It wasn’t the “barbecue summer” promised by the Met Office. It was sunny at first, and it was sunny later, but July was so wet it ruined many holidays. Yet this mixed bag of weather was perfect for one set of people – England’s winemakers.
Weather conditions were so good for wine growing this year, with sunshine and rain at just the right time, that English wine producers are looking at an outstanding vintage in 2009, which some are saying is their best ever. After a washout year in 2008, resulting in a harvest that was poor and steeply down on previous years, vineyard owners are reporting that both quantity and quality of their grapes this time are exceptionally high.
The total production is expected to be well over 3m bottles, more than double last year’s figure, and as the harvest begins, words like “fabulous” are being used of the general condition, and in particular the sugar levels (and therefore potential alcohol levels) of the 2009 vintage.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” said Bob Lindow, proprietor of the seven hectare (17-acre) Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall, and chairman of the UK Vineyards Association. “I’ve never seen it before and I don’t know if I’ll see it again. The grapes are large and gold and lovely. It’s way above anything I’ve seen in the past. You have to use words like 'heavenly'”.
At Britain’s biggest vineyard, the 100-plus hectare (265-acre) Denbies estate near Dorking in Surrey, where grape-picking began on Tuesday, managing director Christopher White said that this year’s harvest “looks to be fantastic”.
He said: It looks like being one of the best, and perhaps the best harvest we’ve ever had. We’ve got both quantity and quality. With a bigger harvest we would normally sacrifice quality, as the goodness is spread out more thinly, but this year we’ve got both.”
The 2009 crop was likely to surpass Denbies’ previous best of 2003, he said, and added: “The sugar levels are surprising, and what we’ve brought in already gives a natural alcohol level of 12 per cent, which is very good for England. The whole English wine industry needed a good year this year, and it looks like we’ve got it.”
At the 36-hectare (90-acre) Three Choirs vineyard near Newent in Gloucestershire, managing director Thomas Shaw said that grapes picked so far had been “excellent”. He said: “Is it the best? Well, I’ve heard some people saying this is going to be the best year they’ve ever had, though I don’t think you should say so until you’re harvested and you’re in tank. But at the moment, I’m delighted.”
England’s modern wine industry, which took off in the 1970s, now consists of 416 vineyards totalling 1100 hectares (just over 2,700 acres), which between them produce on average about 2m bottles per year, about 1.6m of white wine and about 400,000 of red, although last year’s bad summer meant production was only about 1.3m bottles in total. Much of the white produced is now sparkling wine, which is becoming English wine’s niche market.
Julia Trustram Eve, of English Wine Producers, the industry’s trade association, said: “The general feeling is that it’s looking very good at the moment. People are very optimistic and pleased with the quality of the grapes.” Speaking from Warden Abbey vineyard near Bedford, she said: “I’ve just seen the Bacchus [a white grape variety] being harvested and it looks fantastic. The grapes are really sweet. The sugar levels are fabulous.”
The up-and-down pattern of the weather in 2009 has been directly responsible. The fine warm spring meant there were few frosts, and the crucial period of flowering took place for many vineyards over the Wimbledon fortnight in June, which famously passed off without any rain – the major problem at flowering time.
“We had an amazing start to the growing year,” said Stephen Skelton MW, the leading authority on English wine (author of The Wines of Britain and Ireland). “April, May and June were very, very good and then there was no rain during Wimbledon fortnight, which was itself a unique occurrence.”
This meant the fruit was able to set properly on the vine, and the young grapes then benefited from the rains of July, cursed at the time by holidaymakers. “The rain in July was good,” Mr Sketon said. “All plants need rain.” Finally, the sunny months of August and September have been perfect for ripening.
“We had ideal conditions this summer,” Denbies’ Mr White said. “In the dry and sunny September the vines have really been able to finish off. This is the earliest we have ever harvested.”
Denbies sits in a bowl of the North Downs, between Box Hill and Ranmore Common, and although only 25 miles from Central London, the great flowing stretches of vines make you feel you could be in Burgundy. In his winery Mr White offered The Independent a taste of the “must” – the pressed juice from the Ortega white grapes the vineyard has just begun picking. From a huge stainless steel vat he drew off a glass of pale green juice – and it tasted intensely sweet and aromatic. It was delicious. You could enjoy it by itself.
It was so good that some of it would go into a single-grape “varietal”, a 2009 Ortega, Mr White said, while the rest would go into the vineyard’s best-seller, a blend of Ortega, Bacchus and Muller-Thurgau grapes called Summer Gold.
If the taste was anything to go by, the harvest is indeed exceptional.
ENGLISH WINE IN FACTS AND FIGUES
England currently has 416 vineyards, and 116 wineries where wine is actually made.
The vineyards can be found from Cornwall to Yorkshire but are mainly in the south-east. They cover a total of 1106 hectares (2,739 acres), up from a mere 196 hectares (484 acres) in 1975. Most are fairly small: the average size of vineyard is currently 2.66 hectares (6.5 acres).
They produce between two and three million bottles of wine per year, depending on the harvest. The average over the last five years has been 2,058,134 bottles, 1,662,267 of them white and 395,867 of red. Last year (a poor year) they produced a total of only 1.3m bottles but in 2006 (a good year) the total was more than 3.3m.
These might seem large figures until you compare them to the major wine-growing countries: Italy produces about eight ITALS billion OFFITALS bottles of wine a year and France about seven billion, with Spain not far behind. South Africa produces about 924 million bottles and Australia about 166m.
The total value of English wine sold each year is about £16m. An average bottle of English still wine is about £7 although it can be considerably higher; and average bottle of sparkling wine is about £16, although prices can range from £12 to £30. There is no really cheap English wine because the winemaking operations are generally fairly small, so big economies of scale are not possible.
Traditionally, English wine has been made from lesser-known, cool-climate grapes such as Muller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc. But with climate change – and Britain’s average temperature risen a full degree centigrade in the last forty years – it is becoming increasing possible to grow famous French grapes successfully, especially the trio that go into Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. English winemakers are increasingly using them to make sparkling wine, which is becoming an English speciality – all that can be produced is sold. About 40 per cent of the acreage is now planted with the Champagne trio, and about 400,000 bottles of sparkling are made each year.
Vines were grown in England in Roman times, as far north as Lincoln, but the modern English wine industry is very recent. It began in 1951 when a retired soldier, Major-General Guy Salisbury-Jones, planted a vineyard of Seyval Blanc grapes (a cross between American and French varieties) at Hambledon in Hampshire. He produced his first wine in 1954, but although others followed him, wine from Britain was long regarded as a mere novelty, and it was only in the 1970s, which the growth of interest in wine generally, that planting began in earnest.