Can English wine continue to build on its success?

This week's merger between the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) and English Wine Producers (EWP), signalled a renewed determination to drive the industry forward at home and abroad.

Image: Dominic Lockyer (CC BY 2.0)
Image: Dominic Lockyer (CC BY 2.0)

Chair of the newly created UK Wine Producers (UKWP) is Hattingley Valley owner and former EWP chairman Simon Robinson. He tells Horticulture Week: "We can now speak with a single voice, and can consult with a single membership, making it clearer to Government what the industry thinks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he adds: "The big issue now for us is Brexit." Last December the two bodies produced a joint paper on what outcomes they wanted for the sector. "We want assurances that there will be no constraints on planting," says Robinson. "In large parts of Europe you can’t plant a new vineyard unless you take one out. We aren’t scouting for Government support for production but would like support for sales and marketing, especially overseas, as other wine-producing countries do."

Along with the rest of fresh produce, UK vineyards also need seasonal labour, he points out. "People think only in terms of harvesting and that is the biggest, but there are four times a season we need labour, starting with pruning in January. The particular problem with vineyards is that few people have the skills we need. The Romanian workers we have at Hattingley, for example, know to take out fruit that shows signs of disease."

While Plumpton College in East Sussex, the centre for UK wine and vineyard training, "is doing a good job of turning out skilled people", they tend to then look for work as managers or in the winery, he explains. "Where we aren’t getting people is at the manual, field-work level."

Another worry around Brexit is the impact on imported materials, he adds. "Not only the vines but also the planters are from the EU. Nearly everything in our winery is also from France — there is hardly any UK-made wine equipment. Even the tractors and sprayers are particular to vine growing."

UK wine exports outside the EU:

  • USA
  • Australia
  • Japan
  • China

On the other hand, as the pound falls, British wines become more attractive overseas, he notes. "Most if not all the larger producers export significant volumes, and UK wines now go to over 25 countries. Mostly it’s to outside the EU, with the US being by far the biggest market, and Australia, Japan and increasingly China also important. It’s not a question of whether such countries produce their own wines, more of how open-minded they are. Sommeliers have been key to putting English wine in front of customers."

Recent figures show that by international standards the UK industry remains small, with less than one-1,000th of the EU total of 3.2 million hectares, though it has Europe’s fastest-growing sector. "Our vineyards are larger than the European average because they are recent," says Robinson. "But there are still many small producers —around 400 of the 500 UKVA members had less than a hectare. For many it’s little more than a hobby or a retirement project and even our largest producers do maybe a million bottles in a good year, whereas there are Australian producers doing a hundred million."

But expansion continues apace. "There is serious capital coming in and landowners are looking to diversify," he says. "We have one or two calls a month asking if we’re looking for land, of which there’s no shortage. They’ll put 25 or 40 acres out of 1,000 down to vines. It’s potentially quite profitable but they’re not betting the farm on it. If anything, the rate of planting is accelerating — a million vines have been planted this year."

Explaining the finances involved, he adds: "You expect three tonnes per acre [7.5 tonnes per hectare] and in a good year that’s worth £1,500-£2,000 a tonne. But there won’t be much for sale this season because of the frost — people are looking for fruit."

The cold snap at the end of April was unusual not just for its lateness but also its intensity and duration, lasting five or six hours and touching -6°C, while also badly affecting French and even Italian growing regions.

"We won’t know the full impact for a few weeks yet," says Robinson. "Initially it looked really bad but vines will grow secondary buds. Some estates weren’t affected at all. The fruit at the moment is ahead of last year but we could still get caught by a cold wet September."

The lesson has been for the industry to put more effort and investment into frost protection. "It’s expensive but it evens out production," he says. "There are a multitude of systems, though most wouldn’t have coped with what we had in April. You can fly helicopters overhead to disperse the air, as they do in New Zealand. You can light straw bales as they do in Burgundy, or use heated wires under the fruiting wire. There’s even a system that sprays a mist of water that freezes and so releases the latent heat of the plants. It can be effective down to -10°C, but you have to apply it just right or it can be disastrous."

Highlighting a further development in the industry, he concludes: "In the next five-to-10 years we will see serious growth in wine tourism in England. We hope to see one or two places becoming centres for this — Canterbury, Brighton, Winchester — where it could have a real knock-on effect locally."

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