The rising popularity of English wines coupled with the region’s warm, dry weather has seen demand for grapes grown in East Anglia reach unprecedented levels, with many producers expanding their acreage to cope.
Linda Howard, director of Giffords Hall Vineyard, near Bury St Edmunds, said the region was so well-suited to the bacchus variety of grape, which produces wine similar to sauvignon blanc, that within 10 years it may seek “protected designation of origin” status.
Mrs Howard, who is also membership secretary for the East Anglian Vineyards Association, said the status would have immense benefits for the industry, particularly on the international export market.
“In Asia, in particular, provenance is even more important – it’s a real mark of quality,” she added.
Already, the region is seeing growth in the burgeoning wine tourism market, with plans developing to create a wine trail linking local vineyards.
Mrs Howard said she had “no idea the uptake would be so great”.
“Wine tourism, particularly in East Anglia, is one to watch,” she added.
Recent years have seen widespread growth in the English wine industry, with the acreage of planted vineyards more than doubling in just a decade, according to the English Wine Producers (EWP) organisation.
Research by the University of East Anglia found that, since 1993, average southern England growing season temperatures matched those in the Champagne region during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Mrs Howard said there was “so much new planting going on” in Suffolk and Essex to capitalise on these opportunities.
Tom Bunting, manager at Dedham Vale Vineyard, near Colchester, said he had recently planted an extra 12 acres of vines, including 10 for sparkling varieties, which have proven particularly popular with customers.
“It’s been very busy for the past couple of years,” he said.
“We’ve seen record sales and have planted another 10 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay to keep up with the demand.
“We will have the first harvest next year and a full production in two years’ time.”
The key to the growing popularity of English sparkling wines, Mr Bunting says, is because it’s a “seriously good product”.
Sparkling wine production started to exceed still varieties from the 2010 harvest onwards, according to EWP, with it now accounting for two thirds of the sector. Over the past 16 years, English sparkling wines have won nine trophies at international competitions, with sparkling rosés winning a further six – the best performance of all other countries.
As well as improved growing conditions, customer perceptions have also changed, according to Ian Evans, who planted his first vineyard at Copdock Hall in 2013.
“English wine is getting over the suspicions that people used to hold about it when it was seen generally as rough and horrible,” he said.
“Lots of people are giving it a go and they’re almost surprised to find how good they can be.”
With Suffolk already well-known for its food and drink, with brands such as Adnams and Aspall, Mr Evans said it made sense for wine producers to capitalise on the county’s culinary appeal.
“Suffolk has a great brand – why not cash in on that?” he said.
Mrs Howard also said the growing focus on the provenance of food and drink meant customers were keen to use local suppliers.
“We bought this place 13 years ago and we had no idea that most supermarkets would be stocking English wine on their shelves,” she said.
“The industry has mushroomed.”
And with English wine accounting for less than 1% of the UK market share, there are further opportunities in the years ahead.
“There’s a big market to expand in,” Mrs Howard said.
Giffords Hall will be launching its newest wine, a part-oaked winter white called Gainsborough, in the autumn.
Pioneering AI technology helps Suffolk winemakers
Advances in technology are helping East Anglian vineyards improve their crops and expand the variety of grapes they grow.
As many grape varieties are susceptible to climatic variations, pests and disease, any ways to minimise those risks can be hugely valuable to producers.
Vineyards in Suffolk are among the first nationally to begin making use of pioneering artificial intelligence technology, said to be a “game-changer” in modern agronomics.
Last week, Giffords Hall Vineyard welcomed Hummingbird Technologies Ltd to trial its new techniques aimed at optimising yield and detecting disease.
The company, which is based at Imperial College London and has partnered with agricultural giants Velcourt, uses drones mounted with “cutting-edge sensors” to fly over agricultural land at critical points in the growing season, acting as a “rapid data collection, processing and storage device”.
Will Wells, who founded the company, said it was a possible “game-changer”.
“Through advanced data and imagery analytics of what the human eye can’t see, we provide farmers and their agronomists with actionable intelligence upon which to predict and increase agricultural yields, optimise resource-consumption and sustainably manage land for a better future,” he added.
Linda Howard, director at Giffords Hall, said the technology could have “incredible” benefits to her business.
Already, she says advances in technology have allowed her to “comfortably” grow pinot noir, despite warnings from French vineyards that it would not be possible in Suffolk.
The potential benefits are so significant that the Environment Agency last year invested in new laser mapping technology to “revolutionise the already booming English wine industry” by helping growers identify new land to grow better quality grapes.
The 3D LIDAR maps will help growers better understand the tiny variations in slope and aspect of their land to help pinpoint the best location to plant vines that will thrive.
At the launch in October, environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said there had “never been a more exciting time for the English wine industry”.
“Production has doubled in the last five years, chalking up an estimated retail value of £82million, and by using cutting-edge technology such as precision viticulture our hard-working grape growers are now producing some of the best wine in the world,” she said.
“By opening up our extensive data vaults we will further grow this important industry. LIDAR is just the beginning of the biggest government data giveaway the country has ever seen, giving the industry the tools it needs to grow.”