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LONDON (Reuters) - English wine producers are eyeing 2012 as the year home-grown wine, especially sparkling varieties, could become a mainstream product as retailers throw their weight behind it to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee.
Over the past decade improving quality, increasing volumes and solid performances at expert tastings have established English wine as more than a passion for amateurs, though it still accounts for less than 1 percent of the UK market.
Climate change has upped temperatures in southern England to within one degree of Champagne in northern France, meaning some English sparkling wine is now on a par with champagne for soil and climate conditions. Some varieties have even beaten their French rivals in blind tastings.
"It has become a proper business with skilled professionals growing vines and making wines," said wine critic Jancis Robinson, whose website jancisrobinson.com recommends a variety of English wines.
"(English wine) needs to increase its market share since the total volume produced is set to increase considerably over the next few years, the result of new plantings."
British supermarket Sainsbury's launched its first own-label English sparkling wine this month and Tesco, which currently stocks one English white wine, said it was considering wines for the Jubilee and possibly for its website.
Upmarket chains Waitrose, which spearheaded the English wine movement among retailers, and Marks & Spencer, said they planned to promote home-grown varieties to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne in June.
"Where the supermarkets have come into play is that they've been able to give it a much more national distribution," said Andy Howard, buyer for English wines at Marks & Spencer.
Sales of English wine at Marks & Spencer increased by 15 percent in 2011, ahead of the wider wine market, and Waitrose, with a 38 percent share of the English wine market, is predicting a 10 percent growth in sales this year.
"The one thing that's going to become increasingly identifiable is English wines on the high street," said Julia Trustram Eve, of English Wine Producers, which has changed the date of its annual tasting week this year to coincide with the Jubilee celebrations.
An estimated 5 million bottles of English wine will be produced in 2015, compared to 4 million in 2010. Most will be consumed in Britain, though Trustram Eve said there is some export activity to Scandinavia and the Far East.
Consumers from home and abroad will get a chance to sample English wine at the Olympics this summer, after London wine merchant Bibendum put a domestic rose on its list for Prestige Ticketing, the official provider of corporate hospitality at the London Games, which start on July 27.
"Its selection was made purely on the basis of quality although it made perfect sense to list a brilliant English wine alongside the wonderful British food that the Prestige Ticketing chefs will be showcasing," said Kirstie Papworth, commercial director at Bibendum.
Retailers and producers will focus on sparkling wines this summer, in the hope that Brits will ditch champagne, cava and prosecco in favor of homegrown fizzy wine when they hold street parties to toast the Jubilee.
Producer Ridgeview will launch a commemorative wine for the Jubilee and Denbies vineyard in Surrey plans a Jubilee ball.
Trustram Eve said a straw poll of producers showed sales increased by over 50 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and doubled for some wineries as Brits bought sparkling wine ahead of the Royal Wedding in April.
And wine experts think the future of English wine lies in its sparkling varieties, which are well-suited to England's cool climate. The two most common grape types planted in England are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both used for champagne.
Champagne house Pierson Whitaker snapped up a vineyard in southern England this year and rumors abound that more French producers could buy up English land, ideal for growing champagne varieties because of its soil.
England's colder climate makes for more acidic wines, which can be a hard sell in still varieties.
"Sparkling wine is where the most buzz, the most interest is and certainly where people find the most quality," said Jimmy Smith, managing director and head tutor at the West London Wine School.
"There's a lot of acid behind our wines, so it tends to split a group down the middle depending on whether you like acidity and tart wines or if you don't."
Smith estimates that the amount of wine produced in England is equal to just one percent of that made in Bordeaux, a region of southern France, which pushes prices up.
"Price can be a little bit of a barrier currently," he said.
Andrew Shaw, wine-buying manager at Waitrose said although price was a hurdle to English wines becoming more mainstream, it was vital to protect brand association and provide further investment, essential to grow the industry.
"It does depend on how consumers engage with English wine this summer over the Jubilee and the Olympics," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato