English winemakers toast fruitful harvest

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England's winemakers are hoping for great things from the 2004 harvest, despite the washout August that caused enormous trouble for cereal farmers.

England's winemakers are hoping for great things from the 2004 harvest, despite the washout August that caused enormous trouble for cereal farmers.

Fruit is abundant in England's 330 vineyards after the record hot summer of 2003, when the buds for this year's vintage were formed. Such is the profusion of grapes that many vineyards have been carrying out a "green harvest" - thinning out the fruit so that flavour and quality are not spread too thinly - before the harvest proper, which began this week in some vineyards.

Although 2004 may not equal 2003, which in some places was a record, especially with the red wine grape varieties such as pinot noir (the grape of red Burgundy), now being successfully grown in southern England, the feeling among many winemakers and proprietors is that it may not be far behind.

The summer was wet, but also warm, and there were no spring frosts to damage the buds. Those producers who have successfully controlled mildew and other diseases by spraying, and who do not allow their harvest to be too big, are thought likely to do well.

"I think it will be excellent," said Ian Berwick, secretary of the UK Vineyards Association. "It's been a wet summer, but a warm summer, and the grapes have developed well. Now we're just waiting for the sun to put the sugar in."

In Britain's biggest vineyard, the 250-acre (100-hectare) Denbies estate at Dorking in Surrey, on the slopes of the North Downs, where the harvest is scheduled to start at the beginning of October, hopes are high. "The potential crop is huge, because of the way the buds were set up by the hot summer last year," said the managing director, Christopher White.

Last year was a record for Denbies, which produced nearly 300,000 bottles of wine, compared with 230,000 in 2002. "It was our best year ever," Mr White said. "Over the past five years we've seem to have been affected by global warming and we're getting these milder winters so we're not hit by frosts.

"There was a lot of wet weather in August, and the worry then is powdery mildew and dowdy mildew, but we escaped both. This is the crucial ripening period now, and as long as the weather continues OK, we will be fine."

At the well-known Three Choirs vineyard in Newent, Gloucestershire, the harvest of early-ripening Siegerrebe grapes began on Thursday. "We think the harvest will be very good," said the managing director, Thomas Shaw.

"We knew there was the potential for a very big crop this year, so we've limited it. We've removed flowers and bunches of grapes early on, because we concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Where we are we have steep south-facing slopes and sandy soil, and when the rain came in August, it came in big bursts, so it ran off the top very quickly. With the grapes on a trellised system we have good air circulation."

Jon Leighton, proprietor of Valley Vineyards near Twyford in Berkshire, said his grapes were progressing very well. "It hasn't been an easy year, but those that have been diligent with spraying will produce a good harvest," he said.

Britain's wheat farmers have also been able to salvage much of their harvest - which in August was severely threatened by the rain - because of the fine warm weather of the past 10 days. By 27 August just 50 per cent of the nation's two-million-hectare wheat crop had been brought in, and in some regions of the North-east and the east Midlands the harvest had not even begun. The picture is much better now, with much of the harvest completed.

The washout August has, however, left its mark. The quality of much of the grain is not of good enough for flour milling, which attracts a higher price. It will sell for cattle feed.

VARIETIES FOR A SMALL, COOL ISLAND

Seyval Blanc: The first grape grown commercially in the English wine-making renaissance, planted in 1951 in Hambledon in Hampshire. A 1919 cross between French and American varieties, crisp and clean, it is often used for sparkling wines.

Muller-Thurgau: The white grape that in the past half-century has been associated with English wine. Developed in Switzerland in the 19th century as a cross between the Sylvaner and the Riesling. It produces a dry to semi-dry, lightly aromatic wine.

Madeleine Angevine: A French cool-region grape developed in the Loire in the mid-19th century, a cross between the Madeleine Royale and the Précoce de Malingre. Often blended, but occasionally makes stunning wine on its own.

Siegerrebe: A German white variety, developed in 1916 as a cross between the Madeleine Angevine and the spicy Gewürztraminer, in the quest for an early-ripening grape with a lot of sugar and intense flavour.

Ortega: A cross between Muller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, developed in Germany in 1948. It resembles the Riesling in many ways.

Bacchus: A modern cross between a Sylvaner-Riesling hybrid and Muller-Thurgau. Wines are fruity and have a distinct Muscat bouquet.

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