English wine lessons

Plumpton College is playing a key role in the English wine industry's rapid development, Gavin McEwan explains.

Wineskills training has delivered 120 student days on topics including vine establishment and pest and disease control - image: Plumpton College
Wineskills training has delivered 120 student days on topics including vine establishment and pest and disease control - image: Plumpton College

East Sussex's Plumpton College has been a driving force behind the growth of the English wine industry. But it recently boosted its role with a package of workshops, mentoring and masterclasses for those already working in the sector, thanks to some EU money match-funded by Defra, together worth around £150,000 a year.

The college has recruited a coordinator to manage the training, which goes under the name Wineskills, as well as setting up a dedicated website to promote it. Chris Foss, head of the college's wine department, says: "Wineskills has been a lot of work to start from scratch, but it has allowed us to go out and deliver courses outside our area, often one-offs, in response to customer demand."

The funding, which lasts for five years, is calculated on the basis of EU member states' wine production volume, he explains. "Wine growing in the UK is tiny, but there's a large industry in the north of England producing basic wine from imported grape juice concentrate."

This is match-funded through Defra's Rural Development Programme for England and administered by the South East England Development Agency. "So the money is earmarked even if the new Government were to close down the agency," says Foss.

It takes six participants to make the course viable. "It's quite a small industry, with maybe 200 vineyards, and the fact that they're quite spread out has meant that it's not very cost-effective to run training," he points out. "But this provides 90 per cent funding, so for a £250 training day they pay only £25."

The response from the industry has been "really good" and Wineskills has delivered more than 120 student days since its launch in January, on topics ranging from vine establishment to pest and disease control to pruning, Foss reports. "We are bringing in people from all over the world - we have two guys from Cornell University coming in a few days' time. It makes that sort of thing affordable," he adds.

Grower groups have been formed to take advantage of the mentoring, through which four consultants are contracted to carry out four five-day visits over the next three years. "They will shortly produce a report saying what they think of the industry and how it's developing," says Foss.

Aly Englefield, a former Plumpton student who has recently taken over Highdown Vineyard near Worthing, West Sussex, has been among the beneficiaries. "My husband needed to learn about it and did a practical on pruning, and we both took a course on sales and marketing," she says.

"These courses have been practical top-ups - things like legislation are changing all the time and you continually need to brush up your skills. It's been a mix of people taking the courses, from the big companies to those starting up. It's been fantastic and I hope to continue with it. We never anticipated spending a lot of money on training, so this has really made the difference."

Funding comes as production booms

Foss says the funding has come at a critical moment for the UK wine industry. "It's one of the few areas of production horticulture that's doing really well. Although we don't keep thorough records, it's thought to have grown by 200ha a year for the past two or three years, with the big boys planting only around half that. There are some we don't even know about," he says.

"It's brilliant right now - wine makers can sell what they make twice over. But with the recession, people are planting because there are fewer opportunities to invest elsewhere. In five years the hectarage will have doubled so in ten years we will have doubled production. Over-production is a fear. That's already happened in Australia, where they're having to discount, and may happen in New Zealand. We have to make sure that the quality is there and that we increase the market to match the production."

That market is quite diverse - something reflected in Plumpton's own vintages, which range from still red, white and rose to a sparkling white. "There are really two markets - for still wine, which is regional and dependent on hotels and restaurants, and which is very difficult to get on supermarket shelves," Foss explains.

"Then there's sparkling wine, which goes for almost as much as champagne. But on current trends, British sparkling is going to have to steal five million bottles from Champagne and we need to keep it in that bracket. We can't compete with Cava or Prosecco - they produce a crop five times the size. However, there's only one wine maker for every ten growers, so the economies of scale are already there."

Despite the positive outlook for the domestic industry, most students at the college are looking for wine work abroad. "Some go to New Zealand, South Africa, the USA or even Chile, though they may come back to wine production here later. If you are any good, you will always get work somewhere," adds Foss.

Unlike on the continent, where wine growing is a venerable tradition, few young people here consider the industry as a career option. "Only around 20 per cent of our students are school-leavers, while a quarter are foreign nationals. It helps that we are the only degree-level course in Europe that's taught in English," he says.

"The rest are a broad range, including young career changers and quite a few who have made their money and want to set up their own vineyard. But the main qualification is a passion for wine."

The college has continued to develop its facilities over the 20 years it has run training in wine growing and production. It now has sophisticated labs for analysis and even a purpose-built tasting room. Its own vineyard production has also continued to expand and now covers three separate sites in and around the South Downs campus.

According to vineyard manager Kevin Sutherland: "The vinery has become semi-commercial. We have increased the hectarage and now in an average year we produce 12-14,000 bottles and supply several restaurants in Brighton.

"We are getting known for our sparkling wine in particular. The climate is more suited to it and more people can afford to drink it day to day. The quality of British wines has definitely improved, especially still whites. The reds tend to be quite light and people prefer the heavier continental types."

While the British climate is edging towards being more suited to wine production, it can never be relied on, he adds. "We want long hot summer days, which mean we don't have to use so many chemicals controlling pests and diseases. I think it is getting warmer, but our summers may be getting damper too. This year bud-burst is two weeks later than usual, which will have consequences later in the season."

The new crop

Plumpton College takes on around 50 students each year. "You are effectively a wine apprentice," says Morfudd Richards, currently in her second year of a BSc course, having been a restaurateur for 10 years.

"Topics such as wine analysis can get pretty complicated and a lot of us are not from a scientific background. You have to push yourself to learn things you didn't think you were capable of," she adds.

Harry Craddock, currently doing a foundation degree, has come to wine growing from the opposite direction. "My family has a mixed 180-acre farm, five of which we've taken out to test several varieties and rootstocks," he explains.

"We only started looking into it last year, but it should be fantastic. Where we are in Kent we have the same soil as the Champagne region.

He adds: "The potential profit is quite high and you don't have to replant each year. I think it's the future, although I would like to spend some time in New Zealand - that way you get to work on two vintages a year."

He agrees that the work is challenging. "I was an absolute novice when I came here," says Craddock. "Wine growing is quite complex - even choices of trellising and row spacing have an effect. But everyone on the course is willing to learn."

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