It is a dazzlingly hot day and from the top of a flinty hillside, the vineyards with their lines of grapes can be seen stretching out below. The early grapes are just starting to appear on the vines. At a folding table, chilled white wine from the estate is being served to visitors. The wine is straw-coloured, delicate, has a long finish and tastes of lychees and tropical fruit. It is extremely good. What is particularly surprising is that the vineyard is not in France or Spain - but just outside Hemel Hempstead, a market town just off the M25.
A few years ago English wine was treated as a bit of a joke. The fact that anyone in England produced wines at all came as a great surprise to most members of the public. However, the industry is undergoing a boom. Production is doubling every five years and many growers are considering turning at least part of their estate over to viticulture. Some analysts suggest that England is in the same position as Australia or New Zealand 40 years ago. In those countries, a niche wine industry grew into an international giant.
Of course there is still a long way to go. Most English wine production is done on a relatively small scale. The Frithsden Vineyard near Hemel Hempstead, for example, is only 2ha. It is run by Simon Tooley, a TV cameraman who moved to the area from West London.
The estate was one of dozens across the country that opened to the public to give tours and tastings for English Wine Week - which took place from 29 May until 6 June to celebrate and promote this maturing industry.
Frithsden's most popular is a white wine, made from Solaris grape. "It's an extremely good wine," he says. "We get high alcohol content (13 per cent) with relatively little sun." He also makes a rose wine from Rondo grapes.
The vineyard is on a south-facing slope. According to Tooley, the flint and chalk help to ensure that the soil is free-draining and also add to the flavour of the grapes. The vines are all trellised with wires stretched from wooden posts (the vineyard has 40,000 metres of wire). No irrigation is needed on the site.
The grapes grow readily, although frost can reduce output drastically. The other problems are deer, rabbits and badgers, which devour the grapes. The grape varieties are generally resistant to mildew and bugs, so Tooley does not have to use pesticides.
The vineyard has its own winery, which contains a large pneumatic press for squeezing the grapes, an assortment of pumps and filters and a series of stainless steel drums where the wine ferments. There is also a bottling room, where the bottles are filled, capped and labelled.
Last year the vineyard produced around 5,000 bottles of wine. The wine sells for £9 a bottle. Out of that, Tooley has to pay excise duty, VAT and all his costs. Tooley admits that the vineyard is not making money so to help reduce the losses - and to sell the wines - the vineyard offers cream teas, lunches, fetes, open days and corporate events. Tooley is generally optimistic about the future: "We reckon that we will double our production over the next few years and we should start to break even soon after that."
There are currently around 400 vineyards in England - and there are about 100 wineries where wine is produced commercially. Plumpton College is the only British college teaching wine production. Plumpton's winemaker, Peter Morgan, explains the economics: "Some of the growers sell their grapes directly to a wine producer - there is currently a big demand. Some of them have their wine made under contract by a local winery. Others have their own wineries and make the wines on the estate."
Morgan reckons that vineyards should be at least 4ha to be commercially viable. Below this size, it is too expensive to use mechanised techniques for harvesting the grapes. Setting up a vineyard is an expensive business. The grower can expect to spend £25,000 per hectare on planting, trellising, preparation and drainage. The grower also has to find the right site. Ideally it should be free-draining, not prone to frost and south facing. If the grower wants to build a sizeable winery, the building and equipment will set him back around £250,000.
England currently produces around 3m bottles of wine a year. This represents around 0.02 per cent of the world's wine production. However, most experts expect that production will reach five million bottles by 2015. By contrast New Zealand produces three per cent of the world's wine.
British wine seems to be growing in popularity. Aided by a substantial marketing effort from the marketing group English Wine Producers, restaurateurs, supermarkets and buyers are starting to get the message that England makes some top-class wines.
At present most English producers are concentrating on sparkling wines, because these can be sold for higher prices. Sparkling wines represent about half of English wine output. Producers are making some top-quality wines in a Champagne style (from a mix of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes). Nyetimber, which has 142ha under cultivation in Sussex, this year won a prestigious prize in Italy for its Classic Cuvee. The firm is in discussion with foreign partners with a view to expansion.
Another major producer is English Wines Groups, which runs the Chapel Down brand. The firm has a turnover of £2.7m and produces 300,000 bottles a year. Over the next couple of years, it expects this figure to rise to 500,000 bottles. Around 40 per cent of its out- put is sparkling and 60 per cent is still. Its wines are sold in Waitrose, Morri- sons, Marks & Spencer and the Majes-tic Chain. Managing director Frazer Thompson says English wines should stress their individuality and quality. "We'll never be able to sell three bottles for a tenner. We've got to promote our wines on quality. We've got to be able to offer top-quality sparkling wines, which are an exciting alternative to Champagne," he explains.
As for still wines, England is now starting to develop its own style of wine. White wines could generally be described as crisp and aromatic with upfront fruit. Most English wines have a slightly lower alcohol content (around 11 per cent) than their foreign rivals (around 13 per cent). English producers tend not to use oak to flavour the wines.
The British wines cannot be sold on price. Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, for example, retails for £26.95. Chapel Down Non Vintage Brut sells for £17.99. They cost about the same as a reasonable Champagne. This means that they have to be marketed on the basis of their distinctive English character.
Julia Trustram Eve is in charge of marketing for the industry body, English Wine Producers. She points out that English wines are making a big impact: "Waitrose now has around 30 English wines, which you can buy online. A lot of restaurants are stocking local wines. There is a real change in attitude. English wines have a provenance and a story that appeals to the consumer."
She admits that English wines are selling to a specialist market. However, she suggests given time English wines could find a market at home and abroad. "We will never be able to rival places like New Zealand in the quantity of wine they produce, but we can sell a much wider range of wines than we currently do."
With increasing global warming, Trustram Eve believes English wine production could rise to many times its current level and could start to find a mass market. "The market is still developing," she says. "A few years ago, we were mainly producing German-style wines. We're moving all the time."
All of which means that, for any grower looking to grow a new crop, grapes are definitely worth investigating.
TRAINING AND INFORMATION
Plumpton College in East Sussex runs a number of courses. Ranging from one-day courses to a three- year BSc run in conjunction with Brighton College.
Anyone thinking of growing grapes commercially should con- sider attending the principles of viticulture course. This takes place over seven days and costs £400. There is also a course on the principles of winemaking.
There are short courses on aspects of grape growing, tackling issues such as choosing a site. Grants for 90 per cent of the course costs are easy to obtain from DEFRA and the EU. Plumpton College can give further details.
- View: www.plumpton.ac.uk
VINES TO WINES
Growers can find out about the latest technical developments and business opportunities in wine production at this year's Fruit Focus.
The event is taking place on 21 July at East Malling, Kent, and features "Vines to Wines"
- a technical exhibition brought to the show in partnership with the United Kingdom Vineyards Association and English Wine Producers.
Now in its fourth year Vines to Wines brings together all those involved in the growing, production, distribution and sales of still and sparkling wine in the UK according to event organiser Jon Day of Haymarket.
Products, advice and services being showcased at Vines to Wines include:
- New grape varieties
- Crop protection
- Fertilisers and nutrition
- Viticulture equipment
- Vineyard management
- Winemaking and wine quality
- Product development
- Winery design
- Sales and marketing
There are also two Vines to Wines seminars at Fruit Focus. The first has Frazer Thompson, managing director of Chapel Down Wines (English Wine Group), talking about the future of English sparkling wine - debating what place this wine has in the UK market now that its volume is overtaking still wines.
The second seminar is in the form of Question Time for visitors - with a panel made up of Thompson, consultant Owen Elias and viticulture adviser Duncan McNeill answering the queries from the audience.