Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 00:01 UK

English wineries toast big harvest

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, West Sussex

Chardonnay grapes at Nyetimber vineyard

Bathed in warm autumnal sunshine, the vineyard could be anywhere in France.

Row after row of vines stretch down the gentle south-facing slope towards the rolling hills in the distance, each plant hung heavy with big bunches of ripe grapes.

With not a cloud in the bright blue sky, and the 150 grape pickers of all ages happily sitting on the grass at the top of the field to eat their packed lunch, laughing and gossiping, the romance of wine-making is intoxicating.

Only this is not France. It is West Sussex in south-east England. In the middle of October.

In scenes replicated across all 116 wineries in England, the industry is continuing to harvest its largest ever annual crop of grapes.

Blessed by warm, dry weather during the vital flowering period at the end of June and early July, and September's "Indian summer", English winemakers say they have never seen grapes of such quantity and quality.

In my 22 years in the business, this is the best crop I can remember
Nyetimber vineyard manager Paul Woodrow-Hill

And following weak harvests in both 2008 and 2007 due to wet weather at the wrong times, it is a welcome boost for an industry that is trying to raise production to meet the big increase in demand for its wines.

As the pickers at the Nyetimber vineyard in West Sussex return to work, moving steadily up the lines of vines with their clippers and baskets, the winery's vineyard manager, Paul Woodrow-Hill, says nature has certainly been kind this year.

"In my 22 years in the business, this is the best crop I can remember," he says, as teams of other workers on small tractors move up and down the vines to collect the full baskets of picked red and white grape bunches.

"The weather has been ideal, and the grapes have the perfect balance of ripeness and acidity that we need.

"Some years it can be a struggle to keep the grapes disease-free, but this year the grapes are very, very healthy."

Rising sales

The bumper grape harvest comes as English wine is more popular than ever.

Trade body English Wine Producers estimates that over the past 10 years total annual sales have almost doubled from £10.6m in 1999 to a predicted £20m this year.

Grape pickers at Nyetimber vineyard
With 350 acres being picked at Nyetimber there is work for 150 people

Supermarket chain Waitrose, meanwhile, says sales of English wine in its stores have increased 51% over the past year alone, led by the growing popularity of English sparkling wines.

So why the big rise? Ask anyone in the industry and the answer is the same - a vast improvement in quality is continuing to win over more and more drinkers.

"Certainly, the quality across the industry is much better," says Bob Lindo, owner of Camel Valley winery in Cornwall.

"When I started out 20 years ago, most producers were making their wine in their garages as a hobby. Since then there has been a huge amount of investment, and people have got trained.

"This has transformed the industry, making it very professional, and greatly increasing the quality of the wines. As a result, the best wines in the industry are now continuing to win global awards."

And the prices just keep on coming. In this year's influential International Wine Challenge awards, English winemakers won 24 medals across gold, silver, bronze and commended levels - their best performance yet.

Nyetimber bottle and glasses
English wines such as Nyetimber have won a host of awards

While this trails France's haul of 49 gold medals alone, the English wine industry is tiny in comparison, being just 0.02% of the size. France produced 6.5 million tonnes of wine in 2005, compared with just 1,450 tonnes in the UK.

English wines have also been helped by rising temperatures during the last 20 years, Mr Lindo adds.

"The argument over whether there is global warming is not one for me to get involved with, but we have certainly seen temperatures rise over the past two decades," he says.

This has also helped English winemakers further improve quality by switching to the best-known grape varieties praised for their flavour, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, rather than the Germanic varieties of old that were grown more for their resilience to cold weather than taste.

Profit challenge

Yet while English winemakers can win awards, making a profit from their business still remains a challenge.

Nyetimber owner Eric Heerema
We have invested heavily in growing the business and have a target of producing one million bottles per annum
Nyetimber owner Eric Heerema

Back at Nyetimber, which has won a host of prizes for its sparkling wines that are made in exactly the same way as champagne from the same three grape varieties, owner Eric Heerema admits making the firm profitable remains a long-term aim.

With 350 acres of vineyards across West Sussex and Hampshire, it is England's largest winery, with 45 permanent members of staff, yet it still relies upon wealthy beneficiary Mr Heerema, a Dutchman who made his fortune in asset management.

"Our annual turnover is a few hundred thousand [pounds], but the business will be loss-making for quite a few years to come. We are relaxed about this," he says.

"We have invested heavily in growing the business and have a target of producing one million bottles per annum, compared with the estimated 500,000 this year, and our historic average of 70,000.

"It is simply more expensive to make wine in England than, say, France. Due to the cooler weather, our yields [of grapes] can be half as much; and we won't compromise on quality.

"It is a passion, and the cooler weather is perfect for growing grapes for sparkling wine, as you don't actually want them to be over-ripe."

Outside Nyetimber's winery, tractors continue to pull in trailers piled high with baskets full of grapes, which have been arriving now for two weeks.

The fruit is then gently machine pressed - filling the air with a wonderful perfume - before being fermented in batches.

While the first still English wines from this year's harvest will be available by April next year, Nyetimber has to show a lot more patience.

This is because it only makes sparkling wines, which it currently cellars in the bottle for a minimum of five years.

More time than most champagnes are given, this creates a natural fizz and allows the flavours to mellow and improve.

"We don't like to rush these things," smiles Mr Heerema.

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