• Simon Reilly

How to plant a vineyard in England

This year it is estimated that up to one million new vines will be planted in the UK.

Meanwhile, heavy frost hit vineyards across many European wine growing regions last week. Some producers in Bordeaux’s right bank lost up to 90% of their crop and it is thought that on average 25% of Champagne’s crop was lost to last week’s cold snap, despite many winemakers resorting to lighting heaters in the vineyards to combat the sub-zero temperatures.

But it is not only frost that the UK’s winemakers need to consider when selecting vineyard sites.

According to Essex based vineyard consultant Duncan McNeill, vineyards in the south of England will take on average 2-3 weeks longer to reach the optimum level of ripeness than vineyards in Northern France, like Champagne or Burgundy. Picking early is not really an option, as these last 2-3 weeks of ripening is when a lot of the action happens. Duncan expects to achieve about 3-4% of the wine’s alcohol content in this period, which is essential to the balance of the final product.

This equation is quite simple, the longer the hang time, the greater the risk that something goes wrong. If the frost doesn’t get you in April or May, you’ll still need to guard against fungal disease and rot later in the growing season.

I met Duncan last week at the official launch of the planting of a new vineyard in Sussex, the Mannings Heath Golf Club and Wine Estate near Horsham. He is the vineyard consultant working with Mannings Heath’s South African owners Benguela Cove. The Mannings Heath estate is being transformed from a traditional member’s golf club with an 18 hole and 12 hole course, to a golf and wine tourist destination. Three of the holes on the 12-hole course have been given up to be planted with vines.

With the Mannings Heath development, Benguela Cove’s CEO Penny Streeter is looking to create “a wine, foodie and golf experience”, hoping to replicate the success they have had with this wine tourism model at their 200 hectare estate in the Walker Bay region of South Africa, an hour’s drive or so west of Cape Town.

Last Wednesday the first vines of Pinot Meunier were ceremoniously planted, including one by me. I’m sure it will be one of the best on the plot…

The planting is limited to the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Only sparkling wines will be produced, to keep the focus on the quality of the production. The planting is expected to have its first harvest in 2020, with the first commercial release earmarked for 2023, with Benguela Cove’s South African winemaker Johann Fourie overseeing the winemaking process.

So, apart from getting me in to plant one of the first vines, what does Duncan McNeill think is the secret to planting successful vineyard in England?

His simple approach to vineyard selection is to looks for 3 vital characteristics:

  1. Low altitude. Find a site that is less than 100m above sea level – the Mannings Heath plot is between 65-95m above sea level, so fits well into this equation.

  2. Shelter from the wind. His ideal plot has woodland surrounding it, or some other sort of natural barrier, like a hill. Again Mannings Heath has a wooded hill at the foot of the vineyard which provides shelter from the strong south-westerly winds.

  3. Avoid flat sites. Again, Mannings Heath has a nice gentle slope (see picure of the vineyard below).

Beyond these three rules of selection, Duncan does use a couple of other tricks when planting a vineyard to protect the grapes.

The first is to leave an unplanted area at the bottom of the hill where moist air tends to collect, thus increasing the risk of fungal disease or rot. Quite simply, if there ain’t any vines there, they ain’t going to rot.

The second trick is an effort to combat frost. We all know from our school science lessons that hot air rises, so the bottom part of the vineyard tends to be the coolest and therefore most at risk of frost. To combat this Duncan plants the most frost resistant variety in that area of the vineyard, in this case Pinot Meunier.

He may be good at planting vineyards, but Duncan can’t control the weather, so this trick not full proof. But he does have some simple advice for those looking to plant a frost-proof vineyard;

“If you want to avoid frost, don’t plant vines on a frost prone site!”

You heard it here first.