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England and Wales 2021 vintage report: Saved by September, sensational for sparkling?

Stopham Vineyard 2021 harvest
Photo credit: @59photos

Overview

The most common description of England and Wales’ 2020 vintage was “exceptional” – for 2021 it is “exceptionally difficult”. But “difficult” does not equal “poor”, and while challenges abounded in the vineyard in 2021, as the fermented grape juices settle down in tanks and barrels across the land, there is a sense of relief, satisfaction, pride and even excitement. Saved by September (and October), for those who put in the countless hours in the vineyard battling frost and disease, 2021 may yet turn out to be a superb vintage for English & Welsh Sparkling Wines; still wine production has been tougher but there will be pockets of excellence.

The growing season

The cold start to 2021 was in some ways a blessing in disguise. May frosts last year caused significant loss in parts of the country, but with vines coming out of dormancy later this year, the relentless frost events of April 2021 had a lower impact than would otherwise have been the case. Contrasting this with the devastation wrought across many regions of France puts the trials and tribulations of the rest of the growing season in perspective – at least English growers had some grapes to worry about.

Having said this, while budburst had not yet occurred at many vineyards during the worst frost period – Raimes in Hampshire reported budburst in May, as did Saffron Grange in Essex – there were still many vineyards that had to battle the cold weather. We heard several tales of woe from West Sussex. Stopham Estate reported: “Budburst was on April 10th and we did our best to manage 10 frost events with our air drain fan but ultimately the frost did affect yields”. Artelium Wine Estate had 13 air frost events to deal with. Dillions Vineyard told us:

“We had the woolly buds and they kept us protected pretty well but we still ended up in the last week of April having temperatures of -3.5C.  Not much protects against that and we essentially just ran out of candles and firewood – so we suffered about 30- 40 per cent damage to our primary buds.  Not a great start!”

Meanwhile, further north in West Berkshire, All Angels reported:

“Here we had the worst frost for 60 years.  During April and May we worked through the night (from 11pm till 5pm the following day) to fight the frosts on 27 occasions and 17 nights in a row, using bougies, frost guards, frost fans and trialling some frost ovens (which proved problematic and not effective).  The hard work paid off and we survived with negligible frost damage”

Those further east seemed less impacted by frost, with Heppington Vineyard and Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent and Martin’s Lane Vineyard in Essex escaping without frost issues, the latter protected by the “big up-river tides of the Crouch Valley”.

Once this critical period had passed, what then? As Linda Howard at Gifford’s Hall in Suffolk put it, it was “dry when it should have rained, and rainy almost consistently when it shouldn’t have done”.

Flowering and fruit set was a mixed bag across the country, with some experiencing wet and/or cool weather during this period. Defined Wine, contract winemakers based in Kent, who produce wine for over two dozen vineyards, noted that several of their clients experienced “rain during flowering leading to uneven fruit set”. This millerandage (“hen and chicken” bunches) was also reported by All Angels, and was in evidence on the Insta feeds of many vineyards. Davenport Vineyards (East Sussex and Kent) said “Pollination was not 100% effective, which resulted in smaller bunches than normal, with fewer berries forming on the bunches”.

August was a massive disappointment: consistently overcast and with humidity that brought enormous disease pressure. Downy mildew was the main issue, particularly across the South-East, but botrytis also reared its ugly head. While we’ve not uet received any reports of Noble Rot and plans for dessert wines, we wouldn’t be surprised if a few producers manage to make some this year.

It was perhaps especially tough for the small, brave, proportion of vineyards that are organic and for whom chemical spraying was not an option. Albury Vineyard in Surrey recounted:

“Downey mildew was the biggest problem … Normally it only effects the canopy but this year the fruit was also badly damaged. This is the first year I feel we have suffered from disease more than conventional vineyards”.

At Davenport, also organic, Will Davenport said “we had to spend extra time ensuring the canopy management was perfect and any mildew was manually removed. The man hours spent in the vineyard over July and August and the experience of our team meant that the crop was kept clean.”

For those not within an organic regime, chemical applications made a real difference. Heppington “managed to avoid downy mildew thanks to a stringent spray regime” while Martin’s Lane reported that “The prospect [of downy mildew] was fortunately recognised very early by our site team and preventative sprays were applied to allay its ever making an appearance, so another major obstacle was avoided.”

Wayfarer Wines in Kent benefited from the lack of windbreaks on and around their plot: “The vineyard is quite windy, however this does not seem to effect yield and the fruit remains disease free and dries off well even during periods of rain.”

Of course, the picture was not the same across the entire country. Saffron Grange in north Essex reported “very little fungal disease on the grapes here once again thankfully due to our relatively drier climate”.

With respect to botrytis, the story at Dillions is representative of many: “the wet weather meant that our grapes swelled very quickly and had very thin skins. So, we suffered a lot of splitting… [which] meant that botrytis had a field day!” Artelium’s vineyard manager, Chris Buckley, said:

“Botrytis pressure was under control going into harvest but with the wetter weather mid-October it got progressively worse towards the end and thin-skinned varietals such as Pinot Noir suffered badly.”

As Roy Martin at Martin’s Lane put it:

“The aim of reaching a reasonable ripeness in our fruit seemed a distant dream after such a poor season and the decision was taken to dig in for the long wait and to hang the fruit as long as conditions would permit, so the ‘white knuckle’ ride began.”

Fortunately, nature seemed to take pity at this point. It was September that really saved the season, although it required a good October to follow on from it, given how far behind the grapes were. Raimes spoke of “lovely sunny days in October which helped to move ripening forwards” and Simpsons poetically of “gloriously golden autumn sunshine”. At Heppington they believe an “awful summer (the dullest August in Kent since 1968) [was] only redeemed by a decent September and October”.

The graphic below, from Tony Eva at englishwines.info, is a dramatic visualisation of both just how slow the start to the season was and just how amazing September and October were, taking the growing degree days for 2021 above both 2019 and even 2020 by the end of October, which doesn’t tally with the subjective feelings of vineyard managers throughout the country.

2021 in historical perspective

Picking well into October was the norm this year, and plenty of Chardonnay was left until the first week of November. As Sam Lindo at Camel Valley put it: “later picking, or I should probably say back to the olden days”, reminding us of the changes that the longer-established English vineyards have seen in the past few decades.

Stopham Vineyard harvest 2021
Photo credit: @59photos

Quality

The long autumn hang time in relative warmth and sunshine meant that full phenolic ripeness was achieved. Many growers enthused about the flavour of the grapes they picked. Here is a selection of quotes:

  • “Phenolically and flavour profiles are extremely good” – Danbury Ridge
  • “Interestingly some good flavours.  The reds are very surprising” – Giffords Hall
  • “A better year than 2020” – Three Choirs
  • “Our phenolics were good” – Shotley
  • “The quality of this year’s grapes remained very good and clean” – Saffron Grange
  • “The quality of the fruit is fantastic, ensuring the levels of excellence required to make our world-class still and sparkling wines” – Simpsons“
  • “The flavours are generally very good and probably better than 2019 when there were problems with the amount of rain and hence dilution around harvest” – Defined Wines
  • “The team thought the berries and fruit in some samples tasted delicious just without the sugar!” – Artelium

The last quote leads into the next aspect, which is that sugars remained lower than seen in recent years, although often not significantly. DEFRA allowed a relaxation of the chapitalisaton rules, increasing the maximum added post-fermenation alcohol from 3% to 3.5%, a move described as “welcome” by Heppington and others. Defined Wine, whom as we noted above see fruit from over two dozen vineyards, commented that fruit was “noticeably less ripe than last year – the average was 1.75% potential alcohol lower than last year”.

Once again, the Crouch Valley in Essex led the way in ripeness of fruit. Duncan McNeill of McNeill Vineyard Management announced on 5 November that: “Our premium Pinot Noir picks from four local vineyards in the Crouch Valley this week have already seen sugar levels of 93 – 98 oeschle (in the range 13% potential alcohol)”. Martin’s Lane reported:

“We were positively taken aback to see, first of all, the Pinot Gris coming in at 92Oe, followed by the first of the Pinot Noir clones (our ‘general purpose’ clones) also reaching 92Oe and then amongst other Pinot Noir ‘star performers’ 95Oe and finally 98Oe (more than 13.5% ABV). A superb quality and ultra clean crop of Chardonnay (around 3t/acre) concluded events on 7 November and came in consistently across all clones at just beneath 90Oe. Many of these results were close or up to the results we saw here in 2020.”

Acids, conversely, are higher than in 2020, although keeping an eye on levels was essential: Shotley noted “acids were dropping quicker than I have seen in previous years” and Three Choirs said that “The acids seemed to drop before the sugars went up”. Artelium reported: “Acids began to drop fast from early October with sugars not moving much. In some instances, we were picking based upon acids rather than sugars.” For some, levels remained stubbornly high, with Albury going so far as to say: “the major problem was acidity” which they would try to manage through malolactic fermentation for some wines. On the other hand, Harrow & Hope found “acids were much more balanced than we’ve had in similar years in the past. Maybe vine age helping.”

Yields

The combination of some frost damage, dropping mildewed / botrytised fruit, and dropping healthy fruit (“green harvesting”) to turbo-charge the ripening of the remaining grapes after the poor summer led to reduced yields at the majority of the vineyards we spoke with. However, away from the epicentre of the disease-quake in the South-East, the picture was more positive.

Simpsons stated that they will: “produce approximately 155,000 bottles this year, which is a drop of 10% on last year’s production” which itself was low yielding due to frost. Most of this decrease was due to a 24% reduction in still wine production – as they pointed out: “something which for us is always dictated by the yields of appropriate still-quality fruit”. They would “ideally like to be producing at least another 100,000 bottles and easily have the demand for it” and indeed the owners Charles and Ruth Simpson are actively looking to source another 10ha of land to ensure more consistent production levels.

The disease pressure on Albury discussed above meant that overall, across their two vineyards they only harvested 35% of an average year. Heppington were down 40% mainly due to green harvesting. One vineyard that wished to remain anonymous disclosed yields for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir below 1 tonne per acre, with yields overall at only a sixth of the level of 2018. Davenport were “happy that we achieved 1.5 tonnes per acre in a year when most [organic vineyards] picked nothing at all”.

As one might expect, it was not uniformly bad news and some vineyards experienced (relatively) excellent yields – for example, Saffron Grange reported their largest ever harvest and All Angels were up 80% on 2020. Wayfarer Wines in Kent reported that they “managed a good yield, approx. 2.2 ton per acre which was up on last year”. Flint Vineyard in Norfolk had their best ever yield (and quality). Harrow & Hope, who are a couple of years into organic conversion were please that “yields were very close to average at 7.5t/Ha”.

White Castle, who were badly struck by frost in 2020, said “we had an above average good clean harvest… Overall a good growing season with a dry warm autumn resulting in a massive difference to the 2020 vintage.” It was a similar story at Woodchester Valley Vineyard, who cropped “120 tonnes, over double last year’s yield and only the second time we’ve harvested over 100 tonnes.”  

The other story – labour and materials shortage

Whether it be Brexit or Covid or both, it is indisputable that vineyards (along with many other industries) struggled to get their normal pickers in 2021, and had to plan well in advance to ensure materials arrived in a timely manner.

The industry is fortunate to benefit from the romantic notions that attach to a grape-picking harvest, with many, many vineyards relying on volunteers to wield the secateurs for free, or the relatively nominal cost of a meal washed down with the previous vintages’ wines. You don’t find that happening in the haulage industry.

Raimes “asked our local community and followers for help, and were overwhelmed by the response”. Meanwhile, Shotley commented: “Labour was harder this year. Last year people had been furloughed so I didn’t have trouble finding people. I used all locals this year but it took a lot of time and effort to find people and coordinate.” Charles Palmer Vineyard in East Sussex, “also got in a machine harvester which we used for 2 days” to overcome the labour shortages.

Giffords Hall were in the minority: “we were very lucky – [our] pickers are onsite and have come to us from Kent for almost 9 years now”.

Whether the situation will ease next year, and whether volunteers are happy to return, remains to be seen.

Stopham Vineyard 2021 harvest over
Photo credit: @59photos

Conclusions

For English and Welsh Sparkling Wines, the combination of lower sugar and higher acidity is far from fatal, and when combined with excellent phenolic ripeness levels, actually bodes extremely well for the quality potential of traditional method English Sparkling Wines from or based on 2021.

It will be interesting to see to what extent vineyards pull back from producing still wines in 2021. Over the past few years even some of the most ardent nay-sayers (like Hattingley Valley) have performed a volte face and produced some still wines. Charles Palmer, which produced its first still wine in 2018 and produced only still wines in 2020, have flipped totally back to 100% English Sparkling Wine production in 2021. All of Woodchester Valley’s Pinot Noir was used for sparkling rosé rather than still rosé or red, while Artelium stated that “more of our production will be going into sparkling” and Camel Valley said “Definitely more sparkling being made [by us] this year”. Will cashflow or quality win out across the industry?

We should reiterate, however, that there were areas where fruit clearly ripened sufficiently to make very high quality still wines. Essex, Norfolk and some areas either side of the Welsh border seem particularly promising. Even in the South-East, there is potential; Davenport opined, “the flavours of the fermenting wines are very encouraging. I hope 2021 will make some delicious still aromatic wines in a lighter style”.

A year like this has certainly given pause for thought for those looking to plant (more) and those considering organic certification. Anecdotally we have heard of several expansion plans that have been shelved, at least temporarily. But some have taken heart from surviving this difficult year – Harrow & Hope, two years into an organic conversion, concluded that “overall it has given us much more confidence that our viticultural direction is working and we now have no excuses not to make it work.”

We’ll leave the final words to Fiona Shiner of Woodchester Valley, “Nature has a way of compensating and the long hang time on the vines has resulted in some really lovely intense, pure fruit which promises well for the 2021 wines” and Roy Martin of Martin’s Lane Estates: “what do any of us know about predicting the fortunes of grape harvest based upon the experience of an English Summer!”

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Full vineyard vintage report links:

Albury Vineyard

All Angels

Artelium Wine Estate

Camel Valley

Charles Palmer

Danbury Ridge

Davenport Vineyards

Dillions Vineyard

Flint Vineyard

Giffords Hall

Harrow & Hope

Heppington

Martin’s Lane

Raimes

Saffron Grange

Shotley Vineyard

Simpsons Wine Estate

Stopham Estate

Three Choirs

Wayfarer Wines

White Castle

Woodchester Valley