It was a typical autumn day, breezy with squally showers, hardly conducive to the task in hand. Nevertheless, four of us gathered last week to pick the grapes in Gareth’s vineyard at Dunley. The Pinot Noir had already been picked, leaving the Regent, Auxerrois and Phoenix varieties. We were lucky with the weather, there was a heavy shower just before we started and another as we finished but only a few spots in the four hours of hard picking.
There was no pressing this year. Last year’s yield was so great that Gareth decided not to make wine himself this year as his vats are still full. Instead the grapes have been sold to another winery. It was another excellent vintage, perhaps 15% down on last year, but still more than average.
The timing of the harvest can be critical as quality depends upon a number of factors including sugar and acidity levels. As the grapes ripen, sugar levels rise and acidity drops so the trick is to strike the right balance. Gareth’s readings were from 63 for the whites up to 79 for the Pinot Noir on the Oechsle scale for sugar and 10gm/litre of tartaric acid, time to pick. Indeed, sugar levels are such that the Pinot Noir has a natural alcohol of 12%, the whites 10%, meaning that is little requirement to add extra sugar for fermentation.
The yield and quality is replicated across the country. One expert suggested that, if last year’s crop was triple the long term average, this years might be double. So a little less than the exceptional 2018 but still high yields with excellent quality. There has been a little concern that the constant rain of recent weeks might bring botrytis and other wet weather diseases but, generally, there is optimism.
At Cobb’s Farm near Hungerford, the early ripening Pinot Noir Précoce was picked some time ago, yielding around four tonnes, but the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, around another twenty tonnes, will not be ready until perhaps next week. The total compares to 28 tonnes last year, so down around 15%, but the quality of both vintages is outstanding, largely due to the hot sunshine in summer. Yield is partially dependent upon the weather, with no late frosts and good weather at flowering this year, but part of the reason for high yields this year was the growth of the vines in 2018. The Alder Ridge vineyard at Cobb’s Farm makes only sparkling white wine, their top quality the award winning Blanc de Noirs. The aim is to produce 10,000 bottles a year made at the Hattingley Valley winery in Hampshire.
There is comparatively little red wine made in this country, partly because of our weather. However, Gareth produced a carafe of his at lunch last week and it was extremely quaffable. Light, without huge depth, perhaps like a Beaujolais, but with good flavours. I was given a bottle to bring home and look forward to drinking it.
It was suggested that yields were so high last year that there might not be the infrastructure to cope and that some grapes might have to be discarded. There have been no reports of this happening but there must be serious investment in facilities if the UK wine industry is to continue to grow at the current rate. More vines are planted every year, both in existing and new vineyards. One producer is said to have planted 1.25 million vines this year alone so the nascent industry is expanding fast.
There are around 650 vineyards in England and Wakes producing some 10 million bottles of sparkling and 5 million of still wines. In the UK, some 330 million bottles of sparkling wine are drunk each year so there would appear to be plenty of potential to sell more and exports too are growing, especially to the US and China. One issue is the cost, especially of sparkling wines. Most English sparkling wines are made using the champagne method, as are champagne and crémant, which means that secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. This takes time and adds to the cost. Other sparkling wines, Prosecco for example, are made using the charmat or tank method where secondary fermentation takes place in large closed pressure tanks, and are cheaper. Some English wineries are now experimenting with this method to keep costs down. As the industry expands, there should be economies of scale.
Many of our vineyards are comparatively small and send their grapes to larger wineries for the wine to be made. Hattingley Valley is a prime example, taking grapes from a number of vineyards. This has led to a move to brand wines by the winery rather than the vineyard, a logical step in a campaign to expand the market. However this leaves the very small growers whose harvest is so small that the large wineries are not interested. Gareth, for example, produced .65 tonnes of grapes this year, which is why he makes his own wine or sells to another small producer with his own winery. These small growers may need to set up cooperative wineries such as those found in many French regions.
English and Welsh wines are winning international competitions for quality, even beating famous champagne houses. The area of vines is expanding at an extraordinary rate with millions planted each year. This is a young industry with a very exciting future as evidenced by the number of French growers buying land to create new vineyards. Our wines are marketed on their quality but, as production expands, there should be a range of prices to attract new buyers. Rather fragmented at present, there is a need to carefully coordinate the production and marketing chain.