For English Wine Week we want to highlight an important part of the growing English wine movement – the vineyards who are striving for a system which works with and for nature, not against it, without comprising the bottom line.
These vineyards are stripping back at every stage of the winemaking process: from growing the grapes in the vineyard more ecologically, to bottling the delicious product in the cellar using methods that were first employed around 6000 years ago, when the human race fell in love with wine. This takes lots of different forms, whether they are organic, biodynamic, ecologically produced, or a combination of the three. Here is a low-down from a few of the vineyards we work with to learn what they are doing to work with nature out in the vines.
(If you like your wine with minimal pesticides, chemicals, or preservatives added these are some of the vineyards you should be following.)
Photo: Davenport Vineyard Manager Phil Harris with pickers being driven back to the Cellar to process grapes.
“We believe the route to making the best wines is to work with nature and this begins with organic grapes. The fruit is a true expression of the grape variety and the soil it grows in.”
Will Davenport, Davenport Vineyards, Horsmonden, Kent
In 2000, Will Davenport made the decision to convert his vineyards to a Soil Association certified organic management system. Making this conversion can risk a loss of production in the short term, and many said it can’t really be done in soggy England, but it was a risk Will was willing to take in the name of an ecological system. It paid off, all the vines flourished, bringing beautiful grape quality and a depth of flavour which would be hard to achieve with the chemical inputs of a non-organic system.
The weeds are mown or removed by hand, the soil is fertilised with animal manure or plant waste compost and the vines are fed with homemade comfrey and nettle liquid. Most of the energy used on site is provided from solar panels, and they consider the footprint of all winemaking processes, from growing organic grapes, to recycled packaging, to local distribution. All their wines are organic and most are made in the winery with very little intervention, using a natural process. Davenport is one of the few natural winemakers in the UK: Natural wines have little to no sulphates and fining agents added to them when they are made and make use of the natural yeasts on the grapes, rather than adding in commercial yeasts.
One to try this week: Diamond Fields Pinot Noir 2016
2. Bride Valley Vineyard
“In the future I hope to see better weather and increased yields without losing quality. Being financially and environmentally sustainable is the goal for everyone in my opinion.”
Graham Fisher, Bride Valley Vineyard, Litton Cheney, Dorset
Bride Valley vineyard produce three varieties of english sparkling, from 10 hectares of vines. There first harvest was in 2014, with bottles selling out almost straight away!. . Graham, the vineyard manager who has been involved since the beginning, is responsible for managing the vines and ensuring the wine captures the essence of their chalky soils. His vision for the vineyard is one of minimum intervention and ecological harmony.
They plant a lot of phacelia and wildflowers to increase biodiversity and attract hoverflies, lacewings and parasitic wasps which keep brown apple moths under control amongst the vines. They are always looking for ways to move away from using herbicides, so to remove weeds that compete with the vines they have an undervine weeding tool as well as sheep to graze the grass down and add free fertiliser!
One to try this week: Rosé Bella 2014
3. Grange Estates
“I always really appreciated the historical importance and nobility of growing grapes and making wine. It’s a balance of hard graft, science and an almost artistic ‘feel’ for managing the vines.” (Quote from Furrowed)
Phil Norman, Grange Estates, Hampshire
At Grange Estates, four siblings came together to create a vineyard on a chalky sloped field which had been in an arable rotation for 150 years as part of their family farm. It is ideal for the 52,000 vines they planted, as it’s sheltered from the wind and south facing to the sun. They grow classic sparkling wine grape varieties, as their soil is akin to what you might find in the Champagne region of France.
To promote biodiversity and build soil health they are currently experimenting with three different cover crops running across the vineyard. In one third there’s a basic mix of 18 wildflower varieties which look stunning when they come out, as well as attracting natural predators for the local pests by providing them with a habitat. In the next third there is a carpet of herb rich meadow grass which is regularly mown; it stays think and dense, limiting compaction of the soil and is very easy to manage. The last third is a fescue and ryegrass mix.
This vineyard has some of our favourite residents: bees. There are about half a dozen beehives close to the vines, and the pollinators just love the wildflowers. After harvest at Grange Estates, you will encounter a 60 strong flock of sheep grazing amongst the vines. They are lawnmowers like no other, keeping the weeds down and perfectly chomping every blade of grass to equal length.
Bare soil directly under the vines encourages weeds to grow, but Phil’s got a plan for this: to plant golf course grass under all the vines, and use a mower and strimmers which can be mounted on the front of his tractor to mow the vineyard, pretty cool! Phil will assess which trials have worked well and bring a plan together which cuts out herbicides from the vineyard by 2019.
You can’t buy wine online yet from Grange Estates, contact them for more info.
4. Oxney Estate
“A sustainable and natural approach underpins the estate – from generating our own heat from coppiced wood chip through to a natural approach to disease control in the vineyard using wild herbs and plants.”
Kristin Sylvetnik, Oxney Organic Estate, East Sussex
Oxney is the largest organic vineyard in the UK. The sandy and silty soil are a fantastic basis for growing the 33 acres of vines. The vineyard recognises the value of their soil, and take many approaches to ensure it’s health and well being. Organic, green compost is added to the soil regularly to provide an environment for microorganisms and fungi in the soil to thrive.
They don’t use any herbicides, which jeopardize the life of the soil, instead opting for a mechanical cultivator and hand weeder. Keeping weeds down this way is a laborious process but key to the health of their vines and taste of their grapes. Wild plants and herbs are planted to help relieve the pressure of disease in the vineyard.
One to try this week: Estate Rosé – all the flavours of the English countryside!
5. Botley’s Farm
Hugo Stewart, Botley’s Farm, Salisbury
Finally a quick mention for a very special biodynamic vineyard, which has yet to produce any wines, but it is worth keeping an eye on their progress. Hugo and his old friend Paul set up and ran an organic & biodynamic vineyard in the western Languedoc for twelve years. He since returned to Wiltshire in 2016 and planted 4500 vines on a south facing chalky slope, all managed biodynamically. The grapes will be made into english sparkling, with the least intervention possible; you’ll have to wait until 2020 to try one of these!
It’s evident that vineyards can be a place of great biodiversity, lush havens for life above and below ground that produce a delicious fermented grape juice for us all to drink. Using technology and tools is a key part of helping these vineyards thrive, a combination of experience and good data can help to reduce dependency on chemical inputs to the vines. All these vineyards use our app Sectormentor for Vines to improve their productivity and ensure they grow quality grapes for quality wine. We’re committed to building tools to help vineyards manage their vines efficiently, to ensure their grapes are healthy and their management decisions have maximum impact. For more information don’t hesitate to contact us on email@example.com