Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bella Italia

Global warming: an opportunity for English winegrowers?

Darragh Gray goes wine tasting during English Wine Week.

Gently undulating rows of neat leafy vines and a light breeze on a warm summer’s day. Squint just a little and you could be in the Napa Valley. Only the green chestnut trees and the occasional red pitched roof give it away: this is England’s largest vineyard, just north of the busy London Road in Dorking, Surrey – less than an hour from the capital by train.

In fact, grapes have been grown around here on and off since Roman times, but the White family were laughed at when they first planted the Pinot Noir grape in the 1980s, says General Manager of Denbies Wine Estate, Christopher White. The family are no strangers to the concept of risk taking – the owners are underwriting members of Lloyd’s – but today Denbies is one of the largest privately owned vineyards in Europe and visiting the estate today, it doesn’t feel like such a risky idea.

English wine is enjoying a boom period right now: 400 vineyards produced 3.4 million bottles from the 2006 harvest, the third highest volume since records began. Over the last decade, a growing number of producers in the UK have opened up to visitors. From Jersey to the Isle of Wight and the South Downs to the Cotswolds, brown tourist signs depicting bunches of grapes are springing up on roadsides, encouraging visitors to taste wine. Even the North has got in on the act, with Leventhorpe Vineyard near Leeds officially the country’s most northerly vineyard. So is climate change to thank for this, and will global warming present an increasing opportunity for English winegrowers?

For the owners of Denbies, climate change is already happening. “We have a longer, warmer ripening period, the wines are cropping earlier, and the threat of frost is lower,” says White. This tallies with the experience of the weather experts. Pete Falloon, Climate Impacts Scientist at the Met Office, says Southern England has warmed by about a degree since the 1960s. Although that doesn’t sound like much, it can make a big difference in spring when late frosts can kill young shoots in temperate climates. As a result of warming, the number of air frost days is falling by as much as 30% to 50% in some areas of the country. Further warming is almost certain, says Falloon: “By 2040, hot summers like we had in 2003 will be a relatively normal occurrence, while by 2060 that could even seem relatively cool”.

Of course, the climate will change in other ways too. Rainfall patterns will change, bringing slightly drier summers and slightly wetter winters. “We will always have variability in the UK. But as a rule we can expect to see more extreme weather events, with more hot days, and rain falling in heavier downpours – regardless of the season,” Falloon explains. Extreme weather could bring its own set of problems for winegrowers. Wind can create serious problems at the flowering stage and extreme rainfall in the summer can decimate fruit and lead to mildew. One expert even believes that by 2080 some parts of the UK such as the Thames and Severn valleys and parts of Hampshire, could become just too hot for winegrowing.

So is Chris White worried that climate change might not be the good news it seems for British wine growers? To some extent, he says, “but then we have been plagued by bad weather in this part of the world throughout history”. And, he adds, if the weather gets much warmer, then English winegrowers will simply grow warmer climate grapes. English claret, anyone? In fact, the experts disagree over what will happen to the UK climate beyond 2040. Up until then, there is very little variation between most climate models because we are committed to a period of warming before any reduction in CO2 emissions starts to pay off.

One big question remains: are consumers ready to switch to English wine?Certainly with English sparkling wine now rivalling – and beating – some Champagnes in competitions and blind tastings, it is beginning to enjoy a higher profile. Britain consumes more sparkling wine per head than any other country, and this is the most profitable market sector for many of the larger English vineyards. The snob appeal of Champagne has not yet been broken, says White, but “the popularity of new world wines shows that British wine drinkers have become more adventurous. Compare the UK to France where you go to the supermarket and pretty much all you’ll find is French wine.” But isn’t there still a stigma attached to English wine? “In some quarters, but mainly among those who haven’t tried it,” he suggests.

On the question of changing tastes, climate change could present another important opportunity. As consumers become more environmentally aware, they will demand greater sustainability from their wine as well as their food, and that means locally sourced products. “English wine becomes a win-win story,” says Falloon: “bringing the benefit of reduced transport miles as well as adapting to the changing climate.”

As the weather gets warmer, and the English wine industry continues to mature, the forecast for winegrowers looks bright. Despite the apocalyptic news headlines which we have become accustomed to, climate change presents this particular industry with a very real opportunity. But even the most optimistic experts seem to draw a line somewhere around England’s northern border; vineyards in the Scottish Highlands just aren’t on the cards yet. “Although the whole country is likely to get warmer, there are degrees of warming and the South and East will benefit most,” says Falloon. Nonetheless, from London to Leeds those brown tourist signs are going to increase, and more of us could find ourselves whiling away our hot summer afternoons sipping an English vintage at estates like Denbies.