November 26, 2009 12:59 am

English winemaker toasts climate change

Surveying the freshly harvested vines at his Ridgeview winery in Sussex, Mike Roberts is one of the few people around the world raising a glass to climate change.

This year has produced another bountiful harvest. And for the former accountant and his family business, rising temperatures ahead mean “consistent production, consistent quality and consistent quantities that keep our trade and our customers happy”.

This year’s output of English wine is predicted to be one of the largest ever – exceeding 3m bottles, or 50 per cent more than the annual average of 2m in the five years before. With research increasingly suggesting that warmer temperatures will benefit farmers in northerly latitudes, most people in the British wine industry are revelling in official forecasts of a 2°C increase in the country’s temperatures by 2050.

A recent Greenpeace report said the best latitudes for winemaking in the northern hemisphere could shift 1,000km north by the end of the century if global warming was not stopped.

“We’re beneficiaries of an international disaster – it sounds horrible but it’s true,” said Christopher Foss, head of wine studies at Plumpton College in Sussex.

Planting in Britain had increased by up to 25 per cent to 1,300 hectares over the past two years, Mr Foss said. He attributes the increase to three factors: climate change, the success of vineyards such as Ridgeview and Nyetimber, and renewed consumer interest in local food and wine.

Business is flourishing and Mr Roberts expects Ridgeview, which specialises in sparkling wines, to produce a quarter of a million bottles in 2010. His South Downs winery could produce good quality sparkling wine with or without global warming, he insisted, but rising temperatures have helped to fight off disease and let grapes ripen at an ideal pace.

At 29°C the heat can have an impact on micro-organisms that cause diseases in the grapes. It kills off spores that create powdery mildew, making disease easier to control.

The success of Ridgeview is not solely because of warmer temperatures. Mr Roberts, who is chairman of the English Wine Producers marketing association, argues that England’s south-eastern counties sit on the same chalk that lies under Champagne in France.

“Geologically they’re almost identical ... [and] as we look out of the window here, just 88 miles to the south of us is the area of Champagne. In world terms, they’re our next-door neighbour,” he said.

Despite one degree in latitude separating the two coastal regions, they both benefit from relatively cool climates, which is what originally prompted Mr Roberts to try to emulate the world’s quintessential sparkling wine.

But with optimal growing zones creeping north, it is the champagne-makers who are becoming increasingly envious of the conditions English winemakers now enjoy.

In response to the Greenpeace report, 50 of France’s top chefs, sommeliers and wine producers wrote to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, arguing that climate change was threatening the survival of the wine industry.

Conscious of their plight, Mr Roberts pointed to 2003 when grapes in the Champagne region suffered from severe frosting at the beginning of the year and later shrivelled under extreme heat.

He said 2003 “made everybody realise England is a winegrowing country”.

But Mr Roberts knows the long-term future remains uncertain.

Still, he said, if temperatures in south-east England became too hot, his family could leave the southward sloping paludina limestone bed he credits for his vintages and “move up north”.

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