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English wine: Harvest in the time of coronavirus

We speak to English wineries about how Covid-19 shaped the harvest in a year which saw yields decline, but potential alcohol levels rise due to the high temperatures at the end of the season.

The Black Chalk team

This year English wineries were not only speaking about ‘bubbles’ in relation to their wine. 2020 has seen restaurant trade diminish and cash flow become a problem. Producers then had to coordinate a socially-distanced harvest as the second wave of coronavirus hit.

The unseasonably warm weather in August and September meant harvest came early. Camel Valley in Cornwall and Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex experienced their earliest ever starts to picking.

Sam Linter, managing director and head winemaker of Bolney, told the drinks business that harvest started on 14 September and finished on 7 October. Not only that, but sugar levels were up too.

Sugar high

“It has been a harvest of excellent quality, one of the very best we have seen,” Linter said. “Ripeness levels where higher than we have experienced before. We have seen lower bunch weights than normal though this year, mainly caused, we think, by the dry summer, so volume has been down across the board.”

James Lambert, managing director of LBW Drinks (previously Lyme Bay Winery), agrees that the warm weather has broken records this year.

LBW, which is based in Devon but sources grapes from growers around the country, said it recorded potential alcohol levels in Pinot Noir grapes that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.

Lambert said: “We achieved a record for Pinot Noir the UK with potential alcohol levels of 14.7% ABV, which we’re completely delighted about. We have been working for years with Duncan McNeill and the vineyards in Crouch Valley in Essex in order to achieve this and be able to make the very best red and white still wines.

“With these Pinot Noir grapes we are aiming to become one of the largest red wine producers in the UK, but more than that, to produce consistently excellent quality Pinot Noir, making a name for English reds. The natural ripeness and physiological development of these Pinot Noir grapes means that we can really go to town on the extraction of flavours and colour to make truly singular wines.”

Marie Davies, business development manager at Stopham Vineyard in West Sussex, said the grape ripeness had meant that there was no need to deacidify or chaptalise grape must this year. “We have seen the highest levels of ripeness in 10 years due to early flowering and lots of warmth and sunshine over the summer months,” she said.

This is also echoed in the comments of Jacob Leadley, winemaker and CEO of Hampshire’s Black Chalk. Leadley’s winery carried out its first harvest since acquiring 12 hectares of vines in the Test Valley earlier this year.

“One of the significant things we have done is to separate the clones; the quality and distinct characteristics between these in tank is quite extraordinary and gives us some really high-quality blending components,” Leadley said. “The sugar and acid levels are as good as I’ve ever seen in the UK and from what we have seen so far, the early fermentations in tanks are looking very promising.”

Charles and Ruth Simpson of Simpsons Wine Estate

Late frost

Another reason why yields have fallen this year is due to the late frosts, which struck vineyards in April and May. Ruth Simpson, co-founder of Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent, explained how damage had been unpreventable.

“We experienced six frost incidents between the mid-April and mid-May, which is more than average and even with our frost fans in place, we unfortunately suffered some frost damage. In the areas where the frost damage occurred yields were lower, and this meant a slightly earlier start to the harvest than in previous years.

Despite a 22% reduction in yields compared to 2019, Simpson remains upbeat and says quality is high.

“Interestingly lower yields actually meant better concentration and sugars for our still wines – the frost almost acted as a natural bud rub/green harvest,” she says. “We are hoping to create approximately 140,000 bottles this year across our range of still and classic method sparkling wines.”

East Sussex producer Fox & Fox had a similar experience. Co-founder Gerard Fox said: “The last late frost date I can remember here was 13 May 1995; a true blossom-frost that did huge damage to apple blossom and killed that year’s fruit crop. This year saw its return with a run of ice-cold nights from 12 to 15 May where we danced with disaster. The last night did the buds along the lower edge of the vineyard where the cold air collects and hit the Chardonnay, which buds before the Pinot Noir, hardest.”

Nevertheless, Jonica Fox said that while volumes are down, “the flavours are rich, immense, layered, intense”.

“Sugars were optimal and acids were spot on too. It is once-in-a-decade fruit, rewarding a growing year that stands out in so many ways,” she added.

Covid challenges

It’s often said that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ harvest in England. 2020 will certainly be remembered as being one of the most unusual.

For Leadley of Black Chalk, it meant timings were tight. “Harvest was early, which, given we were building a new winery that had been delayed by Covid, made for a tense few weeks,” he said. “The builders finally left on 25 September and we started picking on 29 September.”

Wineries also had to coordinate the movements of both production and vineyard staff in what is their busiest time of the year.

LBW kept its winery open for 24 hours, with teams split into two shifts of people. Hampshire’s Exton Park took staff temperatures and conducted questionnaires each morning, with employees kept in bubbles of six. Simpsons in Kent kept its vineyard staff separate from its office-based employees, with any interaction between the two teams in the form of short meetings outside or by telephone.

James Mead, general manager of Roebuck Estates in Sussex, explained that preparations had been thorough.

“Detailed risk assessments were produced in advance of harvest to highlight all known risks and strict guidelines were written up and communicated effectively in multiple languages both before and throughout the harvest period,” he said. “Some growers agreed to contribute towards our European labour force coming over to the UK two weeks early to isolate. These teams then worked in strict bubbles, maintained excellent distancing and adhered to rules on biosecurity which protected everyone involved in the process.”

Harvest at Bolney Wine Estate

Picker problem

For some, the availability of seasonal pickers was a problem. Fred Langdale, vineyard director of Exton Park, explained: “We were restricted by how many pickers we could get from our usual agency, as they were short on accommodation this year. We did manage to recruit 15 additional local students to help during harvest, as we did during the lockdown earlier in the year. After such an early start to harvest, we were under pressure to pick everything before the other large producers got going and availability of labour became further restricted. We succeeded to complete the harvest within seven days.”

Linter of Bolney said that the difficulty in obtaining pickers had led the winery to use machine harvesting for the grapes used in its still wines.

“We found getting pickers this year more challenging,” she said. “We decided to use state of the art harvest machinery for some of our varieties after a successful trial last year at Bolney Wine Estate, although hand picking will of course still continue.

“From our trial use, subsequent still wines we produced showed that there was no compromises in quality or any consequences for the wine making process. If anything, the fruit was delivered cleaner, and fresher, having spent less time between picking and pressing than would have been the case had they hand-picked. There will always be a place for handpicking, so mechanisation is clearly likely to be of less interest when making sparkling wines, when whole bunch pressing is an important part of the process.”

However, Fox & Fox reported no such issues. Jonica Fox said: “One of the most interesting impacts Covid had on harvest was the impressive number of people who approached us to ask if they could come grape picking.

“Where normally we would start advertising for pickers around about September, we’d already completed our list of pickers and were having to turn people away. I think that is partly because people have been enjoying exploring and getting to know their local area, and local producers, better.”

With the rise of staycations over the summer, English wineries reported an increase in visitor numbers, a welcome boost after losses incurred during lockdown.

Tamara Roberts, CEO of Ridgeview Wine Estate, told the WSTA that while revenue is down by a third this year, the winery reported its busiest ever month for sales in August and had “record numbers” of visitors.

While many challenges lie ahead, the domestic wine tourism sector offers a glimmer of hope.

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