Twenty years ago, the number of vineyards in the North and Midlands could probably have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Now, the MVA has over 70 members, whose plantings range from about 30 vines to several thousand. Several growers are planning their strategy for the next 10 years. With this in mind, a survey form (1) was sent out to all members to find out if any ‘best’ and ‘worst’ site characteristics could be identified, and whether experienced growers had any advice for the new generation of planters. This report takes the form of an examination of climate, geology and vine types that are prevalent in the North and Midlands, and concludes with advice from some prominent viticulturalists and site advisors. Many thanks to all those who provided the information.
This in itself does not explain why the land was turned into vineyards, except that alternative uses seem to be becoming fewer. Bob Lindo at Camel Valley tried sheep farming before finding that grapes were slightly easier to train than either sheep or the dog. In addition, the vine is a very hardy plant and is extremely adaptable to different climatic conditions. For example, research in Canada has produced vines hardy to extreme cold, often down to –40oC. Some vines produce a sugar variant in Winter called raffinose that acts as an antifreeze within the vines, and prevents cell damage. Chardonnay and Riesling are poor at producing this, and therefore will not survive such cold. (2) As yet we do not have temperatures down to this level but still have difficulty ripening Riesling. However, British growers are fortunate in that a wide range of vines are permitted. In France, the Quality wine scheme stipulates that certain areas grow specified vines, so it is necessary to choose the sites that get the best results from those grapes. In Italy there are similar regulations, which appear to be met with disdain, as exemplified by the ‘IGT’ classification, which effectively means ‘I know better than the authorities what grows well’. In Britain, we have a range of approved grapes, but we also have a large number of viticulturalists who are planting in untried regions, and therefore need to experiment in order to find the best grape for the particular circumstances. By doing this, the industry is developing expertise in recognising the vines that are suitable for particular environments. Many vineyards also owe their success to the recommendations of experts such as Stuart Smith, Simon Day and Stephen Skelton who have built up skills over a number of years.
Some sites have been chosen deliberately, especially amongst our commercial vineyards. Three (Grange Farm -pictured, Three Choirs and Welcombe Hills) are planted on or beside former orchards where it was known that fruit would ripen well. Leventhorpe was chosen because it was known as a ‘warm field’, sheltered in the Aire Valley. Yorkshire Heart was also chosen because ‘it offered the best protection from prevailing winds’.
Exactly where the winds hit the west coast depends largely on the high altitude jet-streams, which tend to move about, and take the rain-bearing winds with them. The number of hollow laughs that greeted the question ‘When is the rainfall and when is the frost’ bore witness of this. Working northwards, Tony Cox at Bath recorded rainfall of 810mm in the period June 2005-May 2006 and 1006mm in the year following. In Buckinghamshire, Manor Fields recorded about 900mm through the year, more or less consistently and Hale Valley, which is more sheltered, slightly less. In Oxfordshire, Jonathan Abbott at Swerford near Banbury had about 760mm at 190m altitude while Bothy, at 50m had 605mm. In Shropshire, Ian Rowe noted about 700mm, but with a winter bias. In the East Midlands, Chevelswarde had about 625mm, but with no consistent pattern and nearby Welland Valley 300mm. spread throughout the year. Similarly, just to the north, Liz Robson near Leicester commented that the area was sheltered from serious winds, and the rainfall was lower than in the west. In the North-east, records at Yorkshire Heart showed about 700mm a year, invariably at the wrong time.
The solutions are varied. Some vineyards use heaters. Martin Seed at Worthenbury grows classic varieties within polytunnels, and uses a temperature-triggered warm water pipe system to prevent frost damage.
|Geological Periods||Date started||Period||Areas|
|-65m||Cretaceous||Chalk Wolds, Chilterns|
|-145m||Jurassic||Oolitic imestone ridge, Cotswolds|
|Younger||-200m||Triassic||Shropshire sands. Midlands|
|-300m||Carboniferous||Wenlock Edge, Pennines|
|-360m||Devonian||Clee Hill, South Marches|
|Harder||-445m||Silurian||North Walian Marches|
Many of our vineyards have taken advantage of sheltered valleys, where overlying glacial and river soils produce a more fertile soil. In the west, north Shropshire (5) has Triassic and Permian sandstones, which produce the well-drained soils visible at Worthenbury, Commonwood (photo: below) and Wroxeter vineyards. The central part of the county features the limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge with Silurian shale beds dipping south-eastwards on either side, often with a boulder clay covering. Morville St Gregory, Morville Hall and Hargrove Estate lie within this area. (6) Further south is Ludlow vineyard on the edge of harder Devonian sandstone at the foot of the Brown Clee. These sandstones continue into the southern Marches, often with a covering of glacial drift. In the south, it is interrupted by pre-Cambrian area in the Malvern Hills, comprising metamorphic rock with igneous intrusions. Vineyards are well sheltered in the valleys of these areas and are largely on clay loam, as at Tiltridge and Frome Valley.In Yorkshire, the rocks in the centre are largely from the carboniferous era- with Leventhorpe lying on sandstone. Summerhouse is on a ridge of magnesian limestone, quarrying of which provides flux for the steel indudtry. In North Wales, the Geology of Anglesey (7) is to say the least, complex and worthy of a book in its own right. Ty Croes and Llanbadrig both lie on sandy loam. Selley (8) identifies four basic features of soil necessary for cultivation. These are mineral content, topography, porosity (space between rock particles that will hold water) and permeability (connections available between spaces). He also suggests that vines will grow best on fairly neutral soils. If the pH is below 5, then the soils are probably too acidic, and if above 8.5, too alkaline.
Survey results show a wide variety of rock types. Sandstone of various ages is common, especially in Shropshire and the southern Marches. This allows free drainage, and vines are generally happy as long as the roots are warm and dry. The dry topsoil also encourages vines to put down deep roots in order to find water. Over-rich soils can actually discourage some vines, as the leaf growth gets out of hand. In New Zealand, they recommend harsh treatment for Pinot Noir in order to produce a full-flavoured wine. Treat it well, and it will get bored and produce a flabby wine.
|Soil||Successful Vines||Unsuccessful vines or Serious problems|
|Clay/loam|| Phoenix, Seyval Blanc,Rondo, RegentMadeleine Angevine|
Kerner (mildew prone)
Reichensteiner- no growth
Siegerrebe- wasp s
Frueburgunder – tiny crops
Schonburger- poor fruit set, late
Dunkelfelder – tiny crops, untidy* Madeleine Angevine is the least successful on Midlands clay soil
|Medium Loam||Madeleine Angevine, Phoenix|
|Chalk||Bacchus, Kernling, Seyval||Severe iron deficiency|
|Cornbrash/ Jurassic Limestone|| Madeleine Angevine, Kerner|
Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Rondo
Solaris, Regent, Schonburger
Seyval, Phoenix on S04
Some dead-arm wilt on Regent in 2007,
Bacchus and Orion (frost)
Bacchus can develop a straggly habit, with low yields.
|Sandy loam/clay|| Madeleine Angevine, Bacchus|
Pinot Gris, Regent,
| Muller Thurgau|
Phoenix- low crop and botrytis
Reichensteiner- very unhappy
Optima- poor yields, disease
|Sand & Gravel- High pH||Rondo||Gagarin Blue – crops well but poor wine|
|Alluvial Drift||Seyval Blanc, Schonburger|
Dornfelder, Pinot Noir
There is no substitute for practical experience and experimentation. Apart from spring frosts, the main problems involved the type of vines grown. Huxelrebe was found to be highly disease prone and produced very high acids. However reactions as to its viability have differed. Three Choirs (sandy soils) have ceased its production, while Bothy (also on sand) and Tiltridge (clay/loam) commented that in good years, it produces some of their best wine. Several of the growers had experimented with different vines before settling on their major varieties. On a peaty loam in the Midlands, Rondo and Triomph failed, with Rondo disliking the wet light soils and Triomph being especially prone to hens and chickens. Tiltridge commented on poor quality of grapes from this latter vine. Triomph has also been grubbed up at Mount Pleasant, to be replaced by Rondo which produces better wine. Several commercial viticulturalists are constantly experimenting with new varieties. Wroxeter put in Solaris a few years ago and is currently pioneering the wine. Welalnd Valley has 5 main varieties and 6 ‘also grown’ including Acolon and Solaris. He has also grubbed up 4 others that did not suit his site. Ryedale includes it amongst the 7 main varieties on its 2 vineyards, with experimental plantings of 4 others. Reichensteiner caused problems on several sites, failing to grow in Northern Ireland where it seemed to dislike the high rainfall. Several of the (now-closed) Eire vineyards grew it- that may be one of the reasons for their failure. It also failed under very sandy conditions in the East Midlands. Reports on the Seyval, traditionally a reliable cropper, suggested that the still wine was indifferent in quality even though it is a good base for sparkling wine. In Lancashire, it cropped also spasmodically. The newer variety, Phoenix has received mixed reports. One grower suggested that it is reverting to its parents (Seyve Villard and Bacchus). On a high pH soil, it has low crops and suffers botrytis, despite being sold by garden centres as being resistant to mildew. Several growers commented that the wine is better when blended. Muller Thurgau seemed to gain universal condemnation. When vineyards were developed in the 1970s, it was widely planted, especially in East Anglia. However, growers today comment on its lack of resistance to disease, and have largely grubbed it up. I note that the new edition of Selley (8) suggested that it might in future be suitable for growing in Snowdonia or the Lake District.
Finally, some advice and comments from growers with long experience. David Bates at Welland Valley. “I am coming around to the view that my clay soil favours red grapes and red wine. My white vines tend to be somewhat average, although sparkling wine seems to be better than still wine. I think the latter is due to the dry soil producing high acidity. I suspect Seyval does well on clay. I do believe that choice of variety has t take into account reliability and good cropping levels, not just the quantity of the wine. I believe new growers should plant a trial area of different varieties in addition to their main planting. I am not afraid to take out varieties if they do not perform and replace with varieties that do!” Viticulturalist and author (9) Stephen Skelton added to these thoughts ‘As for planning a new site – choose as warm a site as possible with as much shelter as possible and as near to France as possible. The best wine comes from the ripest grapes. Where are the most successful UK vineyards? In the south of the country of course. As for what would I not plant – probably Muller-Thurgau and the other unpronounceable cross bred varieties. Bacchus is OK, Pinot and Chardonnay on a good site also OK. I would avoid all the odd-ball, untried varieties – let someone else plant them and make the mistakes.