Alex hurley

Alex Hurley

England's Best Vineyards

Wondering where you'll find England's best vineyards? Roberson winemaker Alex Hurley looks at what science can tell us. Many vineyard regions are adjusting to the challenges of a warming climate. In England this has opened the door to an exciting opportunity to explore our own terroir. We have historically been a large wine consuming nation and remain one of the most important wine markets in the world, yet now we have an opportunity to produce our own world-class wines. This growing industry is particularly intriguing as our viticulturists can follow their own passion free from any historical baggage. This unique situation has turned the UK into one of the world’s most exciting wine regions. As a relatively new wine producing country, we are still learning where we can produce great wines. You may have noticed vineyards popping up everywhere from Kent to Wales. Unlike many traditional wine regions, such as Mosel, Burgundy & Champagne, who have had 100s of years of exploration and vine selection, in England this adventure is just starting. STRAP YOURSELF IN… HERE COMES THE SCIENCE Whilst experimentation and growing vineyards where we like is one way to find the best sites, this takes many years and will inevitably result in some low-quality failed developments. On the other hand, with a scientific approach, we can assess vineyard suitability linked to soil type, aspect and climatic parameters, finding sites which will have less risk of frost, lower disease pressure, and where it is easier to ripen the grapes and produce first-class wines. Based on a study by Dr A. Nesbitt in 2018, the potential prime viticulture land in the UK is around 33,700 ha. Most of these regions are based in Kent, West and East Sussex, Essex and Suffolk. While this is certainly a significant area of suitable land for vineyards, on the scale of Champagne, it is interesting to understand what makes these sites suitable. SOIL When explaining the aromas and taste of a wine, the first point wine commentators like to present is the soil type of the vineyard, such as clay, chalky or loamy soils, and perhaps how similar it is to other regions in the world. Whilst this is certainly interesting, the soil type is just one element that defines the quality of a vineyard site. Factors such as vineyard aspect and slope, site drainage, quantity and intensity of sunshine, susceptibility to frost, and rainfall are just as important. SUNSHINE The amount of sunshine is an obvious requirement for the development of healthy plants. A vineyard site needs enough sunlight hours during the growing season to successfully ripen the grapes. The vines convert the energy of the sun through photosynthesis into sugars which feed its growth and development. These sugars fuel the growth of the vine, make their way into the berry and subsequently are fermented in the cellar into alcohol. A grapevine without enough sunshine or leaves to catch the sunshine will ultimately not produce quality grapes. In these cases, the resulting vine will be poorly supplied, the grapes will not ripen, and the wine will have an unwanted green and vegetal character. In fact, each vine variety has specific climatic requirements. The optimum amount of sunlight hours per day, growing season average temperatures, the slope of the parcel, the canopy system, differences in day and night time temperatures, and the orientation of the vineyard will change variety to variety and even clone to clone. This explains why many of the vines planted in the UK from the 1970s were early ripening hybrids such as Reichensteiner, Müller-Thurgau and Bacchus, as these varieties ripen earlier and require fewer sunlight hours to achieve maturity. More recently as the climate has warmed, Champagne grape clones have been extensively planted throughout the UK. These vines are well adapted to growing in cooler climates and, due to the lower sugar requirement of sparkling wine, can be produced with exceptionally quality in the UK. In the last few years, particularly the warm 2018 vintage, the ability to ripen still wine clones such as Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones has also become a reality in the UK. Whilst quality will vary vintage to vintage, the climatic trend implies that achieving ripeness with these varieties will continue to become easier. There may even be a day where grapes like the early ripening Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot could be planted and achieve maturity, but we are still many years from this. FROST Another key consideration in finding the best vineyard sites in England is their exposure to frost. When the vines are breaking dormancy due to the warming weather of spring, the buds and shoots will start to emerge. These shoots are delicate and very sensitive to damage by frost. To make things a little more complicated, the buds actually consist of 3 or more potential shoots. The first shoot is the most developed and will have the highest fertility, while the secondary and tertiary buds, which the vines will utilise after a frost event, have dramatically lower fertility. Frost has dire significance for grape growers as these less developed buds will produce fewer grapes per hectare. Consequently, the probability and intensity of frost events in April and May must be considered when you have the goal of producing great wines year in year out. Vineyard sites in flat, low lying areas are obvious examples which should be avoided and sites with a slight slope and known to be sheltered to some degree from frost should be sought after. RAINFALL AND… BACK TO SOIL The final important factor we must consider in order to locate England’s best vineyard sites is the amount of rainfall throughout the year, critically during the growing season. Vines need water for photosynthesis, transporting nutrients from the soil throughout the vine, and to regulate temperature. However, excess water in the soil can waterlog the vine’s roots and stunt their growth and development. Going full circle back to the topic of the soil type, the real importance of soil type in the vineyard is typically associated with its water holding capacity and drainage. Another point regarding rainfall throughout the growing season is that it will increase the humidity in the vine canopy and the likelihood of diseases, such as Downy Mildew. Regions with high rainfall during the growing season will have a larger incidence of canopy challenges and will require more intervention and chemicals. In England the East Coast is known to have a much lower rainfall than the West, with the regions in the South East having the most suitable amount of rainfall during the growing season. SO WHERE ARE ENGLAND’S BEST VINEYARDS? Considering the soils, sunlight, frost, and rainfall helps us to identify the most suitable vineyards regions in the UK. However, it will still take many years as the industry matures to sort the wheat from the chaff. Currently, Essex, Kent, and Sussex are well established and for good reason. From the start of spring, these regions have a lower chance of frost events, less rainfall during the growing season, and have the most suitable amount of sunshine in the UK. It should be no surprise that many of England’s most acclaimed vineyards are found in these regions, including Roberson's new English producer, Simpsons Wine Estate, and the vineyards that supply fruit for Roberson's own wines, London Cru. Of course this doesn't preclude great wines being made elsewhere in the UK - just that, due to climatic conditions, it'll be trickier to do it consistently. The English wine industry’s future is very promising and ultimately, we will be a producer of world-class wines with a real sense of place. Just watch us.


Alex hurley

Alex Hurley

In Addition

Alex Hurley, Roberson Wine's Assistant Winemaker, takes a deeper look into what goes into our wines. They put what in my wine? With ‘Veganuary’ more popular than ever this year, many of us spent last month deeply considering our food choices. This magnifying glass can also be applied to the production of wine, which sometimes involves the inclusion of products that are not in line with vegetarianism or veganism. Drinking wine romantically conjures up images of picturesque vineyards, musty cellars full of barrels, and passionate winemakers. Whilst this idealistic representation of wine helps us connect with the product, it shouldn’t be overlooked that in the production of every bottle there are hundreds of viticultural and enological decisions impacting how the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Some grape growers and winemakers approach grapes with their hands in the air. These are the minimal interventionists, who allow the wines to set their own course. This hands-off approach can result in some astonishingly fabulous wines; wines which speak of their place, their grape, and the personality of the winery. This winemaking method, however, does have its risk and many examples find their way to the table with severe problems. These faulty wines struggle to represent their variety or vineyard, but rather speak of wildness where the hard work with the vines, the vitality of the soil, the climatic influences of the vintage, as well as efforts in the cellar are whitewashed by off-aromas, haze, or poor balance. This is where a winemaker’s knowledge of chemistry and microbiology enters the arena. From fruit arrival to bottling, a winemaker’s responsibility is to guide the process to ensure that the best wine possible is created from the grapes. This involves making thoughtful enological decisions which fit with the wine style and winery ethos. As part of this process, whether a wine is conventional, organic, or biodynamic, non-grape products, commonly referred to as ‘additions’, are regularly used and added into the wine. These additions have a purpose such as improving the wines clarity, protecting from oxidation, improving shelf-life stability and age-ability, softening or reducing astringency and bitterness, or preventing unwanted yeast and bacteria from hijacking the wine. One such traditional method of wine clarification was, for example, to add egg whites into barrels of red wine. The proteins in the egg white helps to attract and settle out tannins and solids in the wine and helps the wine to become more palatable. The challenge for the consumer, however, is to get to the bottom of what was used to make a specific bottle of wine. For vegans, vegetarians and people with allergies, this point is perhaps a little more critical as many of these products are derived from animal sources such as eggs, fish, cow’s milk, and gelatine. Whether or not these products have been used can be difficult to answer, so it is the best course for vegans to source accredited vegan appropriate wines. Another option would be to contact producers directly as many wines which are not explicitly labelled as vegan would, in fact, fit the criteria. The good news in this area of winemaking is that many producers are now taking heed of the growing demand for vegan-friendly wines. There are now effective substitutable products in the market place which can be used with similar impact. We've taken the hard work out of finding vegan wines by putting them all in a handy collection. Browse the vegan wine collection now.


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