It was a pleasure to pay another visit to East Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley vineyard last week – one of the UK’s leading wineries, producing award-winning sparkling wines enjoyed in establishments across the country and exported across the world.

Keen to diversify his farm, Simon Robinson, together with head winemaker Emma Rise, started this venture back in 2008, planting the first vines on a prime south-facing, chalk-based slope.

The development of the business has been extraordinary, and it is part of the wider success of the English wine sector that is continuing to see substantive growth, particularly here in the south.

Once considered a poor relation to established producers on the continent, English wines are now highly regarded, enjoying a reputation equal to many international names.

According to Wine GB – the body that represents producers across England and Wales – sales in 2020 saw a 30 per cent increase compared to 2019.

This represents sales of just over seven million bottles, with growth coming primarily through retail and direct customer channels, but also growing demand from abroad.

The sector is expanding.

The footprint for vineyards is now approaching 10,000 acres, with half of that planted in the past five years, and 1.4 million vines planted in 2021 alone.

A recent report produced on behalf of the South Downs National Park has shown the potential for the sector locally, with 51 vineyards and 11 wineries already established in the park, employing 358 people and attracting 33,000 visitors a year.

Although only 0.4 per cent of the park’s farmland is used currently for viticulture, the report has identified a substantial amount of land that could be suitable for producing wine, with all of the new opportunities that would bring in terms of economic activity, employment and tourism.

Developing our local tourism sector is important, and vineyards will be an important part of that, with the attraction of tours and visits, restaurants and overnight accommodation. Sited in some of the most beautiful countryside, these ventures can be exceptional attractions for visitors.

Employment in the sector is also growing here in the UK, with the number working in wine production expected to grow to 24,000 by 2040.

Hattingley Valley Wines pioneered the development of wine apprenticeships back in 2016 and continues to offer them bi-annually.

And for those keen to learn more, there are also degree-level qualifications available in areas such as the wine business, wine production, as well as viticulture and oenology.

Plumpton College near Brighton offers a wide range of courses, in partnership with the Royal Agricultural University, and is already recognised as a centre of excellence for wine education, training and research.

Sustainable development and practices also play an important part of wine production, as for farming more widely; access to the right skills and knowledge is vital. We now have an all-party parliamentary group to support the English and Welsh wine sector; MPs, especially from Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, are excited at the prospect of a growing high-value sector that supports agricultural diversification and creates jobs.

Multiple government departments have an interest here: for farming and land use, tourism development, apprenticeships and qualifications, and the big export potential.

These are exciting times for the sector, with many opportunities for us locally; I’ll happily raise a glass to that.