A recent industry report (2022–2023) from trade body Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) highlighted news from Defra that vineyards are England’s fastest-growing edible crop sector, with wine grapes representing 36% of England’s small fruit crop area.
Wine Standards/WineGB figures also paint a rosy picture of growth, with Britain’s wine production increasing from 5.3m bottles in 2017 to 12.2m in 2022. At the time of the report, 943 vineyards accounted for 3,928ha under vine – a hectarage increase of 74% in five years. WineGB projects that 7,600ha will be under vine by 2032, yielding a potential 24.7m bottles.
The domestic winemaking sector in England and Wales is small in a UK market worth more than £10bn in sales (2022). However, upward domestic trends have been rapid, as knowledge, skills and technology have raised viticultural standards and the quality and reputation of English and Welsh wines rise. Wine tourism and local production values chime well with consumer demand for experience-based activities and sustainability.
Three CLA members share their insights into the reality, challenges and opportunities of running a vineyard.
The Vale of York may not be the first place you would associate with winegrowing, but is home to Dunesforde, an award-winning four-acre boutique vineyard that is one of the most northerly sites in the UK. The Townsend family planted vines in 2016 and launched their debut wines in October 2019.
Inspired to get into viticulture by time spent in Tuscany, the Townsends looked at many potential sites but settled in their home village of Upper Dunsforth when land became available. The discovery of local Roman heritage and wine-growing traditions added to the draw.
With no previous viticulture experience, the family relied on consultants to investigate the location’s feasibility, says Head of Wine Peter Townsend. His older brother also started studying viticulture at Plumpton College in East Sussex. “The idea was to be sustainable, and we thought: four acres, 6,000 vines, around 10,000 to 12,000 bottles a year would work,” Peter says.
Expert reports ranging from aspect to altitude, soil type and average temperatures and rainfall encouraged them to go ahead, with Bacchus, Solaris, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir Précoce identified as suitable grape varieties. The site’s sheltered nature means it can be a little warmer than surrounding areas – crucial this far north.
Local volunteers help with the harvest and a contract winemaker is used, with Peter giving direction on how he wants wines to develop. “We make 50:50 still and sparkling wines, with whites dominating.”
Harvests have varied. “Last year, we got 17 tonnes of grapes, and the year before we got nine; this year, we got 14.5 tonnes, from which we will make 11,000 to 12,000 bottles of wine. Some of the difference is down to the vines maturing, but we think it is mostly down to variable weather, which is our biggest challenge.”
Late frosts and timely sunshine affect the balance of grape sugars and acidity, making winemaking a complex operation. On the popular notion that a hotter climate could benefit UK grape production, Peter points out that more extreme and less beneficial weather conditions are also associated with climate change, “creating more uncertainty and making the biggest challenge we have more challenging.”
A thriving visitor business adds resilience to the venture, with tours and tastings, an outside terrace and wine bar, and rooms for hire and to host events. Most of the wine produced is sold direct-to-consumer, but as the business develops, the family aims to supply more hotels and restaurants.
Peter’s advice to others is: find the right site, do your research and get expert advice. Initial set-up costs are high, there is a long time to wait for results, and making changes later will be very difficult.
Ancre Hill Estates
Richard and Joy Morris set up award-winning Ancre Hill Estates in Monmouthshire in 2006, starting with three acres and extending to 30 across two sites. Their on-site winery produces up to 50,000 bottles of biodynamic and organic wine a year.
The couple’s interest in vineyards flourished during their travels abroad after Richard sold his transport and logistics business. He completed a one-year diploma in viticulture at Plumpton College and “researched passionately”. He says: “Running a vineyard is hard work, and you need to look at all the processes: planting, making, selling.”
Ancre Hill Estates’ south-facing vineyards are sheltered by surrounding hills, and have comparatively low rainfall and good drainage. “The ancient mudstone and sandstone soils are rich and vigorous, and that terroir comes through in the wines.”
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Solaris grapes are grown to produce sparkling and still wines. The business also grows Triomphe for lightly fizzy pét-nat and Albariño for orange wine.
“Being Welsh, biodynamic and producing pét-nat and orange wine helps to differentiate us from other vineyards,” Richard says. “Both wines are popular with younger people, who also tend to be more aware of sustainability and the environment.
“Being organic and biodynamic was the right thing for us. It is a different, not a more difficult, approach, and it is a misperception that you are more likely to be impacted by disease or mildew.”
Biodynamic methods include the use of wild plant tisanes (no synthetic chemicals) in the vineyard and fermentations solely carried out by wild yeasts and bacteria in the winery, overseen by winemaker Jean Du Plessis. The business has been Demeter accredited since 2014.
Richard is involved in the industry-led Welsh Wines Strategy, launched with Welsh Government support in 2022, which aims to boost quality, skills, wine tourism and the Welsh wine identity.
“As a young industry, we have a big opportunity to develop and create an identity in the world,” he says.
I would love for more vineyards to be organic, biodynamic or regenerative. That is the direction I think we should be going in
Richard and Joy are in the process of downsizing, selling their farm and 20-acre vineyard site – an opportunity for someone else to take it forward, with or without Richard’s help. Retaining the 10-acre site with the winery, Richard will produce less, but he wants to travel and attend more trade shows, focusing on sales, branding and finance.
In addition to existing UK and overseas markets, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada, he has the US and Scandinavia in his sights. “Scandinavia loves English wines; we haven’t scratched the surface there yet.”
For those who only want to grow grapes, there is growing interest and opportunities for contract growers, according to Henry Sugden, founder and CEO of Kent-based contract winery Defined Wine.
“We get approached by people who have a brand, are clear on where they think they can sell wine, and are looking for grapes. Contract growing can be a good diversification for farmers if they have a suitable site, particularly where it can be inter-layered with picking other crops.
“If not picking other top fruit by hand, you need to consider whether you can set up for machine harvesting. Also focus on what grape varieties are wanted, not what is easiest to grow, before committing to 25 years’ worth of capital investment.”
He advises contacting local wineries to see if grapes are needed and enter into a long-term contract. “Do a business plan to ensure that the amount grown is commercially viable.”
Henry believes that while our changing climate is marginal for grapes, and England and Wales lack the economies of scale available to larger operators abroad, ever-increasing quality and sustainability are key selling points.
“English wine is only about 1% of all the wine drunk in the UK, so we should aspire to get that up to 5% – although it will not be easy, especially on price. Our sparkling wines are world class and we can consistently deliver light, refreshing still white and rosés.”