Climate Change is Booming Business for English Vineyards 🍾
Spend some time browsing a wine aisle and you’ll come across famous wine growing regions like Champagne, Napa Valley, Bordeaux or Rioja. Chances are, however, you won’t easily spot an English wine. That’s all set to change, as a warming climate is creating ideal growing conditions for grapevines in southern England. Recent years have seen winemakers emerging across the country, winning international awards and proudly placing England on the world map of fine wines.
The Origins of English Wine
Winemaking in England has had a surprisingly long history, dating back to the Romans who first introduced wine grapes on the island in 50AD. The practice survived the subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire, with a total of 45 vineyards recorded in the famous Domesday Book, a national survey conducted by order of King William the Conqueror in 1086. By 1509, the year King Henry VIII was crowned, the total number of vineyards had grown to 139.
With free trade booming amongst European countries between the 17th and 19th century, English wines became increasingly outcompeted on price and popularity by ones imported from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Then, in the mid-1800s a plant epidemic brought home from the colonies destroyed much of English vineyards, eroding the industry even further. Viniculture was gradually disappearing across England until it was eventually brought to an abrupt halt with the ravages and rations of the First World War. It was the first time in nearly 2000 years that winemaking had vanished from England.
Following the two world wars, vineyards slowly began reemerging as people searched for new commercial opportunities. Equipment and methods of making wine became widely available, attracting more people to the trade. The oldest surviving commercial wine grapes in the UK can be traced back to 1952 when English viticulture pioneer John Edginton started experimenting and producing commercial wine during the reboot of the UK wine industry.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s, that English wine was making a full-fledged comeback, thanks largely to a changing climate. Since the midst of the 20th century, England has experienced on average warmer winters and hotter summers; ideal growing conditions for grapevines. According to Alistair Nesbitt, a viticulture and climate consultant, the temperature in south England has increased by 1.8 degrees over the last 50 years.
“We are now just half a degree cooler than the Champagne district,” says Richard Balfour-Lynn, the owner of the 400-acre Hush Heath Estate in Kent.
Last summer, the summer of 2018, was the hottest summer on record in England. Unusually hot and dry conditions resulted in an abundant harvest of ripe fruit and beautiful flavours in English wines. WineGB, a UK organisation for grape growers and winemakers, described it as “the harvest of the century.” Since climate recordings began in 1910, three of the four hottest summers occurred in the last two decades (1976, 2003, 2006, 2018). Last summer wasn’t just an anomaly; it was a clear testimony that climate change had well and truly arrived in England.
Yet, ideal growing conditions aren’t exclusively a product of climate change, it’s also the unique chalky soil and terroir in southern England; a soil identical to that of the Champagne region. “The chalk both provides water but also means the vines will have to work, putting their energy into the grapes rather than an over-vigorous plant,” explained Kirsty Goring from Wiston Estate Winery. Nevertheless, English winemakers aren’t looking to replicated French wines; instead, they want to celebrate the delicacy and everything English terroir has to showcase. As Richard Balfour-Lynn told Vinepair:
“We are not trying to make French wine here. Ours has an excellent clarity of colour, it’s clean on the nose, and it has a well-balanced acidity. I’d say ours are racier and more vibrant because we do have a slightly cooler climate.”
A Sparkling Future
The opportunity of growing wine in England hasn’t been left unnoticed. Total area of wine production more than doubled, nearly tripling, between 2006 and 2018. This year a further 2 million vines are set to be planted; making the wine industry the fasted growing agricultural sector in the UK. There are currently 7,000 acres of land dedicated to wine production in the UK, however, a recent study suggested there may be up to 70,000 acres of suitable land.
With 69% of wine produced in the UK being sparkling, it’s become a serious contender on the international stage as a rival of the traditional French Champagne. Whilst there may have been a stigma around English wines in the past, it’s slowly becoming a luxury selling point. Last year saw English wine exported around the world to countries including the US, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong.
As well as the economic value of selling wine, vineyards have also attracted tourists to the region who are interested in learning more about the industry. In fact, WineGB predicts that by 2040 wine tourism in the UK could generate an extra £658m per annum. As Simon Robinson, Chairman of WineGB explained:
“As a sector we are bringing many developments in agriculture, tourism, education, investment and employment. This is now a thriving and confident British industry in which we can be justifiably proud.”
It’s important to remember, however, that climate change isn’t all good news for the wine industry — it also poses serious risks. Droughts and other extreme weather events brought on by a changing climate may damage crops. Wine estate owners are aware of these risks and know they need to be agile. “They’ll have to keep very close to what is going on with the weather and adapt things. One year they’ll be flooded and one year they’ll be irrigating,” Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton College, told NBC. Nonetheless, for now British wine is having a moment and it’s largely thanks to climate change. Riding the wave of opportunity and optimism, Chris predicts “the industry will transform this area of England into the next Napa Valley.”