Winemakers gather amazing grapes after late sunshine saves the harvest

Flint Vineyard directors Hannah Witchell, Adrian Hipwell and Ben Witchell on their vineyard in Earsh

Flint Vineyard directors Hannah Witchell, Adrian Hipwell and Ben Witchell have started the 2021 grape harvest in Earsham near Bungay - Credit: Danielle Booden

Winemakers across East Anglia are gathering some impressive grapes after a much-needed burst of autumn sunshine helped save the harvest.

The 2021 wine harvest is under way two or three weeks later than usual, after a cold start to the season which delayed the growth of fruit on the vines.

But a warm September helped accelerate the ripeness of the grapes - bringing back optimism for a good vintage.

This week Flint Vineyard, near the Norfolk-Suffolk border at Earsham, near Bungay, began picking its first Bacchus grapes of the year - one of the main varieties among its 26,000 vines.

Ben Witchell, director, hand picking grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Ben Witchell, director, hand picking grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Winemaker Ben Witchell, who runs the vineyard with his wife Hannah, said: "The positive message for East Anglia, and Norfolk in particular, is a really dry and warm September has accelerated the ripeness and we are picking some really good grapes.

"We had quite a slow start, with a lot of cold weather and rain at the beginning of the season, but actually the rain was quite good for getting the plants healthy and fertile.

"We are still two or three weeks behind where we would normally be, but we had a really dry and warm September and we are picking some really ripe Bacchus."

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The vineyard also grows pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes, and yield predictions carried out by weighing bunches over the last month suggest the firm will produce about 35,000 bottles of wine this year.

When asked if 2021 will be a vintage year, Mr Witchell said: "Who knows? All I know is that we had a very cold start to the season, so on paper it is not a stand-out year.

"But we have fared really well in East Anglia because we are very dry here so we have got some really clean ripe fruit, which looks fantastic. So I think 2021 is going to be a good year.

Grapes being hand picked at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Grapes being hand picked at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

"I think East Anglia is the most promising region in the whole of the UK. We are certainly the driest and we are producing the ripest grapes consistently.

"When you project forward with climate change, the East of England will warm up and that will be good for grapes - even if it is bad for everything else. Anywhere from South Norfolk down to Essex is the hotspot." 

Lee Dyer, of Winbirri Vineyard in Surlingham, is also optimistic about this year's wine after starting picking last Friday.

Winemaker Lee Dyer of Winbirri Vineyards at Surlingham

Winemaker Lee Dyer of Winbirri Vineyards at Surlingham - Credit: Antony Kelly

"Our earliest varieties came in absolutely perfect," he said "The Solaris was amazing, with brilliant sugar levels, much higher than last year.

"We are much later this year but we have got some really good grapes coming in. It was not an amazing start, and during the year was not great either, but we had an amazing September for the ripening and it is looking like we have a few really good days coming our way now.

"So it is all looking a lot more positive than it did six weeks ago."

Mr Dyer said he would much rather have a good finish to the season than a good start.

"You can have a perfect start to the season, but if it rains all September you've had it," he said "If you get a horrendous finish, it does not matter how much you have got hanging there, you will get wiped out with diseases.

"We want those good sugar levels, and we want the grape to be clean - if you get higher levels of any powdery mildewy residue on the grapes it will taint the wine."

The vineyard is currently finishing gathering its red Rondo grapes, and next week it will harvest the white Bacchus, which accounts for almost 40pc of Winbirri's 52,000 vines. 

Elsewhere in Norfolk, the Chet Valley Vineyard near Loddon has also started its harvest later than usual in October, and has deployed bird scarers including a brightly coloured kite to deter birds from the rapidly-ripening grapes.

The firm said the first "staff harvest" of Solaris grapes took place last week and "looks like a good vintage" as it ferments in the winery. The vineyard is preparing to welcome volunteers for its "public harvest" today.

Hannah Witchell, director, hand picking grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Boode

Hannah Witchell, director, hand picking grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Grapes still on the vine at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Grapes still on the vine at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Grapes being hand picked at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Grapes being hand picked at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Grapes from the vineyard being put onto some scales to be weighed at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Pict

Grapes from the vineyard being put onto some scales to be weighed at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Grapes being poured onto the sorting table at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Grapes being poured onto the sorting table at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Ollie Pugh, cellar hand, helping sort grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham. Picture: Danielle Booden

Ollie Pugh, cellar hand, helping sort grapes at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Bunches of grapes in the pneumatic membrane press at Flint Vineyard in Norwich. Picture: Danielle Bo

Bunches of grapes in the pneumatic membrane press at Flint Vineyard in Norwich - Credit: Danielle Booden

A tractor backing collecting grapes ready to go off to be pressed at Flint Vineyard in Earsham

A tractor collecting grapes ready to go off to be pressed at Flint Vineyard in Earsham - Credit: Danielle Booden


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