England's Best Vineyards
Published by Alex Hurley on 11/04/2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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