A combination of climate change and increasing investment has turned the U.K. into one of the world’s fastest-growing wine regions and inspired a new generation of wine entrepreneurs.
According to industry body WineGB, three million vines will be planted this year, leading to a 24% increase in land under vine in Britain in just one year.
Vineyards in the southeast of the country have been making sparkling wine to rival Champagne for several years, but a study into climate change, commissioned by Laithwaite’s Wine, has revealed how large areas of the U.K., including the East of England and even Scotland, could become leading wine-producing regions by 2100.
Norfolk’s reputation as a wine-producer had been gathering pace for several years but received a huge boost when the county’s Winbirri Vineyards Bacchus 2015 was named the best white wine made from a single grape variety at the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Elsewhere in the county the vines are flourishing including those at the new Burn Valley Vineyard, situated close to the village of Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Run by sisters Laura and Samantha Robinson, in April 2016 they planted 17,000 vines, comprising nine varieties, on an 11-acre field on their father’s farm. While the field had proved difficult for growing arable crops, its south-facing slopes and good drainage made it a promising contender for planting vines.
“It was actually my dad’s idea,” says Laura. “He’d spent a lot of time in France, he loved visiting vineyards, and about five years ago he posed the question, ‘why don’t we give it a try here?’”
Laura, who’d previously worked as a forensic scientist, and Sam, who’d been teaching English in Vietnam, immediately embarked on two years of research, including detailed site and soil analysis, to see if the idea was viable. But as one consultant pointed out, planting a vineyard was one thing; three or four years down the line they would need a market for their wine.
“We are in a great location; a popular tourist destination just three miles from the coast and an affluent market right on our doorstep,” says Sam. “But it was always going to be more than a vineyard and we had plans to do tours and tastings and develop it into a much bigger business.”
Their latest vineyard-related venture is Secret Suppers, an on-site food experience paired with their wines, with the culinary input from Laura’s partner Steve Newsome, a chef, who runs Burn Valley Catering from the same venue.
In the vineyard, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties used for sparkling wine make up around 60% of the vines, with other varieties including Bacchus, Solaris, Rondo and Regent. Thanks to a near-tropical 2018 summer their first harvest was a bumper one, producing 13 tons of grapes.
Without any winemaking equipment of their own last year, they had to send them to other wineries to be made into wine, but all that is about to change. Having secured EU grant funding via the Rural Payments scheme, which covered around 40% of the costs, Burn Valley Vineyard’s own winery is in the process of being built.
At full capacity, the Robinsons anticipate producing 17,000 to 20,000 bottles. With their large venue and on-site winemaking facilities they can buy in grapes and increase output.
“Within the next three years or so, with so much vine planting going on in the region there won’t be enough places to make the wine, so we are in a very good position,” says Sam.
They aim to sell around 50% of their wine direct from their premises, and the rest through local farm shops and delis.
Laura adds: “Nowadays people want to have local produce in their shops and we’ve already had so much support from local wine shops and other outlets in the area. People are willing to pay for English wine, so the demand is definitely there.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the U.K. in North Wales, located on the stunning slopes of the Nantlle Valley in Snowdonia, is Pant Du Vineyard and Orchard, run by Richard Huws and his wife Iola.
In 2003 the couple had bought what was then Pant Du farm whilst they were living in the neighboring village of Penygroes. At the time Huws was a director of photography in the film industry, for which he’d won a couple of BAFTAs, but when he spotted that the farm was up for sale he decided to invest in it for his son who was keen to go into farming.
He says: “It’s a 70-acre farm, and in 2003 it only had sheep and cattle; to be honest the place was in a bit of a mess when we took it on.”
Several years earlier he had visited New Zealand and its famous wine region of Marlborough, an experience that he says planted the seed of an idea to turn the farm, with its south-facing, sloping aspect into a vineyard. In 2007 they planted seven varieties of vines, and, at a time when cider had started trending, an orchard. Three years later they produced their first bottle of wine.
“Not all of the vines were successful,” says Huws. “After four years we had to give up on two of them, including the Bacchus that makes really nice English wine. We also planted English cider apple trees, but not all of them liked the wind and rain of the Snowdonia climate, so we planted native some apple trees here as well.”
Although there are other small vineyards in the area Pant Du was the first to be established on a commercial scale. At harvest time family and friends rally round to help, and the yield produces around 3,000 bottles every year.
Today Pant Du is a thriving business, with an on-site café and restaurant selling its own white, red and rose wine, cider, apple juice, and, thanks to the presence of a borehole on the site, their own natural spring water.
“We also sell our products to local restaurants delis and farm shops and we run tours of the vineyard,” says Huws. “My son is also working on the land now, so we have really kept the dream growing.”
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