Production of English sparkling wine is predicted to more than double in the next ten years. Its popularity has increased so quickly that, currently, supply cannot keep up with demand, which has caught the attention of landowners considering diversification. Superficially the economics appear attractive when you consider that a field of wheat might yield 3 tonnes per acre at around £100 per tonne whereas growing grapes could yield 3 to 4 tonnes per acre at around £1,000 per tonne. Moreover, it’s unnecessary to go into wine production; it’s quite feasible to grow grapes and sell them on to an already established winemaker. That means landowners can begin on a small scale, planting only a couple of hectares as a trial, which should still be enough to turn a profit.
Why has English wine production become so successful?
Geological mapping has proved that the soil of the South Downs is part of the same band of chalk upland as that of the best vineyards of Champagne. This, together with the warming climate of the South East of England, has enabled landowners to successfully diversify into the production of the same Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grape varieties grown in Champagne. As a consequence, Sussex boasts the largest and most densely planted cluster of vineyards in the UK, whilst Kent has the largest acreage under vine cultivation, including the French Champagne producer Taittinger, who planted their first vines in Kent in 2017.
It must be borne in mind, however, that as with any agricultural enterprise, yields of grapes may vary significantly from year to year according to the vagaries of the weather. For example, poor years were reported in 2008 and 2012 because of bad weather and the paucity of light, whereas the extreme heat of 2018, which was challenging for arable farmers, was a near perfect summer for English wine-makers. The South East presently enjoys climatic conditions comparable to the Champagne region 30 years ago, and has seen 64 UK wineries launched in 2016 and a further 80 launched in 2017. This means that in bumper seasons like 2018 supply can sometimes outpace capacity, forcing some estates to hire in equipment to deal with the excess. .
Regulation and red tape?
Whilst viticulture may be booming in the UK it is important for potential growers and winemakers to be fully cognizant of the wine trade regulations. These are rules that apply to quality standards, labelling, record keeping and more. However, according to some English winemakers, the standards set by Europe to make English sparkling wines are not very high. This has encouraged a number of wine producers in Sussex to lobby the European Union successfully for the creation of a Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO) for Sussex sparkling wine. The Sussex PDO is more than a name; it ensures a certain quality and sets out clear rules of production that winemakers have to meet if they want to call their wine “Sussex”.
How to diversify successfully
Planting your first hectares of grapes or starting your own winery need not be as daunting as it sounds as there are now specialist courses, for example, those run at Plumpton College in Sussex which specialises in viticulture and winemaking courses and even offers the UK’s first degree course in viticulture.
An example of successful diversification in Sussex is Rathfinney Winery set on a 600 acre farm established in 2010 within the South Downs National Park. Its aim is to have nearly 400 acres of vines making Rathfinney the largest single location vineyard in the country. By 2021 the total production will be more than one million bottles per year. The winery also boasts a cellar door and restaurant which has been recognised in the Michelin Guide 2019. This is a true example of how land that has been farmed for hundreds of years can be taken in a new direction.