English and Welsh sparkling wines have been on wine bar and restaurant menus
for some time now, led by the classic Champagne trio of Chardonnay,
Pinot Noir and Meunier.
If we travel into the not-so-distant future, we predict local wine lists will feature more international and warm-weather-loving wines from grapes such as Merlot, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Albarino and Gamay.
For some of these, the future has already arrived. And they are thriving.
Yes, the UK is considered a cool climate wine region, hence the Champagne trio, but as with many wine regions around the world, our changing climate is forcing our vineyards’ hands. And with less regulations compared to more traditional regions, our producers are casting their curious nets onto new varieties that will weather a warmer, more extreme climate and potentially future proof our burgeoning wine industry.
Evolution against the Revolution
Until only a few decades ago, the UK’s marginal climate and unpredictable weather was not always favoured for top quality grape growing, however with our array of soils, longer, warmer summers, less regulations, and changing customer demands, entrepreneurial wine producers have made this region their home, and are experimenting with new styles, wine making techniques and grape varieties.
Climate is one of the key factors motivating this innovative approach. The World Meteorological Organisation recently predicted that average global temperatures will continue to increase. Between 2023 and 2027, the average temperature each year will be up to 1.8°C higher than pre-industrial age average (1850-1900)..
Dealing with the heat and erratic weather that climate change brings means evolving what grapes are grown, where they are grown and how the vines are managed.
Grape varieties that cope with heat and drought which can still maintain naturally high acidity levels, such as varieties from Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal are being considered in regions that only a few decades ago would have been scoffed at. Who would have thought Bordeaux would approve six new grape varieties, including Portugal’s Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho?
Centuries of regulations and knowledge are not much use when Mother Nature Is at the head of the table and she’s not happy. The rules are changing and it’s the experimental and bold that will come out on top.
Enter the PIWIs
‘PIWI’ is a German abbreviation for specially created fungal resistant grapes. These robust grapes tend to be crosses of traditional (Viti Vinifera) species designed to handle what the weather throws at them . Naturally grown, these new varieties are attractive to wine producers, especially in marginal climates such as the UK, where sustainable farming practices and less impact on the environment are common goals.
Here we meet with six English wine producers who have taken the plunge to produce wine from grape varieties that are not (currently) commonly grown in the UK.
The key drivers behind our new grape varieties
“The UK is an exciting emerging wine region…..” says Fiona Shiner of Woodchester Valley Vineyard in the Cotswolds, “Climate, regulation and customer demand will all have an impact on what wines we produce but most importantly we want to grow grapes that will make quality wine whatever conditions the English summer gives us”.
Chris Haywood of Astley Vineyards in Worcestershire concurs; “The wine world is watching us – we are not only starting to show our potential, we are deciding on our direction of travel – do we grow classic varieties which make consistent wines (Chardonnay for sparkling, for example), or do we explore PIWIs and modern hybrid varieties that show a lot of potential, but haven’t been explored so much? “.
Wine consumers will always lean towards familiarity and wines they know and trust, “however, I believe current wine drinkers like to experiment and try new wines,” continues Fiona.
Here come the PIWIs. “There are different drivers for why new grapes like Cabernet Noir are being planted in the UK,” says Alex Hurley from London Cru. “These certainly include a warming climate (and) interest in long term sustainability, but the search for quality red wine varieties was my main reason for working with this grape…..Cabernet Noir is a standout – in the (cool, wet) harvest of 2021 it arrived in perfect condition. The berries had wonderful concentration and exceeded my expectations. The main challenge with this grape is there is so little of it!”
Sergio Verrillo from Blackbook Winery in London says, “firstly, we are a young and developing region, we are still trying to find our feet and by extension our wines. The more obscure varieties being put into the ground are certainly a challenge to sell onward to consumers due to unfamiliarity. But restaurants and the wider trade are into it…. planting new varieties and experimentation are integral to our growth”.
The next 10-20 years
There is a movement away from what we are renowned for – sparkling wines – into still wines, and creating lower alcohol and vegan-friendly wines. Chris predicts that “… we’ll see a lot more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir planted for still wines as regions like Essex prove its viability.”
Alex continues. “As the climate trends warmer the viticultural options in the UK will certainly increase. Many producers are already starting to plant resistant varieties, but there is also a trend to venture into planting globally recognised ones like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as lesser known but interesting varieties from cool climate regions such as Jura, the Loire, Friuli, and Savoie.”
The Taste Test
A crossing of Riesling and Trollinger, Kerner is grown across Germany, and can be found in Alto Adige in Italy. It’s a late budding grape which means it misses spring frosts and isn’t too fussy where it grows, and seems to tolerate wet weather and its subsequent humidity..
The issue is its brand, “Nobody knows Kerner, so unless the customer is a wine enthusiast or wine buff, it takes a lot of explaining” says Chris from Astley.
Astley Vineyard has been growing Kerner for some time, with 50-year-old vines inhibiting the usually high yielding variety and providing more concentrated flavours. When the weather is good and it’s given time to ripen “Kerner can make fascinating wines, as in 2022, for example, it reached 13.5% potential alcohol” says Chris, which is rare in the UK. And with its naturally high acidity, it is fresh and citrusy on the palate. The result? “When its ripe it creates beautifully aromatic, rich, textural wines similar to Chenin Blanc and some Rieslings.”
This internationally, renowned, cool climate grape is a late ripener and needs time on the vine to ripen, which can be a challenge with our wet autumns, and if it’s too cool, acidity can become overly high. This aromatic grape variety has a few more fans than just us humans. “In hotter years, wasps love Sauvignon Blanc, and can do a lot of damage to the grapes,” says Fiona from Woodchester, “the birds also enjoy ripe Sauvignon Blanc grapes and can reduce the yield by a significant amount. We now net the vines to protect the fruit – it causes less sleepless nights!”
From one of the only vineyards in the UK to grow Gamay, this grape is robust and high yielding, so it’s all about controlling its vigour to maintain fruit concentration and “produce a typical style of wine that is quite unique in the UK” says Julian Barnes from Biddenden.
Winning awards, Biddenden’s limited-edition wine is only made when the vintage is right, so we can hopefully expect more of it in warmer years going forward.
Widely planted in Switzerland, the cool climate-loving Chasselas is uniquely produced at Bluebell Vineyard, which has its benefits and challenges, “we have had to experiment a lot with our Chasselas to learn how to treat it as there is no one else in the UK producing this varietal wine” says winemaker, Kevin Sutherland. “…but the opportunity is that we have the pleasure of introducing this varietal to customers that may not have heard of it before.”
Essentially a neutral grape, Chasselas can take on the characteristics of the terroir and mold itself to the winemaker’s style.
This Swiss hybrid, Cabernet Noir, was developed in the early 1990s by crossing Cabernet Sauvignon with an unknown disease-resistant grape variety. Possibly the holy grail for fuller bodied reds in the UK, the issue isn’t creating a great red, there’s just not enough of this variety grown here.
“This is one of the most interesting red wine varieties for the UK as it is naturally resistant to disease pressures like mildew”, says Alex at London Cru. “It can be grown with less chemicals, allows longer ripening hanging time, and lowers its environmental impact. Cabernet Noir also happens to have some very promising red wine aromatics, tannin structure, and ripeness potential for our English climate”.
Sauvignac is a crossing of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and other disease-resistant grape varieties. As a PIWI variety, this means there’s less need for fungicides, less tractor passes through the vineyard and less carbon emissions, “making it a more sustainable option,” comments Sergio from Blackbook. “…this also allows grape bunches to hang on the vine longer to achieve phenolic ripeness.”