Norfolk could make a better sparkling wine than Champagne, says owner of expanding Chet Valley vineyard
PUBLISHED: 19:24 05 May 2019 | UPDATED: 19:24 05 May 2019
A warming climate and the maturing expertise of the region's wine growers could make East Anglia's sparkling wine better than Champagne in the years to come.
This bold claim comes from an expanding south Norfolk vineyard which expects to more than double its production in the next three years – part of a national wine-making boom which has buoyed the industry with confidence.
It follows a milestone year for the industry, in which the hot summer led to a bumper grape harvest, and vineyard acreages across the country increased by 13pc in 2018.
Industry analysts say a further two million vines will be planted this year, making viticulture one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in the UK.
And one example of this growth can be found at the Chet and Waveney Valley Vineyard in Bergh Apton, near Loddon, established in 2010 by John Hemmant.
His original vines grow Phoenix and Seyval Blanc grapes for his award-winning sparkling wines, Regent as an “all-rounder”, and the aromatic Schönburger and Solaris for white wines.
But the newer plantings over the last two years, which have taken the vineyard up to 20 acres in size, have included Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meurnier – the grapes used in Champagne.
By the time they bear fruit, they will be processed in an expanded new winery currently under construction, which will take annual production from the current 8,000 bottles to around 20,000 in the next three years.
And Mr Hemmant hopes to improve on the quality which has already won a decanter world wine award for his sparkling white Horatio – which is double fermented in the bottle using the same method as Champagne – while the pink blush version also won the East Anglian Wine Association award for the best sparkling wine in East Anglia in 2018.
“I personally believe the English and Welsh wine industry is well-placed to produce a high-quality sparkling wine, because we have the acidity of the grapes and a good balance of alcohol,” he said. “We have a similar climate to the Champagne region. With global warming we are becoming more like Champagne but they are having difficulties getting the acidity into the wine because the temperatures are getting warmer.
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“The climate is definitely warming. About 30 years ago I had a small vineyard which was a nightmare to run because we had such wet autumns. “But now, while we get more fungal attack in the late season, it does seem to be much easier to grow the grapes.
“During that 30 years there have been a lot of clones developed, variants of varieties, which have been developed to optimise our climate, so they may be fungal-resistant or early ripening. But we are on the fringe so you are always going to get a variation of vintage at this latitude.”
Mr Hemmant said although setting up a vineyard is capital-intensive up-front, and growers must wait four years for their first useful grape crop, the industry appealed to a wide variety of potential investors, drawn to its “romance” and potential tourism appeal.
“I think it is romantic,” he said. “There are people like senior partners in law firms and hedge fund managers see that it is a growing industry and they want to be part of it. It is a good story to be producing your own wine with a particular character, and it is an expanding market, so everyone is interested.”
A GROWING INDUSTRY
A survey of the UK wine industry, conducted by its national association Wines of Great Britain (WineGB), confirmed that a record-breaking 15.6m bottles were produced in 2018, 130pc higher than the previous year's crop in 2017 and far exceeding the previous record of 6.3m bottles in 2014.
More production is forecast in the years to come due to the ongoing proliferation of vineyards across the country. Other findings include:
• Vineyard acreage has trebled since 2000. There are now 2,888 hectares under vine in Great Britain, of which 126ha are in East Anglia.
• Acreage grew 13% last year; 1.6 million vines were planted in 2018 amounting to over 1,000 acres (405 hectares).
• Most of the acreage is now planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Bacchus grapes, which between them account for 76pc of all plantings.
• The trend in sparkling wine production continues, accounting for 69pc of wines produced.