'We also get land owners who have woken up to the idea that vineyards are not an eccentricity, they're actually a potentially very attractive way of employing their land'
By Adela Suliman
LONDON, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sparkling or sweet demand for English wine is flourishing, say producers, with the search for suitable land to grow grapes and plant vineyards gathering momentum across England.
As English Wine Week gets underway, the industry's trade body announced 3 million vines had been planted in England and Wales this year - three times the number planted in 2017 - making the country one of the world's fastest growing wine regions.
Once a peculiarity, demand for English wine has increased as the industry has matured, said Simon Robinson, chairman of Wines of Great Britain (WineGB), a national trade body.
"Potential vineyard land looks like a really attractive bet," said Robinson, who also owns Hattingley Valley vineyard in Hampshire.
Not all farming land is suitable for vineyard planting, he noted, with land generally having to be south facing to soak up the sun, on a slope and with the correct kind of earth to control drainage and water retention.
As a result, more than 70% of wine is produced in the southeast of the country.
Such vineyard-suitable land can attract a premium of about 50% more than general agricultural land, he said.
"We also get land owners who have woken up to the idea that vineyards are not an eccentricity, they're actually a potentially very attractive way of employing their land," Robinson said.
Interest in grape-growing has particularly risen as Britain prepares to leave the European Union, said Robinson, as subsidies for traditional agricultural land are likely to fall and farmers seek diverse sources of income.
About 200 vineyards are open to the public across England and Wales, according to WineGB, as wine tourism proves a popular past-time for enthusiasts, while restaurants and supermarkets increasingly stock the home-grown beverages.
Land for vineyards covers just over 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) a number that has more than doubled in the last seven years, says WineGB - often with more vines being planted than production facilities built to keep up.
"Interest in land from viticulture buyers has never been stronger," said Nick Watson of Strutt & Parker, a real estate agency.
Due to the scarcity of land that meets the wine-growing requirements, "such land generates great interest and commands a significant premium above its underlying agricultural value," he said, with many potential buyers approaching owners directly to buy off-market.
As a ballpark figure, in southeast England an acre is worth on average about 8,500 pounds ($10,700) compared with plantable vineyard land, fitting the key criteria, at 15,000 to 20,000 pounds ($19,000- $25,000) per acre, Watson said.
Rents paid on land leased for vineyards could also be two or three times higher than the agricultural rental value, said Watson, leading to an interest from both established wine companies and individuals.
When Andrew Weeber first planted grape vines on the Gusbourne estate in the southeastern county of Kent in 2004 "he was considered a bit mad ... it was deemed as an unwise investment," said Jonathan White, head of marketing at Gusbourne.
Since then, the business has "thrived" as English wine has become more commonplace and receives international acclaim, he said, including numerous awards at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards in 2018.
"I think there's certainly a movement for more wineries to be created and more agricultural land to be turned into vineyards over the course of the next few years," said White.
Although Britain's plans to leave the EU posed a potential issue for trade and links to manufacturers and equipment, the move had also renewed interest in supporting local industries, he said.
"I can't see the planting of vineyards slowing, I think it's going to increase and there's going to be much more land planted for vineyards, much more wine produced and many more brands."
Wine production is set to reach some 40 million bottles by 2040, up from about 16 million bottles produced last year, with potential exports for Britain in the region of 350 million pounds ($444 million), according to WineGB.
Two-thirds of wine produced in England is sparkling with top grape varieties including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
"There is certainly an increase in interest in good quality viticulture land, either on or off market," said Alistair Nesbitt, a viticulture climatologist at consultancy Vinescapes.
"We have seen a 200% increase in vineyard hectarage in England and Wales over the last decade and that trend continues."
The changing climate has been a major factor in the surge, said Nesbitt, as rising heat is turning parts of the famously wet, grey country into prime grape-growing land.
Using computer models, historical climate records and terrestrial data, scientists at the University of East Anglia have predicted about 33,700 hectares of land could be productive for wine-making as England's weather warms.
CAUSING A FIZZ?
A taste for English wine is growing abroad too, with England exporting to 40 countries, up from 27 in 2017, with the United States and Scandinavia the two biggest markets.
But realtor Chris Spofforth of Savills property agency said although there is a "definite demand" for land for vineyards, it is not yet a full-scale land rush.
"It's exciting times for the industry, with some major investment and a significant shift in balance from lifestyle to commercial enterprises," said Spofforth.
However, he warned it would not "all be plain sailing" as land leases for wineries tend to be longer, at least 25 years, so is often viewed as a big undertaking for land owners.
Planting the Bolney estate with vineyards in the 1970s made Sam Linter's family English wine "pioneers," she said. This year, they took on more land and now have five vineyards covering 104 acres in southeast England.
Better informed consumers, success at major international awards and improved viticulture education all meant land for wine growing was increasingly viewed as a good investment, Linter said.
Predicting a future where people would drive across the English countryside and "see more vineyards dotted around" and a greater number of bottles on shelves, Linter is optimistic.
"I've always believed that we make really good wine in this country," she said.
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(Reporting by Adela Suliman @Adela_Suliman; editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org for more stories.)
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