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‘It’s a sun trap’: climate crisis brings boomtime for British wine
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‘It’s a sun trap’: climate crisis brings boomtime for British wine

“We’ve never had frost here,” says Adrian Pike, gesturing across rows of vines just starting to show signs of tiny buds in the weak Kent spring sunshine.

Westwell vineyard is on the site of a former monastery and sits close to the Pilgrims’ Way on the North Downs, the historic route to Canterbury that runs along the top of the hill behind the vineyard.

Pike believes he has been “incredibly lucky” with the terroir: even after heavy winter rain and “mud everywhere” his fields are “not too bad” because of the chalk soil drainage and protection from sharp spring frosts that can fatally freeze grape buds.

“It’s to do with the height, it’s to do with the trees behind … the Pilgrims’ Way,” he says. “Frost flows a little bit like water – it doesn’t hit land until it’s gone past us. The soil here is light and fluffy, full of flint and it’s a sun trap.”

Pike, 52, is among a new breed of entrepreneurs who have invested in English vineyards as the climate heats and vineyards spring up as far north as Yorkshire and Scotland.

Adrian Pike, winemaker and managing director with his wife Galia next to barrelsView image in fullscreen

The climate crisis led to the UK experiencing its second-hottest year on record last year, with rising temperatures creating increasingly ideal conditions for growing grapes in Britain. But extreme heat also threatens to devastate typical wine regions, such as areas of Spain, Italy and southern California, where harvests are predicted to plummet.

“I don’t want to put a positive spin on climate change, because it’s not a positive thing,” says Pike. “For every degree it goes up here the temperature and the weather changes elsewhere. People who are growing in Burgundy are facing things they have never faced before because of the unpredictability of the weather.”

Pike turned to viticulture after a career in the music industry. Back in the mid-1990s he was living in London’s Primrose Hill and dashing between seven gigs a night on a Vespa scooter. He co-founded the record label Moshi Moshi, which released music including Hot Chip and Florence + the Machine, as well as heading the music distributor the state51 Conspiracy.

“There were loads of bands and an explosive scene at the time,” he says. “We had Creation [records] on the end of our road and Primal Scream in the pub every weekend. It was a fun time.”

When Pike left the music industry, he became interested in English wine, retrained, and became managing director of Westwell in 2017, which now produces more than 50,000 bottles a year from four different grape varieties: pinot meunier, pinot noir, chardonnay and ortega. “I hadn’t thought wine would be a career and then it turned out it could be,” he says.

Vines growing on a south facing hillside  View image in fullscreen

He is part of a booming industry as the climate crisis and the lure of tax breaks and a new asset class transform viticulture. Knight Frank, the property agents, calls Britain the fastest-growing wine region in the world. Vineyards produce the fastest-growing edible agricultural crop in England, according to recent data issued by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, and grapes represent 36% of England’s soft fruit crop.

There are now 943 vineyards in the UK, almost triple the number 20 years ago, according to a report published in June 2023 by WineGB, the body that promotes the growth of the British wine sector.

WineGB reported a 74% increase in vine plantings to 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) in the previous five years, and plantings are expected to reach 7,600 hectares by 2032 yielding a potential 24.7m bottles. Between 2017 and 2022, England and Wales more than doubled wine production from 5.3m to 12.2m bottles, according to WineGB.

There have been vineyards in England since Roman times and wine has been produced commercially since the 1960s, but had a dubious reputation as it came largely from Germanic grape varieties that thrive in cooler climates.

English wine began to shrug off its bad name in the 1980s when wine producers such as Nyetimber moved away from German grapes to planting varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay, and English sparkling wine began to win awards.

Ian Sargent, who set up Laurel Vines, a vineyard near Driffield, in East Yorkshire, says when he started planting in 2011 he was the sixth or seventh vineyard in Yorkshire. God’s own county now boasts 24. He is chair of WineGB’s Midlands and northern region, which had 28 members when he took over in 2015 and now has 72 including two in Scotland. He knows of one entrepreneur who is planning to plant a vineyard near Inverness this year.

The 2023 harvest at Laurel Vines with two workers and boxesView image in fullscreen

Sargent started with 2,000 vines in 2011 and now has four hectares, with 15,000 vines.

“The change in climate has been very noticeable,” he says. “We had German vines in our first planting, but five years ago we could see the changes in temperatures and we started planting pinot noir and chardonnay. I and five other vineyards have set up a wine trail in Yorkshire. If you’d have said 10 years ago we would have a wine trail in Yorkshire, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

The climate is predicted to warm further. A report by Reading University in December 2022 found that the impact of climate change means that a fifth of the UK may have suitable weather conditions to grow chardonnay grapes for still wines in 2050.

Alex Biss, a PhD student who led the project, says that a good chardonnay vintage is currently not available reliably in the UK “but climate change looks set to change that in the not too distant future”. He says: “The fact remains that climate change will very likely bring a further expansion of viticulture in the UK.” Areas most likely to have the best conditions for producing high-quality chardonnay wine reliably by 2050 include south-east England, east of England and central England.

An aerial view of a vineyard at duskView image in fullscreen

The research model developed by Biss and Richard Ellis, professor of crop science, identified that 20-25% of UK land may be suitable for chardonnay grapes by 2050. This compares with the current figure of only 2% in the model covering the 2010-2019 period.

Nicola Bates, chief executive of WineGB, says two-thirds of its membership are smaller producers with fewer than 12,000 bottles. There are estimates that by 2040 the industry will employ 30,000 people (full-time equivalents) from about 2,500 now, including from tourism and hospitality.

The demand has led to vineyards gaining traction as a new asset class, helped by tax breaks. In a report last year, the property agent Strutt & Parker said inquiries about buying a vineyard had tripled over the past year and a total of £480m was estimated to have been invested in vineyards and wineries in the past five years.

Nick Watson, head of viticulture at Strutt & Parker, says: “The pace of planting has been particularly dramatic over the last five years and that investment has partly come from people looking to establish a small vineyard as a hobby or small business to those who have had a successful career elsewhere.”

Farmland values in south-east England increased to about £10,000-£12,000 an acre (0.4 hectares) so the value of ground suitable for vines has also risen and now sells for £16,000 to £20,000 an acre, according to the report. The best vineyards can sell for £35,000 per planted acre, it says.

Peter Harker, partner at the consultant Saffery, says that the increase in vineyard investment was coming from two areas: individuals and larger producers.

“We are seeing wealthy private investors either from a rural landed background or those who fancy doing something different and are attracted to the romance of running a vineyard,” he says. “Their primary driver is to do something interesting and fun with their money and they are prepared to wait, as returns can be quite slow.”

A worker empties freshly picked grapes in to crates with other workers in backgroundView image in fullscreen

City financiers have been among those investing. Michael Spencer, the former Conservative party treasurer and founder of financial group Nex, previously known as Icap, owns almost 30% of Chapel Down, which floated on the Aim stock market last year. Chapel Down owns, leases and sources from 414 hectares of vineyards in south-east England. Eric Heerema, a former lawyer and asset manager, owns its biggest rival, Nyetimber, while the former banker Nicholas Coates co-founded the sparkling wine maker Coates & Seely.

US and French producers are also buying up land in the south-east. Last year the California-based wine company Jackson Family Wines, which owns the Kendall-Jackson brand and has wineries in the US, Australia and South Africa, acquired 26 hectares of land in Essex, where it plans to plant chardonnay and pinot noir vines.

In 2015, Taittinger champagne bought land in Kent from which to launch its sparkling English wine Domaine Evremond and is expected to produce its first English-made sparkling wine brand this year. Louis Pommery had already bought land in Alresford, Hampshire, in 2010.

Image from the planning application of white  building and vineyardView image in fullscreen

Another factor encouraging wealthy individuals to invest in vineyards are agricultural property relief (APR) rules, which allow UK residents to pass on agricultural property, including vineyards and woodland, without having to pay inheritance tax. The tax laws were designed to ensure families could continue to farm without death duties but have proved attractive to wealthy investors who want to pass on their assets.

However, Peter Harker, partner at consultants Saffery, says this is often only one reason for private investors to buy vineyards. “I would say it’s one factor. It’s a bonus, though not the reason why people do it,” he says.

Source: theguardian.com