A decade ago, those seeking to leave the rat race for a taste of the rural idyll as a wine-maker most likely headed straight to Provence or the Dordogne. But now aspiring viticulturists are just as likely to put down roots among the gentle hills of southern England, whose wine industry is going from strength to strength.
There are currently 416 active vineyards in Britain, according to the Wine Standards Board,compared with 363 in 2000. And the number is rising all the time. Most of them are in Devon,Cornwall, Hampshire, Kent and East Anglia – though the odd vine can be found in North Yorkshire and Lancashire – and have an average size of 2.6 hectares. Between them, they produce just over one million bottles of white wine a year and just over 300,000 red. But the variety that is really on the ascendant is sparkling wine – so much so that Nyetimber, the West Sussex vineyard that is the country’s largest, has just beaten French Champagne makers at their own game by winning the award for the best sparkling wine in the world with its 2003 Classic Cuvée. This, even to non-wine drinkers, is quite some feat.
“We have seen a 50% increase in vineplanting in the past five years, the majority of that dedicated to sparkling wine production, with the main hubs in the South East around Sussex and Kent,” comments Julia Trustram Eve from English Wine Producers. (englishwineproducers.com) “There has been a definite shift in climate, which has renewed confidence in English wine making. But we also have the expertise and technology now and ideal soil in certain areas,” she adds. French wine makers are also rumoured to be snapping up land in southern England, which, on the same chalk seam as the Champagne region, is considered a terroir of equal quality.
“But open market transactions are scarce and information on prices achieved in land deals is hard to come by. Agents generally report wine makers are paying well in excess of the agricultural value for potential vineyard land,” comments Louise Lumsden, a valuer from Carter Jonas in Winchester (T 01962 858585).
So is wine making purely a pastime for those with plenty of cash and time to spare? Well,time is something you will certainly need. It can take seven years from planting to selling a bottle of sparkling wine – and that’s not counting the lengthy preparation involved before you even plant the first vine. But the cost of buying a vineyard may be lower than you think. A recent example is a 2.79-acre plot of land, which included a one acre vineyard, enough to deliver 1,000 bottles of wine a year, in Combe Hay near Bath. It recently sold, prior to auction and had a guide price of £15,000.
“Had it got into the auction, it could have gone for far more as there are very few vineyards for sale and there was a phenomenal amount of interest,” says Arthur Chambers from Carter Jonas’ Auctions team (T 01249 706070). “The vineyard, which was planted in 1986, was on a south-facing slope with beautiful views, so there were potential buyers from Bristol and Bath who simply loved the Good Life idea of having an idyllic plot,” he adds. “But there were also investment bankers from London who were keen on wine and looking for something different to do with their money. These things don’t come onto the market very often.”
As a guide, says Louise Lumsden, the cost of land with vines can be about double its agricultural value, “plus the value of the vines on top, if they are significant. You could expect to pay around £25,000 to £30,000 per acre for ‘champagne’ land in the right location that has been planted up with the right trellising system and good quality rootstocks. But to make a living, you need a minimum of 10 acres”.
She adds that it’s an uncertain market that is evolving, and that it is hard to attribute specific values to different land parcels: “Many vineyards are just a couple of acres in size, and some just don’t sell at all. Furthermore, professional wine growers would usually want to buy bare land, as the stock they plant is important to the uality of the wine. There is an increasing polarisation between professional wine makers and the ‘hobby’ vineyard”. Buying the land is just the start of the expense, of course. If you plant vines from scratch, budget for around £5,000 an acre to get your vineyard up and running, including putting up posts, trellises and vines, says Julia Trustram Eve. Then, you will most likely need to hire consultants to show you what to do and – unless you have the facilities to make the wine on-site – a wine maker to turn your grapes into an award-winning vintage wine.
Getting it right from the start is key, beginning with finding the ideal location for your land. “Like buying a house, it’s all about location, location, location for a vineyard. Then you need to look at its aspect, altitude and soil. Ideally you want somewhere sheltered, but not too sheltered, at no more than 200 feet above sea level as the ripening period takes far longer above that, and you want warm soil, because vines don’t like wet feet,” explains Paul Langham, of a ‘Beckett’s’ Vineyard near Stonehenge in Wiltshire (abecketts.co.uk).
Langham gave up his job as a strategist for US multi-national companies 10 years ago to become a wine maker and produces up to 12,000 bottles of red, white, rosé and sparkling a year. “Never put all your eggs in one basket,” he advises.
As evidence that his strategy works, his award winning 2008 rosé has sold out and he is about to plant a further 4,500 vines to meet demand.
“I send my grapes to an external wine maker as that allows you to master the art of grape growing first, then ease yourself into the wine making aspect later,” he explains. “For the first three years after you begin, you have no grapes anyway, so it is pointless having a winery on site,” says Langham, who also acts as a wine consultant, currently advising organic vineyards in Chippenham and Pewsey. Brian Shirley, who owns Wraxall Vineyard (wraxallvineyard.co.uk), near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, calculates that you need to spend at least three hours a day in your vineyard, “cutting, cleaning and generally doing a lot of worrying”. “While my wife, Jacky, and I are having a cup of tea in bed each morning, we gaze across the vines and immediately start thinking of things that need doing,” says Mr Shirley, who sold up their successful boutique hotel in Edinburgh three years ago and bought Wraxall – a once established vineyard that had become buried beneath brambles.
Their decision to buy was highly spontaneous – and the couple admit they had no idea what was involved. “We wanted to do something more than just develop and sell property and saw this vineyard for sale. It was an idea we had toyed with for 30 years, having toured around the Loire and Burgundy, and when we walked to the top of the hill and looked at the views of Somerset below us, we thought ‘let’s do it’,” says Mr Shirley.
“We had to build the business from scratch as we could only save one acre of good grapes, which last year produced 3,000 bottles. The remaining 4.5 acres were derelict, so we planted 4,000 new vines,” he says, adding that he hopes to produce up to 6,000 bottles in the next harvest and 30,000 a year by 2013. Having turned the small winery on their land into a boutique tasting room, Brian and Jacky send their grapes to local wine maker Steve Brooksbank. “We do all the pruning, maintaining and the labour ourselves. But making the wine is a very delicate and very physical process that takes at least 10 years to learn, and as we are in our mid 60s we decided to leave that to someone else,” he says.
“You can make a good living from wine making,” adds Mr Shirley, who calculates that 20,000 bottles a year should produce a £60,000 profit – including the costs of hiring an external wine maker. “And the UK Vineyards Association offers an invaluable support network,” he adds. “There is a real spread and depth of knowledge and, unlike 10-15 years ago, where wine makers worked in isolation, you can call up other wine makers now and ask for help. It is a very comforting sense, when you take on something like this, to know that you are not alone.”