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A fruitful year for English wine

Published:  13 November, 2009

As the local wine industry expands at a rapid rate, the Harpers team visits three vineyards to lend a hand bringing in the harvest.

With quality and yields improving all the time, the 2009 vintage could prove to be a significant turning point for the English wine industry.

Judging by reports from winemakers who are just finishing this year's harvest, it is looking like an exceptional vintage and many are also expecting record yields.

Recent figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show increasing numbers of farmers are seeing the benefit of turning over sections of their land to vineyards. There are now 1,106 ha of land under vine - a 45% increase since 2005.

There is a sense that English wine, particularly sparkling (the vast majority of new plantings are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), is started to be seen as a viable commercial product by the trade as volumes increase and the quality stacks up against the best the world has to offer in blind tastings.

The English Wine Producers association predicts that with further acreage being planted, by 2015 English wine production will rise to 5.6 million bottles, of which 3.7 million will be sparkling wine.

To get a view of the industry from the ground, the Harpers Wine & Spirit team pulled up its sleeves to help with the harvest at three wineries of varying sizes and stages of their evolution around the country.

Claire Hu - Gusbourne Estate, Appledore, Kent

Dark clouds hang ominously in the distance as we pick Chardonnay grapes at the idyllic Gusbourne Estate, at Appledore in Kent. We are bringing in the 2009 harvest with cheerful, welly-clad pensioners who are rated by estate owner Andrew Weeber as being the hardest workers. "The older retirees are the most reliable, and the old grannies are the best of all - we have a 69-year-old lady working for us who is excellent," he says.

Mud, hail and rot are the biggest threats around harvest-time, although vineyard manager Jon Pollard has also had to put up fences to repel badgers which have developed a taste for the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that go into the estate's sparkling wines. Despite these challenges, the quality of the 2009 is looking exceptional says Weeber, judging by the flavour concentration and favourable acidity of the grapes.

The picking is strangely addictive, the drive to fill up each plastic crate full of glistening grapes that shine like yellow jewels so overwhelming, that I have to be practically prised away from my secateurs when the heavens open.

Weeber bought the 500-acre farm in 2003 as a property investment, and it was only afterwards that he realised the relatively warm and dry local microclimate, southern-facing slopes and clay and sandy loam soils were ideal conditions for vine-planting. He now has three plots across 50 acres, capable of 130,000 bottles, and although the grapes are currently sent to Ridgeview for vinification he is about to embark on a multi-million pound project to build an on-site winery and visitor attraction featuring restaurant, tasting room and outdoor terrace.

Weeber is an unusual character to find making wine in the depths of the English countryside. For one thing, he's South African (from Cape Town), and despite once part-owning a vineyard in Robertson he has practically no experience in the wine trade. In fact, his previous job was as an orthopaedic surgeon. So what led him to sink his savings into a crusade to prove the potential of English wine?

"For one thing, I love wine and I wish my liver was bigger so I could drink more," admits Weeber. "I'm blown away by the changes in wine quality over the past few years and I really believe that over the next 10 years or so we can produce a product that is every bit as good as the French have. With global warming, a cool climate is going to be a pre-requisite to sparkling wine. Also, when I look at the affluent population of 60 million people in Britain - and that's not even taking into account all the countries that used to be part of the 'empire' - there's real potential."

One gets the sense Weeber wants to be seen as an astute businessman - he lives most of the year in Switzerland and owns properties around the world -  but he's been bitten badly by the winemaking bug and his puppyish enthusiasm shines through. "It does get to you. It's like a disease that gets into your soul, almost like a religion", he admits.

He originally bought the estate as a financial investment - he rents out land not used for vines to arable farmers - and says the value of it has rocketed since he bought it. This gives him the reassurance to invest in the winemaking side, although he admits to sleepless nights working out the maths.

"They say if you want to make a small fortune from a big fortune, invest in a vineyard", he says. "I do all my planning at night and I worked out it would cost about £10 a vine, or £48,000 per hectare, to plant more area. Despite that, if we were just to sell our grapes this year we would make a profit. And I firmly believe there is no-one else in Britain producing as good quality grapes as us!"

Weeber is hoping the investment he has put into the viticultural side will eventually shine through in the wines. Walking through the impeccable vines, each staked neatly on to metal posts, you can easily see how a vineyard can turn into a cash drain.

The estate even uses leaf blowers to expose the fruit to the sun and reduce the risk of disease, and all the harvesting is done by hand. Vineyard manager Jon Pollard, who is in his first job since graduating from Plumpton, describes how exciting it is for him to be at the start of such an ambitious project. "Making this sort of wine is great. And it's not very often you get to be at the start of something big like what's happening here with the new winery being built."

The biggest investment of all will be the new winery, restaurant and tasting rooms which will be capable of processing 600 tons (500,000 bottles). Construction will begin soon and the plan is to produce the first vintage in 2011. "I want to do the same kind of quality wine tourism here in Kent that we get in South Africa", says Weeber. The plan is for a further 10ha to be planted after the winery is completed.

It will also hopefully make long-term commercial sense to produce a wine made on the premises - at the moment Ridgeview vinifies the grapes and sends back around half the volume in wine to Gusbourne as payment for the fruit it keeps.

"Like Champagne, quality English fizz is a good model as its a product you can put in the cellar and, as long as you can survive the cash strangulation, you can see through a recession while it improves", says Weeber. He also believes appellation and origin will play a more important role in English wine in the future - at the moment one estate's wine can be the product of grapes from around the country.

The estate currently produces four wines - a Classic Blend, a Blanc de Blancs, a sparkling rosé and a small amount of Pinot Noir. Just 10,000 bottles of the first vintage of 2006 are being released this year and the two fizzes have already won awards. Vinified with at least 22 months lees ageing, Gusbourne will soon be sniffing around for a new winemaker who can take over when it moves operations on-site.

Gusbourne Wine Estate, Kenardington Road, Appledore, Kent TN26 2BE
Hectares: 20
Expected production from 2009: 110,000 bottles
Wines: Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs; Classic Blend; Rosé and Pond Field Pinot Noir. Labels are currently being designed and Weeber hopes the wine will go on sale in time for Christmas, mainly in independents and restaurants.

Carol Emmas - Nyetimber, West Chiltington, West Sussex

Nyetimber is probably Britain's biggest success story when it comes to winegrowing and winemaking here in the UK. Its sparkling wines have won many awards since the first plantings in 1988. Back then most people thought it was insane to grow the Champagne varietals of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the typically inclement British climate and where it was thought the grapes would almost certainly perish on the vine.

Now in its 21st year, the multi-award winning Nyetimber is "bursting out of its winery". Its hectares have grown from an initial 14, to today's 141 spread across West Sussex and Hampshire, which is a pretty impressive leap in just over two decades from a rather initially eccentric venture.

The vines were first planted by Stuart and Sandy Moss, an American couple who bought the vineyard after doing extensive research that showed parts of Sussex and Hampshire mirrored the geology of the chalk soils and free-draining greensand of Champagne. Now it's ex-lawyer and venture capitalist, Dutchman, Eric Heerema that owns Nyetimber. A serious wine collector and Anglophile, he bought the estate three years ago, complete with the medieval manor house that he is currently painstakingly renovating.

Expansion and capital investment is a big part of the programme for Heerema. A new state-of-the-art winery is planned for spring 2012 plus a visitor centre is being built which is due to be completed at the end of next year that will host private tasting and press events.

"It's grown very fast," says Heerema. "We have been very lucky. Nyetimber had very early critical acclaim and has always sold everything it produces on a yearly basis.

"I think that's because we have total control from the vineyard through to bottling no one else in the UK does that. We don't buy in grapes, we stick to the traditional Champagne method and only make vintage."

"It's important for me to grow the business taking it into a proper brand, so it's seen as a luxury product and we're very much working to build upon that in the future."

Heerema is working towards a steady production of 1 million bottles per year. In 2006/07 70,000 bottles were produced which last year that almost doubled to 120,000.

That objective shouldn't present a future difficulty, as Nyetimber is also fortunate enough this year to forecast their best vintage in quantity and quality since its inception and are reaping what has been described as a "Tsunami of grapes".

Vineyard manager and viticulturist, Paul Woodrow-Hill says: "I've been involved with Nyetimber for the past 22 years and this has undoubtedly been the best year so far.
We had a fantastic June and early July, August was dry and in September it barely rained and was very warm.

"The grapes are of a really great quality too with just the right balance of acidity and the sugar levels are fantastic. But for us it's a huge step up from last year when we gathered 160 tonnes. This year we're looking at 700. It really has been extraordinary.

"We are now taking the leap from medium sized producer into a major producer. Nyetimber is growing and yet we're still insistent that we cultivate our own vineyards. There are no contracted vines and this will always be our USP."

Woodrow-Hill explains at Nyetimber all the grapes are picked by hand to maintain the quality - as in Champagne. Smaller crates are used so the grapes aren't crushed by their own weight - which he maintains happens if larger crates are used in picking.

Also Woodrow-Hill says that viticulturally as the business continues to grow it will have to become more efficient mechanically. They recently bought a forklift machine that lifts the crates onto the truck to take to the winery which he says is much easier on the staff and "less back-breaking than hand-balling it onto the truck". But he draws the line at machine harvesting, "that will never be us", he says.

Winemaker Cherie Spriggs agrees the fruit is exceptional this year: "The first fruit to come in off the vines has been some Pinot Noir and it's stunning. It makes my job less difficult," she jokes, "as we all know - wine makes itself in a good year."

Has the recession affected Nyetimber? Hereema says sales were down last year. "Undoubtedly the slump in the economy has affected us as we're priced similar to Champagne. People are not spending as much. But on the plus side there is a growing minority of consumers who are becoming increasingly aware of local produce and wanting to try English wine.

"People were becoming brand lead with Champagne leading that category, but now the market is looking at alternative products and one of those is sparkling wines, which has opened up people's eyes, even at premium price.

Heerema thinks this recession is different because in previous economic downturns it's quality that has been compromised. But in this he says people have become more selective. "They may be more careful what they spend on", he says, "but they are still trying to be more quality lead."

And keeping it local, Nyetimber doesn't want to export. Sales manager Francis Brackley says it is remaining focussed on managing UK distribution. The on-trade remains a main objective and we are looking to just gradually increase sales until we can create a larger volume.

Heerema says, "We will get to one million bottles, but it takes us 3-4 years because of the time in the bottle before release."

"Undoubtedly the challenge ahead is quite big, but now is the right time to be more open minded, this is the exciting part ahead and historically I think we have now proven ourselves.

But extending the romantic small local producer image, Hereema reminds us of the global perspective. "We may be big in British terms" he says. "But our objective towards one million bottles is still less than 1% of all wine sold in the UK."

Nyetimber Limited, Nyetimber Vineyard, Gay Street, West Chiltington, West Sussex  RH20 2HH
Hectares 141 under vine - area in current production 105 ha
Wines: Classic Cuvée 2003, 2001, 1995. 2002 Classic Cuvée is now also available exclusively through Waitrose.
Blanc de Blancs 2001, 1998, 1992
Stockists include: Berry Brothers & Rudd, Farr Vintners, Fortnum & Mason,
Harvey Nichols, Harrods.
Restaurants include: Claridges -Gordon Ramsay, Canteen
In the second half of next year Nyetimber will be releasing a sparkling rosé, which it has been making since 2007.

Eunice Murrison - Denbies Wine Estate, Dorking, Surrey

With a small leap of the imagination, I felt transported to a boutique wine estate in the Napa Valley, where the chateau-esque visitor centre was made picture-perfect by a warming sun. But no, this was real and this was England: I was at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Surrey and part of the Vine and Dine Grape Picking Experience.

Some 325 day trippers have signed up this year, and pay £48.50 per person, less in groups, to wield secateurs and help hand pick the grapes in the morning, before a winery tour, lunch and tasting. It's just one small part of the company's diversified business plan, and a clever way of teaching a very interested public more about wine.

Put another way, that's around 600 extra picking hours to help bring in the premium and sparkling wine grapes, or around 20% of the total crop. "I think two hours picking is just enough to still be romantic, but not back breaking," says general manager Chris White, whose father Adrian first planted the estate's vines back in 1986. "It does lose its charm somewhat after two-days picking."

Picking started in late September - a few days earlier than normal - and is expected to end in late October. With 265 acres, Denbies is the largest single estate in England, and a machine picker brings in the majority of the crop. Picking at a rate of 24 tonnes per day versus 6 tonnes by 25 hand pickers, it has enabled, along with a fair forecast, the unusual luxury of delaying the harvest while the grapes continue to ripen.

Mother Nature has been kind this year and staff, and visitors alike, expect and hope to see the attractive crop surpass the lauded, although small, 2003. "We've had two really disappointing years, so we were hoping for a bumper crop and it's turning out to be the case," says White, who hopes production will hit 400,000 bottles this year after only just over 250,000 in 2008.

Quality too looks superior across the board, and one variety not usually known for its charm has excelled. "Reichensteiner is not a particularly exciting variety in its own right, although it's good in a blend," says White.

"But this year, it has very interesting flavours and the sugars are the highest we've ever had - they're getting on for 90 degrees Oechsle, which is a natural alcohol content of 12% from a grape that we don't normally pick until later on in the season." Generally high sugar levels also mean little, if any, expensive chaptilisation will be necessary this year, creating substantial savings for the company.

In many ways, Denbies seem a step ahead of the average UK vineyard, but few vineyards in the UK can boast a 20-year history. Being brought up on the estate, 33-year-old White is in a rare position in the UK, and seems keen to continue in the same entrepreneurial and experimental vein as his father. Imminent plans are to increase total plantings to 300 acres, with a 2-acre experimental plot of Sauvignon Blanc.

"Sauvignon Blanc has never before been grown in the UK," says White. "People were surprised to see New Zealand growing it 20-odd years ago and when we planted this vineyard 20 years ago we went heavily into Pinot Noir, which people were also surprised about, saying it's not going to ripen properly and its going to be a struggle. But it's been one of our most successful varieties."

With some varieties now at maturity and past the peak of their production, the time is also right to grub-up and replant, giving the opportunity to change the proportions of varieties grown and try something new. More Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Bachus will go in, while Chardonnay will be maintained at its current level, having lately proven unfashionable as a varietal, although it's still important in their sparkling wine.

Madeleine Angevine will be planted for the first time. It's an aromatic, productive and reliable producer that will go into the Surrey Gold NV - currently a blend of Müller Thurgau, Bacchus, Ortega and Reichensteiner, and their best seller at £6.99 per bottle.

In total 12 wines are produced, including three sparkling (two from Champagne varieties), with the focus on crisp, aromatic, dry and fruity styles. Although some of the varieties may not be familiar to the general public, it's not a concern for White, who says the visitor centre educates people and allows them to taste before they buy.

They can do more than taste, with tours, a shop, walking trails, art gallery, restaurant, conference centre, wedding venue (60 are being held this year), bed and breakfast accommodation and, until recently, a Lego house slept in by James May.

Such a diversified estate attracts up to 350,000 visitors per year and 70% of the wines produced are sold on-site - the remainder can be found on P&O ferries, in Waitrose, independent retailers and restaurants. "I would have failed if it were any other way," says White, who says you "literally give it to someone else to sell" otherwise.

And there are plenty more plans in the pipeline. Although not yet signed and sealed, Denbies plan to welcome aboard Surrey Hills Brewers early next year. All going well, the brewer will rent space and operate as a stand-alone business. "It's a bit controversial," says White, aware that he's both mixing the grape and the grain and inviting competition to his doorstep, but he's confident the two will complement each other.

It's also a reflection a flexible, evolving and dynamic business, built with vision and a clear eye on the market. The handsome turnover of £4.2 million last year, with £4.4 million expected for this year, also looks good. Yet White remains focused. "We're a proper business, not a trophy asset for the owners. We sink or swim like any other business."

Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6AA
Hectares: 107
Expected production in 2009: 400,000 bottles
Stockists: P&O Ferries, Waitrose, independent retailers and restaurants
Wines: Sparkling: Greenfields Cuveé 2004 £21.99; Sparkling Rosé Cuveé 2006 £17.99; Whitedowns Classic NV, £15.99 Estate Range Wine Collection Flint Valley NV, £6.49; Surrey Gold NV, £6.99 Cellarmasters Choice Juniper Hill NV, £7.99; Redlands 2006, £9.50; Rose Hill NV, £7.99
Vineyard Select: Greenfields Cuvee 2004, £21.99; Hillside Chardonnay, £13.50; Ortega 2006, £9.99; Bacchus 2007, £9.99; Schonburger NV, £9.99