UK vineyard area could double

Vineyard planting in the UK is accelerating at such a rate that by 2018 the number of hectares planted could be double what it is now, according to viticulture consultant Stephen Skelton.

Speaking at the Fruit Focus Vines to Wines seminar, he said there has been a big hike in the planting of vines since 2003, with the latest figures giving an area of 1,500ha in the UK. He predicted the area to double to 3,000ha by 2018.

Skelton first planted his own vineyard in Kent in the 1970s - selling it a decade later as a successful vineyard producing quality wines.

He has subsequently watched the fledgling UK wine industry develop into a very creditable sector producing - to the surprise of some detractors - some world-beating wines, particularly sparkling wine.

Skelton told growers at Fruit Focus that the industry's expansion has not been continuous, and the recent trend is in direct response to two factors.

The first factor, which in particular pertains to the current buoyancy in the market for English sparkling wines, is the success of the world-class wines produced by the Nyetimber Vineyard in West Sussex. The vineyard was established in the early 1990s by a couple of visionary Americans who wanted to make wine from champagne varieties grown in England using the traditional champagne methods.

The second factor is the effects of global warming on the climate in southern England. According to Skelton, the critical weather statistics for vines are the number of days in a year where the temperature goes above 29 degsC and 30 degsC. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, years with any days reaching these temperatures were a rarity; but from 1994 until 2006 there were more than two days every year with these temperatures - thus giving better yields and better-quality grapes.

This warming effect has also made the cultivation and ripening of the classic "champagne" vine varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir possible on favourable sites in the UK. This effect has been so marked that 25 per cent of the UK acreage is now down to these two varieties. In general the German varieties that were favoured in the early days of the industry - like Muller Thurgau - are being phased out and replaced by varieties that "look good on the label".

Better yields are accompanied by better-quality grapes at harvest in terms of higher natural sugars and lower acidity.

The average yield is now seven to 11 tonnes/ha compared to a "good average yield" 20 years ago of about seven tonnes/ha.

Wine makers can make much better-quality wine when the raw material comes into the winery at the present typical sugar values of eight to nine per cent instead of the five to 6.5 per cent in the early days of English wine.

While a prospective new vineyard owner cannot control the weather, choosing the best site for vines is still critical to the success or failure of grape vines in the UK. With planting costs of £7,000 to £10,000 per acre (£17,290 to £24,700 per hectare) - and annual running costs of £1,800 to £2,200 per acre (£4,446 to £5,434 per hectare) - and at least a three-year wait for the first crop, this is still a crop needing close attention to the figures.

Once a vineyard starts cropping, grapes can be worth £800 to £1,000 per tonne.

Skelton told growers that the costs of starting up a 10 acre (24.7ha) vineyard - the minimum for a viable unit - with a view to producing sparkling wine (which can take five to six years to mature in the bottle for the highest quality) could have a total outlay before any income of £850,000. However, for still wine production - which Skelton sees as having a profitable future, particularly Chablis style wines - the costs would be considerably less before the first return on investment.

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