I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate given that we have a little more time due to the previous business finishing early. I really congratulate my hon. Friend, and neighbour, Andrew Griffith on securing it. I am very covetous of his constituency because it includes the best vineyards in the country in the county that has the best vineyards in the country. It is with great pleasure that I endorse everything that he has said about English wine.
I speak with some long-term experience. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a vacation job, I used to work at the English Wine Centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield in the village of Alfriston, where I grew up. In those days, English wine was an altogether different beast. It had been reinvented by Guy Salisbury-Jones down at Hambledon in Hampshire, the home of cricket, and was largely an occupation taken up by retired colonels and the like as a sideline and hobby.
The quality of English wine in those days was somewhat questionable, so we had to think up imaginative ways of trying to promote it. One of those we came up with was having an English wine festival; it was rather more down to quantity than quality, which appealed to those who came. Then, in 1984, we founded the great English wine run, which mimicked the Beaujolais race bringing the new Beaujolais across to the UK. Instead, we took English wine across to a bunch of unsuspecting Parisians, ending up at the George V hotel in Paris. About 100 teams took part. Some were dressed up as famous English generals who had conquered the French in battle; of course, there were many that fitted that bill. We had double- decker London buses, surfboards, helicopters and vintage Rolls-Royces. We appeared, each of us, with our two bottles of English wine that we delivered to the finishing point at the George V hotel to the unsuspecting French who did not really want to drink it.
But today English wine is an altogether different beast. Forty years on from when we had those English wine runs, which we did for four or five years, we can now, with huge pride, hold up a bottle of English wine and it will hold its own with the best the French champagne industry can throw it. As my hon. Friend said, we now have countless vineyards that are winning in blind tastings internationally across the globe against the French, who thought they were the masters of producing sparkling wine. English sparkling wine is better. We have benefited from climate change, we benefit from the same latitude as the champagne district and we benefit from a similar terroir, particularly on the south downs, where the 51 vineyards in the South Downs national park have that chalky terrain that makes the best grapes to turn into English sparkling wine. So it has been a great success story, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that the odd drop has passed your lips occasionally in the past.
We need to celebrate the industry, and the Government need to get behind the industry a little more. We are now producing 7.1 million bottles on 10,000 acres across the country, mostly in England but some in Wales and apparently on a vineyard in Scotland—with a certain whisky tinge about it, I should think. We have 800 vineyards —and growing—employing many thousands of people and, really importantly, encouraging wine tourism as well. In Sussex, we have something called Sussex Modern, which was invented by the proprietor of Rathfinny, which is probably going to become the largest English vineyard and is a great success story. Sussex Modern combines vineyards with cultural and artistic sites for people coming to have a holiday in Sussex, just as they might go down to the south of France, to Bordeaux or wherever. They can take in some vineyards and some culture, history and heritage as well, and they can do it all in the United Kingdom, regardless of pandemics and everything else.
This is a really important, quality industry, and we want help from the Government. It is more expensive to set up a vineyard in this country, owing to the cost of land, when you are starting from scratch, so some more generous capital reliefs as part of agricultural aid might be something the Government would like to consider rather more generously. It is absurd, now that we are no longer constrained by taxation rules from the EU, that we are paying such a high tariff of tax on English wine. The equivalent tax in France is simply pennies—or euro cents—whereas here it is a much bigger chunk of the cost of the wine. It is also absurd, as I mentioned earlier, that we are paying a higher rate of tax on sparkling wine when it has a lower alcohol content—usually 11% compared with still wine at around 13 or 14%.
I know that, when the Minister replies, she will celebrate this industry—I have seen her taste much of the stuff in her years in this House—but will she have a word with her ministerial colleagues in the Treasury as well? This is a huge success story. It is part of Britain is GREAT, it will help to sell the UK around the world, and it would be nice to get that recognition from the Government with some financial advantage. In the post-common agricultural policy world in which we now live, the world is the English wine industry’s oyster and much of the south downs still can be developed under vineyards in the years to come. Thank you very much for this opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to hearing great things from the Minister. We can all then retire to the bar and have a sparkling wine from England.