This is why it’s important to have a conversation with a few different contractors to find the one that suits you and your style the best. Ask about their existing clients and their capacity to take on additional projects. Don’t be afraid to ask for references to ensure that you are satisfied that their approach to quality will be of as high a standard as your own.

If your wine is made by a contractor, it will need to be indicated as such on your labels. This might not be right for the business model or marketing strategy of some wine growers, who focus on their sense of place as a key part of their messaging.

It’s important to know what to expect when things go wrong. Accidents can happen to grapes in transit, or there can be problems within the winery. Ensure that any business relationship is covered by a detailed contract and appropriate insurance so that, should the worst happen, it is clear who takes responsibility and what remedial actions they should take. Again, this comes down to working with a company that you are able to trust and communicate openly with.

Trust is also important when sharing proprietary information like recipes or branding strategies with a contract winemaker. Ensure proper safeguards are put in place to prevent any unauthorised disclosure or misuse of your intellectual property.

Things to consider

Understanding the logistical requirements and capabilities of the contract winemaker is crucial. They will have to work hard to coordinate transportation, storage and handling – potentially for more than one client in a relatively short window of time during harvest.

  • Different contract winemakers will have different requirements when it comes to notifying them when fruit is due to be delivered and how it should be packaged for transport. Make sure you are clear on their guidelines well before harvest is due so that you can plan accordingly. Failing to prepare grapes in the correct manner may result in a delay to their processing upon arrival.
  • When sending fruit to a contractor, a Commercial Accompanying Document (CAD) must be completed and accompany the delivery. This is a legal requirement. The form can be downloaded from the Food Standards Agency website. Download the CAD at
  • When labelling the wines, it is important to clearly delineate where the product was made. You can choose either to name the winery or to put the Wine Standards official code for that location on the back label. The Food Standards Agency issues official codes on request.

Choosing a service that’s right for you

Henry Sugden, the CEO of Defined Wine in Kent outlines some questions to ask when choosing a contract winemaker:

  • Will they make wine the way you want or does the winery have a ‘house style’
  • Will your wine be kept separate or be blended with others
  • Do you get on with the winery team
  • Are they able to provide all the elements you want, for instance, are they able to store your wine
  • Where are they – and does this make a difference to you
  • What is access like, when is the winery open during harvest and what harvesting methods can they take?

Route to market

When planning to work with a contract winemaker, it is important to consider what you want to actually do with the product when it is finished. In a few years time, when it is ready, what channels are you going to use to sell it? What market are you targeting?

These questions are important whether you are making the wine yourself or contracting the work out. But having a clear sales strategy will really help to define your needs to the contractor and help them to make the right decisions with you so that you come out with the wine that is right for you and your business.

A successful partnership

A successful partnership with a contract winemaker can build a long-term relationship that is based on trust, communication and mutual respect. Yielding benefits beyond the immediate project, this positive working relationship can prove fruitful for both parties.

As the UK wine industry continues to grow and evolve, it is likely that we will see many more contractors popping up on the scene, and perhaps new collaborative winemaking models start to develop. Contracting out winemaking processes won’t be right for everyone, but their increasing presence is an indicator of the industry’s present health, despite the difficult financial climate in which we find ourselves.

Case study: Wiston Estate

“We believe collaboration, rather than competition, is the best way to grow our business.”

The Wiston Estate Winery in Pulborough, Sussex, has been offering contract services to the English wine industry since 2008. They were the winners of the WinesGB Contract Winery Award in 2023, thanks to the skill of their team.

The Wiston Business Operations Manager, Oliver Marsh, told Vineyard Magazine more about how it all works:

“Wiston have been doing contract winemaking almost from day one. Anyone who sets up a vineyard and a winery has a long lag between putting a vine in the ground and having a bottle to sell and getting some return on the investment. Offering contract services on the side gives a revenue stream from day one.

“We’re a small estate, but there’s a lot going on. It’s not just the winery, there’s forestry and farming tenants too. We treat our contract clients like part of the estate, part of the Wiston family. We don’t work with many clients, this year we only pressed for six separate businesses. So we can put a lot of attention on their individual needs.

What is the experience like for your clients?

“When we received the fruit this year it was bonkers. It was a huge harvest but we were able to accommodate everyone and get them in without a lag – we want to involve people as well. We like to teach people about what we’re doing, get them in for blending after we have made the base wines and they can see the process and get involved if they want to.

“It’s important to us that they get to know their products. To understand year on year what their Chardonnay from a certain plot is tasting like, for example. One day they might move on to make the wine for themselves and we want them to be informed about their own vineyards.”

What is your approach to winemaking?

“We treat a client’s wine like we would our own. We have very high standards and expectations of our wine. It has won numerous awards and we have been GB Winery of the Year several times.

“We do not drop standards for a client. If someone comes to us they will have their wine made with the exact same passion, love and quality focus that we put into Wiston wine.”

Contract winemaker directory

A list of some of the key contract-only and hybrid wineries available in the UK. Inclusion in this directory does not constitute a recommendation

Chilford Hall Vineyard
Linton, Cambridgeshire
01223 895 600| accounts@chilfordhall.co.uk

Defined Wine
Near Canterbury, Kent
01227 832907 | henry@definedwine.com

Divergent Drinks
Worthing, Sussex
01903 255204 | info@divergentdrinks.co.uk

Halfpenny Green
Bobbington, Staffordshire
01384 221122 | sales@halfpenny-green-vineyards.co.uk

Hambledon Vineyard
Hambledon, Hampshire
02392 632358 | info@hambledonvineyard.co.uk

Haygrove Evolution
Sixteen Ridges Wine, Ledbury, Herefordshire
01531 637119 | info@sixteenridges.co.uk

Itasca Wines
Penn Croft Vineyards,  Crondall, Hampshire
01252 279830 | info@itascawines.com

Langham Wine Estate
Dorchester, Dorset
01258 839095 | info@langhamwine.co.uk

Litmus Wines
Denbies Vineyard, Dorking, Surrey
01306 898 488 | hq@litmuswines.com
Litmus Wines have a very useful still and sparkling wine calculator on their website which is helpful for estimating the costs of contracting if it is an option you are considering.

Mereworth Wines
Maidstone, Kent
01622 817795 | admin@mereworthwines.co.uk

Wiston Estate Winery
Pulborough, Sussex
01903 877845 | winery@wistonestate.co.uk