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Plumpton climate change research could help boost English vine productivity

Published:  05 April, 2019

Soon to be released research carried out in Sussex could help unlock the secret of yields – and discover why they fluctuate so wildly from year to year in the UK.

Plumpton College’s Rock Lodge is one of five European vineyards currently participating in climate change research project Life Adviclim, which aims to better understand temperature variations in individual vineyards.

By using temperature sensors to identify cooler and warmer spots, researchers hope the findings can be adapted to mitigate climate change across Europe – for example in St Émilion, where vignerons are experimenting with the best spots to ripen Merlot.

The research could also help a major problem with yields closer to home.

“Champagne gets much bigger yields and their weather/climate isn’t that different,” said the head of Plumpton’s Wine Division, Chris Foss. “When floral initiation is disrupted, the vineyard will have a reduced amount of flowers the following year. Bad flowering conditions can really sink a vintage, like in 2012. It is mostly down to weather and climate, but there are other factors too, and we need to understand them properly in order to maximise and regularise our yields.”

Publishing the results of the study is high on the agenda for Foss, who is soon due to retire from the division he founded at Plumpton in the 1980s. Since then, he has seen the English wine industry flourish from a “cottage industry” to one with numerous “hero brands”, including Nyetimber and Chapel Down.

Rock Lodge forms the basis of a number research projects at the college which are focused on helping the English wine industry to grow.

According to Foss, it is one of the most “intensively studied vineyards in the world”, and was one of the first producers of sparkling wine in the 1990s.

As well as working to achieve consistent yields, Rock Lodge has also had to fight off an infestation of SWD (spotted-winged drosophila) over the past couple of years.

In 2017, the vineyard was not only “decimated” by frost, it was then attacked by the Japanese fruit flies, which are encourgaed by cold weather.

As a result, the college has been experimenting with stop crops.

“Flies are attracted to these crops, which produce fruit before the vines. They lay their eggs, but larvae aren’t able to grow in the fruit. Insecticides are only a short term solution. The flies live in the woods, and you can’t spray the woods,” said Foss.

Rock Lodge is also gathering data on a number of PIWI, or fungus resistant grape varieties, which Foss also hopes to publish before the end of the year. 

Other research projects include drone sensor technology to identify downy mildew. By using heat-mapping and computer vision, cameras are able to capture the accurate surface area of the leaves, thus helping to avoid over-spraying.