After the biggest planting of vines on record earlier this year, the UK viticulture industry is proving to be one of the country’s fastest growing agricultural sectors. According to the industry’s trade body, Wines of Great Britain (WineGB), around three million vines went into the ground in 2019. Since 2015 the area under vine has increased by 83%, and today there are some 3,579 hectares of vines across the UK, of which 2,720 ha, or 76%, are located within the South East.

Despite the famous joke that “to make a small fortune in wine, you need to start with a large one”, and HMRC ruling which means that land used for viticulture can be passed to the next generation 100% IHT free, growing grapes is not just a romantic hobby for wealthy entrepreneurs, or ex-City financial workers looking to curb a few hefty tax bills.

Looking out over the Crouch Valley in Stow Maries, Essex, Duncan McNeill, co-founder of Vines Direct, points to three arable farms surrounding the Martin’s Lane Vineyard (also ex-arable), who have diversified into viticulture in the last few years and are planning to expand plantings.

“Grapes are proving to be a good alternative crop on land where arable is becoming increasingly marginal,” said Duncan, who’s business has been responsible for the establishment of one third of the total vineyard area planted since it was formed in 2006 with German planting expert Volker Scheu. “It is a totally different business model to arable, but I am already working with half a dozen farmers who are confident that viticulture is a long-term viable option and I know at least two who have said that the grape crop has saved the farm.”

As well as looking after sites in the Crouch Valley region of Essex, which has been earmarked as a particularly hot spot for vines, Duncan also advises farmers across East Anglia and Kent on the entire vineyard establishment process.

“The first stage is to talk about the elephant in the room, which is profitability,” said Duncan. “Establishment costs, depending on vine density, is £8,000 to £10,000 per acre and farmers should be looking to establish 20 to 30 acres to justify the investment into viticultural machinery. If you choose the right site and plant the right varietals, clones and rootstocks there is no reason not to be aiming to grow three to four tonnes per acre. Payback, which includes the cost of establishment as well as the annual running costs in the early years, is expected after year nine. Fruit is selling at approximately £2,000 per tonne at the moment and it costs around £3,000 per acre to produce. So if you can turnover £6,000 per acre, the gross margins on an acre is £3,000 and that is well worth waiting for.”

Site selection

With profitability directly linked to the productivity of the vineyard, site selection is of paramount importance to anyone who is looking to get something out of getting into viticulture.

“If the site isn’t good, I don’t hesitate to say, and I would rather walk away than have a horror show in five years,” said Duncan. “If you plant on a site which is prone to frost between April and the end of May, when the vine buds are at their most vulnerable, and if you get irreparable frost damage which leads to a small or non-existent crop every two out of five years, then the business model will not work. The best way to avoid frost damage is to not plant your vineyard where there is a risk of frost.”

While the majority of farmers and growers will know their land like the back of their hand, by rule of thumb, a good sloping site, which has no opposing slopes, will reduce the risk of frost, and sites within five miles of a river estuary or the coast are generally lower risk too.

“Next, farmers must understand that grapes are a marginal crop for England, so they need as long a growing season as possible,” said Duncan. “In these climatic conditions, Soil is not as important as temperature; unfortunately, too many people have misunderstood this in the past. Vines need to be planted on a warm site and so a south facing orientation is beneficial, altitude is very important, and exposure to the prevailing wind should also be considered as wind can blow accumulated heat out of the vineyard, so a good site should be sheltered from strong wind.”

It is possible to plant vines at a maximum of 100-metres above sea level, however, the UK’s highest yielding, ripest fruit typically comes from vines sitting at 50-metres and below. The lower the altitude, the higher the average temperature and the more growing degree days will be accumulated which will lead to less volatility in production.

Chalk is also not as vital as many English sparkling wine producers would suggest; it really is down to climate and how that will drive grape yields and ripeness levels.

“This might sound sacrilegious, but the soil is secondary and very crudely speaking, vines will grow in most soil types, you just need to look after the soil structure, drainage, organic matter and nutrient levels,” said Duncan. “The only thing grapevines won’t tolerate is very waterlogged soil because there is no rootstock in the world which can cope with consistently damp roots.”

Compared to other fruits, once the land’s base level nutrients have been corrected and a root system is fully established, grapevines take comparatively little away each year and simply putting organic matter, rather than just granular fertiliser, back into the soil and helps to keep everything in balance.

“Before planting, farmers will need to correct the pH, and the levels of Phosphorous, which is needed for root growth, also Potassium, of which vines use about 20kg per 3t/a crop, and Magnesium, which is needed for photosynthesis,” said Duncan. “Once that has been done, regular applications of compost will generally keep nutrient levels where they need to be. Organic matter also increases nutrient availability and improves moisture retention and the product we get from Cloud Agro also improves the biological activity in the soil helping to promote the microorganisms and mycorrhiza fungi which provide essential nutrient to the vine roots.”

Preparing to plant

As well as advising on the optimum nutrient levels, Vines Direct will provide guidance on how to prepare the ground, a step which Duncan considers just as important as finding a suitable site.

“Volker Scheu and I have both arrived, ready to plant vines, on sites where the ground preparations have not been done properly and it can really scupper the whole project,” said Duncan. “Farmers just need to remember that they are making a planting bed for vines who’s roots will be placed at a depth of around 8 inches. In the autumn, the soil should be subsoiled in two opposing directions, at 14 inches deep. A herbicide might be needed around February or March. Different soils need different amounts of cultivations and in light soil a spading machine, like the one FGS Agri has, can be used very effectively to prepare the ground. Finally, a pass with a power harrow will be needed prior to planting in April or May.”

Planting will be carried out by one of Vines Direct’s two teams with vines which will have been ordered from a nursery in South West Germany. Duncan, who is from dairy farming stock in the Yorkshire dales, studied viticulture in New Zealand. He undertook a one-year viticulture apprenticeship in Germany before returning to England’s viticulture scene 14 years ago. He draws on a wealth of knowledge to advise all his clients on the best varietals, clones and rootstocks.

“The vines are supplied exclusively by Rebschule Freytag,” said Duncan. “That is a golden rule, not just because I am very big on traceability, but because I have been working with the nursery for many years and over that time, we have developed a real working partnership. The nursery is also just a stone’s throw from the border so we can supply both French and German clones and varietals.”

Two different cultures

After planting, Duncan is able to guide farmers on the basics of viticulture and can talk through the necessary stages of management and the potential disease, pest and weed issues which the vines may face.

“Viticulture and agriculture are two very different cultures and that will take some farmers a little while to get used to,” said Duncan. “It is a big learning curve but the more hands-on farmers are with it, the quicker they will pick it up and the more they will understand.”

When it comes to growing grapes, the key challenges are pests, including rabbits in the early years, deer and birds, and diseases, mainly powdery and downy mildew and botrytis. When it comes to choosing the vines, Duncan is able to select clones, such as those with loose bunches, which reduce the risk of disease pressure and makes things easier from a management point of view.

As the future of glyphosate hangs in the balance, Duncan also explains that weed control will become an interesting topic. Currently, in the vineyards he manages under his other company McNeill Vineyard Management, glyphosate is used once per year, usually in April and the weed pressure is then managed with specialist under vine cultivation equipment.

“The key to mechanical weed control is to keep it simple,” said Duncan. “We mid-mount either a triple bladed rollerhacke or a disc, depending on the soil conditions, and have a rear-mounted finger weeder, which we drive through the alleyways at 10kph. The rollerhacke will create a mound after a few years and if you cover the graft of the vine you will start to get scion roots, so we have the finger weeder to push that earth out.”

While the climate is changing, with the UK grape harvest typically starting one week earlier than when Duncan started his career in English viticulture, grape picking should still fit in nicely with the average arable or fruit calendar. However, one of the biggest challenges Duncan foresees for agriculturists diversifying into vines is the need for a lot of manual labour at certain times of the year.

“There are a lot of tasks which will have to be done by hand when the vines are young, but after that, the more we can mechanise the better,” said Duncan. “Manual labour accounts for about 60% of a vineyard’s annual running costs so the more machinery we can implement, the less it will cost to grow a tonne of grapes. As a grape farmer I am mechanising a lot of our vineyard tasks and we have been able to reduce the cost of bud rubbing from £120 per acre to £15 and have also been able to cut leaf stripping from £350 per acre to £40.”

Mechanical harvesting will also make a huge difference to the economics. Currently, to harvest by hand it costs around £200 per tonne, with a skilled picker capable of harvesting about 800kg per day. One mechanical harvester can easily manage 40 tonnes in a 12-hour day.

“The modern-day harvesters are incredibly gentle and are very good at filtering the material other than grape (MOG),” said Duncan. “Once the big producers start, the smaller ones will quickly follow and we have consciously made the decision to supply trellis posts which are specifically designed to work with mechanical harvesters because they are the future.”

Selling the fruit

With so many vines going into the ground, and a bumper 2018 crop widely reported last year, it is unsurprising that over-supply is high on the agenda in the UK viticultural world. Currently, home-grown wine makes up just 1% of the UK’s entire wine sales and with exports only accounting for 8% of English wine producer’s sales, there is plenty of opportunity for sector growth.

It is generally felt, however, that new producers will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to establish themselves in a crowded market and so anyone looking to get into viticulture should consider simply growing fruit. While this might be disappointing for those who dream of having their own label, for farmers this model offers much more security. It will not only help established brands meet production demands but selling grapes under contract provides an ideal opportunity for farmers who have little interest in the end part of the process which eats up the majority of the margins.

“There are a lot of wine producers who don’t have the land or capability to expand, but who do have a thirsty customer base,” said Duncan. “We put farmers in touch with wineries and can help to arrange fruit contracts. No-one wants to be the generation to sell off the farmland and yet all the land suitable for vines is currently under someone’s ownership, so as grapes are a viable, alternative crop, why not diversify into viticulture?”

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic