The grape escape: Why 2019 could be a vintage year for East Anglian wine, despite the downpours
2019 could be a vintage year for East Anglian wine, according to a viticulturist whose first commercial crop of grapes is among the best he has seen - despite the weather woes elsewhere in the country. CHRIS HILL reports.
Undaunted by recent downpours, an East Anglian vineyard is halfway through its first commercial grape harvest - and hopes are high for a memorable vintage this year.
Flint Vineyard was founded in 2016 by Ben and Hannah Witchell near the Norfolk-Suffolk border at Earsham, near Bungay, but this is the first year their young vines have matured enough to deliver a full crop of fruit for the winery.
While last year's long hot summer brought perfect conditions for Britain's fast-growing wine industry, this year's wetter weather has prompted problems for many vineyards in other parts of the country, hampering the harvest and leaving grapes at risk from disease.
But Mr Witchell said East Anglia had escaped the worst of the weather, and the juice being pressed in his winery this year is the "best we have ever seen", after grapes were gathered from across the region at his own vineyard, and from other supplier's vineyards in Mulbarton near Norwich and in the Crouch Valley in Essex.
"The grapes are looking great," he said. "We have been quite lucky in Norfolk. I think generally we have probably had some of the best weather in England this year. It has been quite dry, compared to the rest of the country. It started well at the beginning of the year, there was limited frost and quite a warm June, which was really good for flowering.
"We've had a little bit of rain, but although everyone thinks 2018 was the best year in the world it was too dry last year, so actually having a bit of rain has been quite helpful, particularly on the younger vines.
"This is our first commercial harvest this year and the grapes were the ripest of all the grapes we have seen this year. The juice we are pressing from the grapes in our winery this year, I think, is the best we have ever seen. I am really impressed with it, the quality has been great."
Mr Witchell said the only "serious rain" which the vineyard had to deal with was last weekend's 70mm deluge, which came after most of its bacchus grapes had been gathered but also left enough time for the remaining pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes to recover.
"Heavy rainfall like that has the potential to dilute the sugars and the acids, but we've got some nice dry weather now so the grapes are drying out, which is great," he said. "If it stays dry and we have weather like this, we still have the potential to have some good ripening conditions.
"We had a month's worth of rain in a day, so we just said we won't pick within a few days of that. I would rather have a month's worth of rain in a day than two months' worth in a month."
Mr Witchell said the near-perfect conditions last summer would have laid the foundations for a potentially large crop load this year, which will have needed careful management and "green harvesting" to pick off grapes before they were ripe to keep the optimum stocks on the vine.
"For me the main issue for 2019 is people trying to manage their yields," he said. "After a brilliant year you can have slightly too high crop levels the following year. That's was one of the dangers we faced in 2019, so depending on how the vineyards themselves have handled those heavy crop loads it will affect the grapes they have got."
About a quarter of the winery's grapes will have been grown at Earsham this year, with the rest coming from their existing suppliers at Humbleyard in Mulbarton, and Martin's Lane Vineyard near Chelmsford.
The Witchells hope to boost production to the point where half or two thirds of their grapes come from their own vineyard in the coming years, with the number of vines being picked due to rise from 15,000 to 26,000 as newer plants become established enough to deliver a commercial crop.
In total, the vineyard expects to process 40 tonnes of grapes this year, making around 32,000 bottles of wine.