Challenges for entrants to growing wine industry

The UK wine industry is still growing in size and volume but those considering entering the sector need to be aware of the challenges, UK Vineyards Association secretary Jo Cowderoy told last month's Fruit Focus event at East Malling Research (NIAB EMR) in Kent.

Fruit Focus: visitors offered tour of site’s field research
Fruit Focus: visitors offered tour of site’s field research

She described the UK's current vineyard area of 2,000ha as "still incredibly small", but up 140 per cent in 10 years and predicted to grow further. "There are 700 vineyards and 133 wineries, though some are just in people's garages," she said.

"We are producing 5.6-6 million bottles a year and that will grow considerably - one East Sussex vineyard expects to produce a million bottles a year before long. Guys on the ground are very busy putting in hundreds of vines. There is a belief that rising growing-season temperatures will continue. It's important for the rural economy so Government is getting interested."

In this, Government "could give support on regulation, on tourism promotion and on overcoming barriers to export", she suggested. "British embassies abroad could also be serving British wine."

For those thinking of entering the market, she said: "Making your own wine is a whole different ball game from growing and you will need a route to market. If you aim to supply existing wineries, what does the market want?" She put establishment costs at £26,000 a hectare including site preparation, vines and planting, while machinery costs are likely to be around £40,000, though there is a second-hand market in France.

"Location is key to profitability. We are a marginal wine-growing nation and struggle to get seven-to-eight tonnes a hectare, compared to 12-15t in Champagne. Vines will grow on marginal land but if you are too high or exposed the temperature drops, while aspect matters for sunlight interception. You also need 'frost draining' and vines won't do anything with cold, wet feet. Get an expert to assess the site first - the cost is a drop in the ocean. Fortunately we now have some excellent research, including climate research, to draw on."

To boost this, a new consortium between EMR and UK vineyards Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Gusbourne Estate was launched at Fruit Focus to direct industry research at the Kent institute. "The industry faces challenges of yield, sustainability and consistency, for which we aim to find solutions," said EMR plant physiologist Dr Julien Lecourt during a tour of field research at the event.

The 0.7ha East Malling research and development vineyard, planted last year, "is a major investment designed to do science, so is laid out in blocks with repetitions of varieties and rootstocks", he explained. Six varieties have been planted on five rootstocks, replicated four times.

Training systems are also being compared on the plot "as they are the easiest way to manipulate growth habit and hence microclimate", he added. The Lyre, Guyot Double and Scott Henry systems are being compared. "We are also looking at the effect of ground cover on the alleys, and of mowing. We aim to keep them covered to minimise erosion," said Lecourt. "And we are working to attract beneficial insects - not pollinators, as grapes are wind-pollinated, but those that will control aphids and other pests."

In addition, he pointed out: "Vineyards are expensive to plant and take a while to yield a good crop, so we are working with Agrii on the nutrition of young vines via humic acid, mycorrhizae and foliar feeds to speed up the return on investment."

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