VINEYARDS ARE thriving in hotter summers and a marketing push has helped win over consumers, but the warming climate brings sustainability challenges for the industry.
In summer, the nights get longer, the water gets warmer, the drinks get colder and life gets better. Especially if you produce Englis wine, it seems.
“When I started, we were growing varieties like müller-thurgau, used to make Liebfraumilch, seyval blanc, and reichensteiner – all of which are cool-climate grapes. The problem is that they make German-type wines which are not so popular here,” said Stephen Skelton. “Pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier had been tried but failed.”
But then in the 1990s things changed and it became warm enough. In the last few years, said Skelton, alcohol levels of 13-14% are evidence of that change. “We have warmer nights, so leaves warm up faster in the morning and make sugars for more hours per day.”
Met Office data shows that night and daytime July temperatures are rising, and so is wine production: over 3,500 acres this year compared with 1,300 in 1989, according to English Wine Producers. Britain’s biggest wine producer, Chapel Down Group, has just predicted a bumper crop next year, after a couple of years of rain-affected harvests.
While there has been no in-depth study on viticulture and climate in the UK, the more established producers have noticed a “very definite change in climate” and that is playing a part in the development of viticulture on these shores, explains Julia Trustram Eve, the marketing director at English Wine Producers.
But this “revolution” in the past couple of decades is down to more than just the weather, she adds. “There’s a very, very positive feeling towards English wines now. The bar was set last year with the jubilee and the Olympics” but sales and interest “have been growing for a number of years.”
Investment by the tourism sector and government has helped to develop awareness of English food and drink. Figures released by the Foreign Office this summer showed that, for the first time, more English wine was drunk at government hospitality events than wine from any other nation. The Duchess of Cornwall (on a visit to England’s oldest commercial vineyard in Hampshire) called for English sparkling wine to be renamed and rebranded so it conveys the same gravitas as champagne – with which it competes well in terms of quality.
Sparkling wine isn’t the be-all and end-all of English wine, though. Many wines have been showing consistently well on the international scene, says Trustram Eve, and with quality comes loyalty. A better awareness of what’s possible in this country’s climate, as well as a focus on training has also helped the sector to flourish, she adds.
This includes an emphasis on sustainability, with a set of voluntary guidelines in place which are updated annually as part of the WineSkills initiative at Plumpton College. The emphasis on sustainability and conservation is set to increase in the coming years: conservation groups are already becoming concerned that climate change will see the geographic production of wine production shaken up.
“Climate change is going to move potential wine-producing regions all over the map,” said Lee Hannah, a senior scientist at Conservation International, when publishing a paper this year entitled “Climate Change, Wine and Conservation.” Hannah’s research concluded that the area suitable for wine production could shrink by as much as 73% by 2050 in parts of the world. Warmer temperatures and less rainfall could also add pressure on freshwater systems in some areas as growers use water to cool grapes or for more intensive irrigation. “Global changes in suitability for wine production caused by climate change may result in substantial economic and conservation consequences,” he wrote.
According to Hannah, consumer awareness and action by industry in tandem with conservationists are needed to help keep high-quality wine flowing without unintended consequences for nature or the people who rely on it.
With production of English wine expected to rise from 2.5m bottles a year to 8m by 2025, and some much larger vineyards being planted, the temptation is to “crack open the English sparkling wine”. But as the sector expands, so too will its responsibility for protecting habitats and reducing its environmental impacts.