A lot more rot than usual - English winemakers curse our new climate

Domestic producers long for the days of terrible weather, finds Richard Erlich
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While you were sunbathing over the hot Easter weekend, the people who run England's 400 wineries were having kittens. An early spring means fun for beach-goers but potential disaster for fruit farmers. If their plants bud early they become easy prey to the frosts of April and May.

That's exactly what happened this year. The National Farmers' Union estimates that two-thirds of the apple crop has been lost in this way and while things won't be quite so dire for UK wine production the crop will be well down on last year.

You might think it's a miracle that wine can be made here at all; the UK sits in the very northern latitudes of the zone where grapes will ripen, even further north than the wine regions of Germany. We have the Gulf Stream, plus careful selection of grape varieties (mostly German hybrids chosen for late ripening), to thank for home-grown wine.

In any case, according to Stephen Skelton of Chapel Wine, Tenterden, Kent, "our problem is not ripeness: we can ripen grapes well in England, even without global warming". The problem is that the size of the crop has been drastically depleted by frost. Ferocious attacks occurred at the end of April and beginning of May, just when the vines were in early bud-break. When buds are killed or damaged by frost, no flowers are produced and no grapes can grow. The record rainfall in June had little effect on the crop, somewhat surprisingly, though rains in early July affected flowering in some places.

The damage has not struck everywhere. According to Ian Berwick of Bruisyard Vineyard in Suffolk and president of the UK Vineyards Association: "Some vineyards had no damage, some had partial damage, and some were completely wiped out." The extent of loss was determined partly by location: some spots are less frosty than others, and one vineyard might go unscathed while its near-neighbour loses 50 per cent of its vines. Grape variety also plays a part, as Berwick explains. "Late varieties had shorter, less well-developed buds, so they weren't hit so hard; those where the buds were an inch long or even more could be destroyed."

The casualties among the vine-yards amount to just "a handful", says Mr Berwick, but the damage means that 1997 production will be well down on last year's bumper crop of 26,573 hectolitres - equivalent to well over 300,000 cases. The 1995 figure was half that, and that is the sort of crop he expects to see this year. Simon Alper, of the Chilford Hall vineyard in Cambridgeshire, agrees. "The 1995 vintage followed the same pattern as this year's: an early spring and late frost leading to less quantity." Anti-frost measures can be put in place as they are in numerous winemaking areas, but the costs are punishing.

In winemaking, however, size is not everything. Small harvests may indeed be beautiful. "Having less quantity never does quality any harm," Mr Alper says. What matters is the degree of ripening in the fruit that finally grows, and everyone seems to agree that the quality is going to be very good. Apart from those June rains the weather has been excellent for grapes, with plenty of heat to bring sugar levels up. After the huge 1996 harvest - "big and good" - there will be enough wine to sell without raising prices. And the grapes' full ripeness gives the winemaker more to work with.

The UK harvest won't begin until October, because of the predominance of late-ripening varieties. In France the harvest is well under way and the overall picture is unclear. Good weather in spring and summer (especially a hot August) led to early harvests and predictions of great wine, but cold and rain have meant problems in September. "There's rot showing in some areas and growers are panicking," according to Simon Farr of Bibendum wine merchants in London. He thinks the vintage is unlikely to produce uniformly good wines, preferring to characterise it at this early stage as "difficult and patchy". Growing grapes for winemaking, he says, "is a real toss of the coin".

UK production is still a drop in the wine lake compared with that of France. The huge 1996 vintage, to set it in context, was less than one 20th the size of a year's production of Muscadet alone. Our wine's ability to thrive in the fiercely competitive market will depend ultimately on global warming, or the will of the Almighty, or whichever force it is that brings the combination of early springs and late frosts.

The winemakers, tired of uncertainty, would rather return to the good old days of terrible English weather. "Give us a gentle spring and autumn and 100 days of reasonable warmth in between" pleads Ian Berwick. "We want the seasons where they should be."