PROPERTY / Grape expectations up for grabs: Some English vineyard-owners are selling up. Has the dream of fine home-produced wine soured or is it merely maturing? Caroline McGhie finds a glut of acres for sale

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The Independent Culture
IN A warm pocket of Hampshire, just off the rim of the New Forest, lies the Lymington Vineyard. During the summer season, holidaymakers throng here to see how the grapes are grown, pressed, fermented, bottled and labelled. They leave clasping souvenir bottles, or lugging cases, much to the satisfaction of the owners, Clifford and Mary Sentance.

The proximity of the sea has traditionally been an asset because it has provided a flow of holidaymakers interested in wine. But recently it has turned into something of a hazard. For just across the Channel lie huge French supermarkets selling cheap French wineto the droves of English drinkers who have taken to shopping by boat. The problem is that the imported wines undercut the English ones, and have therefore damaged precious farm-gate sales along the south coast and destabilised an industry which is still as green and young as some of the wines it produces.

The Sentances started their vineyard in the late Seventies. Like many of the other pioneers who moved into the business during the same decade, they knew nothing about what they were going into. They acted on impulse. 'We knew we wanted to move to Hampshire, found this place in an overgrown state and discovered that part of the Efford estate next door was experimenting with some vines. So we thought we would try the same,' says Mary. 'We knew so little we must have been mad.'

They began, as so many vineyard owners do, by planting a single acre and watching it grow. Mary Sentance remembers the adventure of attending seminars held by the English Vineyards Association, and of travelling to Germany to buy their first vines themselves. Later batches arrived more impersonally by transcontinental lorry. 'We were just completely batty,' she recalls. 'We had reached a stage where one child was at university and we wanted to do our own thing. We thought if we didn't do it then, we never would.'

Friends and neighbours regarded them with much amusement and shaking of heads. 'I remember applying to the magistrates for an on- and-off licence so that we could do tastings. It was all new to them. They said they wished us all the luck in the world.' The vineyard has more than proved the sceptics wrong and today its wines are frequent winners of regional awards and appear on the shelves of local supermarkets.

But now, with the vines heavy with fruit, thevineyard is up for sale. The estate agents John D Wood have valued it at pounds 390,000, for which you get a four-bedroom house, shop and 38 acres, of which six are planted with vines producing 10,000 to 12,000 bottles a year. After 15 years the Sentances want to retire and see more of their family. And, unwittingly once again, they are part of a trend, for others of their generation - the English wine pioneers - are getting out of the business too, taking their hard-won knowledge with them, and making room for a younger crop of novices.

At least a dozen vineyards are on the market at the moment. The agents Savills currently has four for sale. One in the Colne Valley with a five-bedroom house priced at pounds 295,000, one in Essex with planning permission for a three- bedroom house at pounds 75,000, one in Kent with permission to convert a barn into a house at pounds 145,000, and one near Newbury with a six- bedroom farmhouse at pounds 275,000.

The most glamorous is the Lamberhurst Vineyard, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, whose 73-year-old owner, Kenneth McAlpine, has announced that he wants to 'go fishing'. The decision early this summer to cut the price from pounds 1.5m to pounds 750,000, however, sent alarm bells ringing through the business. Is English wine facing a crisis?

A closer look at the Lamberhurst price reveals that it may not be as alarming as it seems. The estate agent marketingthis flagship vineyard, 42 of whose 75 acres are planted with vines, is Knight Frank & Rutley. They have also quietly been trying to sell the nearby Tenterden Vineyard (65 acres; 15 planted with vines) for pounds 750,000, which is to include stock, equipment and fruit on the vines. The prices are now much more comparable. The new reduced price for Lamberhurst therefore starts to look as if it was informed more by pragmatism than panic.

So does the current turnover in English vineyards owe more to a natural obsolescence among the growers, or to the English wine raids on the French channel ports? Robin Don, chairman of the English Vineyards Association, puts it in perspective. 'Wine-buying trips to France have interfered with farm-gate trade along the south coast and caused a fall-off of between 30 and 60 per cent,' he says. 'This isn't why people are selling, though. Many people are selling because they were among the first to start their own vineyards 20 years ago and they have reached retiring age.'

His view of the future is determinedly rosy. 'English wine is beginning to be accepted. Sainsbury's now stocks half-a-dozen or so, whereas a few years ago they took none. We still have to reach the point where it is considered the done thing to drink English wine but I believe it will happen in three or four years. The supply available, however, is minuscule compared to the potential demand.'

Nevertheless, he too is wanting to move on from his own small vineyard at North Elmham in north Norfolk - one of the most northerly in the country. He isn't actually selling but is looking for a husband-and-wife team to lease an estate cottage and the two-and-a-half acres of vines at a low rent, and to sink pounds 50,000 of capital into the project. 'I have been experimenting with this vineyard for 25 years and I am now over 60 years old, have no sons and my daughters don't want to take it on. So I am looking for someone to look after it.' (Anyone who is interested should write to him at Elmham House, North Elmham, Dereham, Norfolk NR20 5JY).

The early years in many of these vineyards were largely spent finding out which vines suit the soil and the climate, for England offers so much variety that each vineyard is entirely different. Owners find themselves very much at the mercy of the weather since it is the sunshine that creates the sugar content in the grapes. The summer of 1992 produced such a bumper harvest that there are still unsold bottles in many stores. Last summer by comparison was appalling. So far this year, all looks set fair to break records.

At Blackawton Vineyards, near Dartmouth in south Devon, the vines went into shock because of last year's high rainfall combined with a change in their trellis system. The owner, Ian McKenzie, is selling after five years in the business, just at the point where he feels he has ironed out all the early problems. Estate agents Marchand Petit and Michael Bennett have priced the house, with 12 acres and a hobby vineyard of nearly three acres, at pounds 375,000, and a further 15 acres, of which 10 are planted with vines, at pounds 125,000.

Estate agent Richard Marchand believes the sale will be a wrench. 'It is for personal reasons rather than economic ones,' he says. McKenzie has thrown himself into the area and the business with such gusto that he even produces a speciality wine for the annual Blackawton worm-charming ceremony. In top hat and trenchcoat each May, he presides over assembled villagers and their worm buckets, uncorking bottles of vintage Early Bird. (The person with the most worms wins.)

(Photographs omitted)