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Spells of hot, dry weather and sharp rain showers at just the right time in the summer and early autumn have led to the harvest of a record-breaking batch of pinot noir grapes, a Devon winery has announced.
Lyme Bay Winery, based in Axminster, Devon, says the batch has potential alcohol levels of 14.7%, which it says is a record for pinot noir produced in the UK.
The grapes were grown in the Crouch valley in Essex, and the red wine that will be created from them will be ready for tasting in 2021 and 2022.
James Lambert, managing director of LBW Drinks, which owns Lyme Bay, said: “We are jubilant about this news. For grapes to achieve this level of ripeness in the UK is unheard-of.”
The winery has been open 24 hours during the autumn’s harvest, with teams working 12-hour shifts to ensure the grapes came directly from the field to be processed, even in the middle of the night.
Duncan McNeill, who grew the vines, said: “Before we started the harvest this year, we had an inkling that we were going to get some very ripe fruit. The dry summer, followed by a bout of rain and then a late burst of warm weather was all very hopeful. But then we had four inches of rain.
“We held our nerve and didn’t panic pick. The work we did over the summer paid dividends and meant we could wait, and the grapes reached peak ripeness. Letting the grapes bathe in a bit of autumn has given them a certain nobility.”
The previous potential alcohol level for pinot noir in the UK was 13.4%, again in a batch from the Crouch valley.
Potential alcohol level is not a guarantee of world-class wine, but it is a key indicator, and McNeill said it may be a “significant” moment for the British industry. He said that in excellent “new world” pinot noir regions, such as Otago in New Zealand and Oregon in the US, a potential alcohol level such as Crouch valley’s 14.7% was seen as the “benchmark” to make a “truly outstanding” wine. “We’ve grown the raw material to make something fantastic,” he said.
The industry body Wines of Great Britain welcomed the news. Julia Trustram Eve, head of marketing, said it had been an excellent harvest overall. “The quality of the fruit and the ripeness it has achieved has been really good.”
Stephen Skelton, who has grown vines since the 1970s and has written widely on the subject, added: “There is a breed of younger, thrusting vine growers, vineyard managers and wine-makers who have been trained abroad and are finding very good conditions here. This year could be a very memorable one for the relatively few good reds made in this country.”
It is not all good news, however. English wine is getting better in large part because of the climate crisis. Since McNeill began growing grapes in Essex 16 years ago, having learned his craft in New Zealand and Germany, he reckons the date at which his crop has achieved ripeness has advanced by 10 days.