Ten years ago, you could rightly have laughed at such a suggestion. However, the UK wine industry is no longer associated with elderberries, bell jars and terrible plonk. And an increasing number of farmers believe grapevines could prove a profitable crop in the long-term.
UK wines have drawn increasingly good reviews in recent years. They have triumphed in blind taste tests on the continent and were deemed good enough to serve at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Last August, The Independent even ranked an English white among the top ten in the world for under pound sterling10 – it came from New Wave Wines (NWW), by far the biggest winery in the UK, which produces over 400,000 bottles/year.
NWW was formed in 2000 with the merger of three vineyards – Tenterden and Lamberhurst in Kent and Carr Taylor in East Sussex. It is now about the size of a medium-sized French producer and, although it doesn’t enjoy the same tax breaks, has the economies of scale to compete for market share on the supermarket shelves.
With rising demand for its wines, NWW is desperate for land that has the right soil and aspect for grapevines. To this end, it is training farmers in viticulture, helping them to cultivate their crops and then buying their grapes.
“If someone wanted to produce wine themselves they’d need 10-15 acres (of grapevines) to be commercially viable,” explains NWW’s head viticulturalist, Hugh Girling. “They’d also need manpower, machinery and know-how. But we’re in a position to go out and survey their land, advise them on putting in the right varieties and managing their vines.” He adds that in some cases NWW will even harvest the crop on behalf of the contracted farm.
Contrary to popular belief, the UK is well-suited to growing grapes. The soils and climate of south-east England are almost identical to that of the Champagne region of France. Indeed, most UK wine producers believe the future of our industry is in sparkling wine, which is not only more compatible with our local environment but commands higher margins.
“All soils except heavy clay are suitable, the freer-draining the better,” says Mr Girling. “Recently, we’ve found that good sparkling grapes have been grown on green-sand soil.” As far as the aspect is concerned, slopes facing south-east or south-west are preferable, though the only real no-no is land that faces north. You need a yield of 2-3t of grapes/acre to break even. However, says Mr Girling, “if the sugars and quality are right, there’s a good price for them”. If you’re prepared to spend three to five years growing grapevines from scratch, you can expect to earn over pound sterling2000/acre.
When Donald Clay moved from central London to a 22-acre farm in Sedlescombe, Kent in 1999, he inherited 15 acres of vineyard in the process. “The vines were in terrible condition,” he says. “They’d been rented out to a local wine-grower, but he hadn’t maintained the posts and hedges or sorted out the weeds. I knew absolutely nothing about grapevines and it was a nightmare. Eventually I approached New Wave Wines.”
Mr Clay explains that NWW were particularly interested in buying his “Bacchus” grapes – like most grapes grown for wine in the UK, Bacchus is a German variety, and is described by NWW as “similar to New World Sauvignon Blancs… capable of world-class status”.
“We did away with nine acres and turned it into pasture,” Mr Clay continues, explaining that he rents the rest of his land to a sheep farmer. Then Hugh Girling and Owen Elias, NWW’s chief winemaker, began to help him manage the remaining vines, even mucking in to help with the hard labour of pruning and other maintenance. In return for this, NWW got exclusive rights to Mr Clay’s future harvests.
Unfortunately, last year’s crops were blighted by downy mildew, but this year Mr Clay is aiming for 2t/acre which he regards as his break-even point. “If all goes well, I’d be interested in reinstating some of the old vines,” he says. “I have every intention of selling my wine from here as they do in small chateaux across France.”