Grape expectations for East Anglia’s wine industry

Sisters Sam (left) and Laura Robinson are planting a new vineyard at Crossways Farm in North Creake.

Sisters Sam (left) and Laura Robinson are planting a new vineyard at Crossways Farm in North Creake. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Two new vineyards are being established in East Anglia this week as the region's wine-making reputation continues to benefit from a warming climate and rising consumer demand.

Ben & Hannah Witchell at Flint Vineyard, near Bungay. ©Simon Buck 2016

Ben & Hannah Witchell at Flint Vineyard, near Bungay. ©Simon Buck 2016 - Credit: ©Simon Buck 2016

It may not have the romantic provenance of Bordeaux, Beaujolais or Champagne – at least, not yet.

But East Anglia's reputation as a grape-growing region has been gathering strength in recent years, aided by a warming climate and a burgeoning demand for English wine.

And two new vineyards established this week are testament to the ambition of the region's winemakers who are making long-term investments in the future of this industry as they seek to challenge their illustrious competitors from across the Channel.

Among them are sisters Laura and Samantha Robinson, who have planted 17,000 vines in the last two days on a four-hectare field of their father John's land at Crossways Farm in North Creake.

Pinot Noir grapes. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Pinot Noir grapes. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The business plan for Burn Valley Vineyard is a 10-year vision, with grapes harvested from year four onwards and the ultimate goal of producing own-label wine on site in a custom-made winery, along with café and restaurant.

So it will be some time before there is a return on the initial investment of £150,000, including a specialised tractor and sprayer to deal with the narrow 2.2m rows, planted every metre with vines – most of which are Pinot Noir or Chardonnay varieties, but also including Fruehburgunder, Bacchus, Schonburger, Seyval Blanc, Solaris, Regent and Rondo.

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About two thirds of the vines will be for sparkling wine production and the rest for still wines.

Laura, 37, said: 'Our vision is to create an outstanding sparkling wine that showcases the north Norfolk terroir.

'This is very much a family operation and it is something for the future. The vines have a life-span of 25-30 years and we want them to sustain a livelihood for our children for years to come.

'It is a long-term investment to start with. I want to try and bring in a bit of money before year four and five and create interest in the vineyard by running small tours, doing a pruning session followed by a meal and a talk.'

There has already been a significant investment of time in the project, with temperature records scoured to assess the suitability of the field, which has been monitored with a thermometer for the last 18 months to assess the suitability of the micro-climate.

The flinty chalk soil was analysed and found to be weakly alkaline, with some small corrections needed to the magnesium and phosphorus levels.

Laura's research included an intensive course at Plumpton College, in Sussex – the UK's wine research centre – and she has also acquired an allotment vineyard with 80 established vines to boost her management experience and grow grapes with which to hone her wine-making skills.

Her sister Samantha, 31, who has recently returned to the family farm after four years working as an English teacher in Vietnam, is also looking to attend wine courses and will take on a marketing and publicity role as the company develops.

She said: 'It was an amazing experience, but it was time to come home. This (the vineyard) was definitely a big factor, but family was the main reason for coming back.

'Our father came up with the idea of the vineyard following trips to France with his partner (Val Mack). We were excited about it straight away.'

Laura's partner Steve Newsome, a chef with a catering company, is also featured in the long-term plans for the cafe and tourist area.

The vineyard is located on a south-facing slope close to the north Norfolk coast, which not only protects it from damaging frosts, but also opens up markets and tourism opportunities from nearby places like Burnham Market and Holkham.

It has been established under the guidance of Duncan McNeill, a viticulturist based in Chelmsford, who oversaw the planting operations this week.

'The best part of the country to grow grapes is East Anglia, but that's not widely known yet,' he said. 'The stereotypical image of England is that it rains all the time, but parts of East Anglia are drier than parts of France. Norfolk is not only warmer than Sussex or Kent, but what we have here is generally lower rainfall as well, so there is less threat to the crop from fungal diseases.

'Within England as a whole it is really taking off. The vineyard area doubled between 2007 and 2013, from 1,000 to almost 2,000ha, and we envisage that will be 3,000ha by 2020.

'Over the last 30 years the start of the grape harvest has come forward by about three weeks, which means the growing season is three weeks longer.

'We have the climate now which they used to have in the Champagne region in the 1980s. That's all due to climate change.

'This feels like a good site. Fifteen years ago you never would have thought about putting vines in this far north for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But now people are willing to pay for English wine. It is not just the climate change. It is the demand.'

Funding boost for Waveney wines

Another of East Anglia's newest grape-growers is due to plant its vines this weekend following the award of a £42,000 towards the creation of its state-of-the art winery and visitor centre.

Flint Vineyard, based in the Waveney Valley at Earsham, near Bungay, secured the money from the Leader programme, a European funding initiative managed by Norfolk County Council's rural programmes team.

Founders Ben and Hannah Witchell expect the first grapes from their 2.5ha vineyard to be ready in 2019, and their ambitions include converting farm buildings into a visitor centre and tasting room to attract visitors to experience the 'increasingly serious wines being produced in East Anglia'.

The grant will enable the company to install the latest winery technology including temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and other innovations such as inert gas storage to help preserve the aromatic qualities of the wine.

Mrs Witchell said Flint plans to its doors to the public for tours and tastings in 2017. She said having lived and worked on vineyards around the world, the pair have experience of wine tourism and see huge potential for their vineyard, which lies just off the A143, one of the routes to The Broads and Norfolk's coast.

'The Waveney Valley is gaining a reputation for its artisan food and drink thanks to producers such as Grain Brewery and Fen Farm Dairy,' she said. 'We hope to collaborate with other local artisan producers and create food and drink routes for visitors to the region to showcase what we have to offer.'

Flint was conceived in partnership with local farmer Adrian Hipwell, following a chance meeting which revealed a parcel of his farm's land was potentially suited to grape-growing. 18 months later, 12,000 vines of Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are arriving from Germany, where they have been grown to order. While waiting for its own vines to reach full production, the company will source the best local grapes and expects to begin making wine this autumn.

Climate change

The idea of climate change turning the UK into a viable wine-making region may have boosted the industry in recent years – but sharp frosts, cold snaps and downpours threaten productivity, according to researchers at the UEA.

The study says year-to-year climate variability and hazardous weather at key points in the growing season leave the industry highly sensitive to the elements.

It also suggests that fashionable varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir are more susceptible to UK climate variability than traditional varieties.

Researchers from UEA studied the UK's main grape-growing regions and looked at the relationships between temperature, rainfall, extreme weather events and yield. They also surveyed wine producers for their views on the role of climate change in the success of English wine.

Lead researcher Alistair Nesbitt, from the UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, said: 'The UK has been warming faster than the global average since 1960 and eight of the warmest years in the last century have occurred since 2002. Producers recognised the contribution of climate change to the sectors recent growth, but also expressed concerns about threats posed by changing conditions.'

Mr Nesbitt said high-quality wine grapes grow best with an average growing season temperature in the range of 13-21 degrees but, even within this range, there are other factors at play.

'Since 1993, the average southern England growing season temperature has consistently been above 13 degrees and since 1989 there have been 10 years where the temperature was 14 degrees or higher, up to 2013,' he said. 'This is around the same temperature as the sparkling wine-producing region in Champagne during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

'However by comparison, UK wine yields are very low. In Champagne, yields can be more than 10,000 litres per hectare, but in the UK, it is around 2,100 on average.'