Following many months’ preparation, and with increasing anticipation from viticulturists and winemakers across the UK, the inaugural Viti-Culture show proved to be a momentous success. 

Held on Thursday 11 July 2019 at Plumpton College, Sussex, the first UK event of its kind, conceived and organised by Grape Vine Events with support from Vineyard magazine, saw over 1,200 visitors through the gates.

The free-to-attend one-day Viti-Culture show was designed to focus on supplies and services available to growers and winemakers by showcasing the very latest machinery and equipment as well as the myriad of professional services and supplies needed from soil to cellar. 

Set in the grounds of Plumpton College against an incredibly picturesque backdrop of the South Downs, it certainly didn’t disappoint. 80 trade exhibitors on hand to provide vineyard owners, managers, winemakers and those looking to plant their first vines, with specialist advice.

“As with all new events, the first year is all about testing the water – or in this case, wine,” said Karen Wheeler, director at Grape Vine Events Ltd. “While we were always confident how well the show would be received, the response from exhibitors and visitors alike has been outstanding and far-beyond what we could have possibly hoped for. Many exhibitors expressed their gratitude for having the right forum to showcase their business at last, while visitors relished the opportunity to hear experts from across the industry speak during the full day of seminars and meetings.”

Strive for quality

Following a special VIP networking breakfast, sponsored by HSBC, in the main marquee, Doug Jackson, from NFU Mutual, took to the podium ready to chair the day’s seminar programme, which had been organised by Vineyard magazine and sponsored by Kreston Reeves.

First to speak at the first Viti-Culture event was co-founder of Sussex’s Rathfinny Wine Estate, Mark Driver. Kicking off his keynote speech, the ex-London hedge fund manager began by answering the popular question: “why plant a vineyard and why choose to make wine in Sussex and not France?” 

“I hadn’t tasted wines from England since the 1980s and I remember thinking that they tasted like battery acid; they were pretty shocking,” said Mark Driver, who studied viticulture and winemaking at Plumpton College’s wine centre. “I started reading about the success of this incredible bourgeoning industry and in 2010 I bought six bottles of English sparkling wine, many made by Plumpton alumni, and six bottles of Champagne and had a blind tasting with my wife Sarah and some friends. Amazingly all the English wines headed to the top of the list and when my French friend said she preferred the Ridgeview I decided that we should look to plant grapes somewhere in Sussex.”

Shortly after, Mark and Sarah purchased a 600-acre farm called Rathfinny on the outskirts of Alfriston; today the vineyard, which features in this month’s Editor’s Visit (see page 16) comprises approximately 90-hectares of vines, with extensive winery facilities, tasting room, restaurant and accommodation. 

In his speech, which proved to be so popular it was standing room only, Mark also touched on the challenges of English viticulture, sustainability and reducing carbon footprints, the importance of knowing your potential markets before you start planting and the need to focus on the creation of world-class wines.

“It all sound very easy, but it is in fact hard work and expensive too,” said Mark. “Over-supply, is a dreaded topic because in the last three years alone some five million vines have been planted in the UK. We cannot rely on displacing the whole UK market for Champagne, we need to tackle overseas markets and most of all we need to focus on quality. Why would anyone buy a mediocre bottle of English wine when you can buy fantastic wines from the rest of the world for less? We need to strive for quality in everything we do, and we need to grow the best grapes we can, on the best sites. Low yielding, highly frost-prone sites, will not be sustainable in our marginal climate. We need to study, and we need to make the best wines we can with the best equipment we can afford.” 

Leasing land

Following Mark and a quick poll of the audience, which showed that one third of delegates were at the event because they were thinking about getting into the viticulture industry, Matthew Berryman from CLM talked about the growth of the industry, the importance of identifying markets before planting, the acquisition of suitable vineyard sites and how to negotiate lease or tenancy agreements.

“With the industry focused on producing quality wines from quality fruit, if you are going to invest £15,000 per acre in establishing a vineyard, you have to be absolutely sure that you have chosen the best site possible,” said Matthew. “There is a lot of talk about heady prices in the land market and there are a range of prices being paid for viticulture land from £15,000 to £20,000 per acre. Add that to the costs of establishment and you are potentially looking at £35,000 per acre to get up and running, but what if you haven’t got those funds?”

With increasing numbers of people approaching Matthew and the land agency team at CLM about the possibility of leasing sites, questions have been raised over what rental values should be attached to viticulture land. According to Matthew, while it clearly depends on the quality and suitability of the site, it is about finding the balance between the landowner, who, if committing to a lease duration of at least 20, if not 25 years, will want to ensure they are getting a profitable return and the grower who will need a sensible price to ensure they have a sustainable business model.

Quick, accurate and detailed 

The team from Vine-Works, who were joined by Abby Rose from Vidacycle, then covered the importance of monitoring and recording data in the vineyard, using the specially designed Sectormentor app, before explaining the new scouting service which was launched at the beginning of 2019. 

“It is a boots on the ground service which has been combined with a cloud-based app,” said D’Arcy Gander, co-founder of Vine-Works. “The industry is growing rapidly, we planted 28 new vineyards in 2019, but there is still a lack of viticulturists. We want to help those who don’t have a full-time vineyard manager, managers whose time would be better spent elsewhere, and those who are still learning about viticulture. We will be providing them with a quick, accurate and detailed scouting and reporting protocol service.” 

The team will be gathering a range of data during the vines’ different phenological stages, such as disease and pest issues to nutritional deficiencies. By using the app, results can be neatly kept in one place, allowing growers to efficiently use the results to their advantage.

“The results can be shared instantly with whoever needs it and the information will help many when it comes to scheduling and thinking about vineyard operations,” said Joel Jorgensen at Vine-Works. “The technical scouting packages are based on the age of the vines as once they are cropping, they will need a lot more attention. The scout will go out in the vineyard looking at a certain number of vines in each block, he will have a list of diseases and pests to look out for and can use the app to quickly record the data. The software will then calculate essential decision-making data which can be used to influence spray programmes for instance.” 

A cost-efficient way to manage small to medium sized vineyards, the pricing has been based on the number of vines, hectares, varietal and clonal combinations and the number of visits through the year. 

Algorithms build an accurate picture

Building on the technology in the vineyard theme, Frederick South from Sencrop took to the podium to discuss the Cambridge-based digital start-up’s new generation of connected weather stations and how they could help provide real-time data and support to growers. 

“We currently have 7,500 active weather stations located in over 10 countries and have only recently come to the UK,” said Frederick. “Sencrop has been designed to help growers boost yields and the networks are a key part of this, with the concept based on the ability to share weather information with neighbouring farmers and growers. For the viticulture market we have developed leaf wetness sensors which are currently being used in France by Bollinger, Taittinger, Möet and Veuve Clicquot.” 

The leaf wetness sensor has 24/7 monitoring capabilities and will measure dew and precipitation accumulating on the leaf surface, as well as the air temperature and humidity for disease risk. Specially developed algorithms are then used to build up an accurate picture of the precise conditions within the vine canopy with results displayed through an online ‘dashboard’ available from an internet browser or a smartphone app. 

The ‘Leafcrop’ technology is also capable of measuring wet-bulb temperature, a determining factor for the onset of frost. By scheduling alerts through the dashboard, Leafcrop can effectively warn growers of an impending frost risk and suggests preventative action.

Paramount to profitable viticulture

An audience led Q&A ‘big machinery debate’ gave delegates the opportunity to chat through some of the key issues surrounding mechanisation in the vineyard with experts including Cameron Roucher, vineyard manager at Rathfinny, Luke Wolfe, vineyard operations manager for Chapel Down, Sam Barnes, from NP Seymour and SJ Barnes, and David Sayell from Vitifruit Equipment. 

The first question to be discussed was ‘how can machinery make viticulture more viable?’ The consensus from the panel was “in every way possible”, with Cameron highlighting that machinery, regardless of vineyard size, will not only help to make specialist tasks such as spraying more efficient but overall make repetitive jobs manageable and quicker. Luke Wolfe backed this up, stressing that in the UK’s challenging climate, getting jobs, such as spraying, done quickly at the right time is paramount to profitable, successful viticulture and only machinery can help to achieve this.

It was not long before the conversation turned to the growth of the industry and concerns over the scarcity of labour. Luke pointed out that, currently, labour “is there, but it is expensive” and suggested that the industry needs to take a serious look at the option of machine harvesting to ensure that not only can we continue to bring grapes in at an optimal time, without worrying about who’s going to pick it but that we are also “farming tonnes of grapes at an affordable price.” 

While this emotive subject may not be popular with winemakers, with Sam Barnes emphasising that it will very much depend on what each individual estate is hoping to achieve and how the UK choose to take its ‘appellation’ style forward, Cameron Roucher said that he already knew of several businesses either setting up in the UK or planning to come across from Europe to offer machine harvesting services this season. 

Questions from the floor moved on to cover technological advancements in the viticultural machinery sector, robotics and the future of electric tractors, before looking at how those establishing new vineyards should be aware of the tasks involved, the machinery which is needed and should examine whether their site can justify the investment, or whether, financially, it would make more sense to work with a contractor like S J Barnes or hire from a company like Vitifruit Equipment. 

This then raised concerns over the industry’s lack of qualified tractor and mounted machinery operators, with comments from the panel suggesting that as not everyone can be a vineyard manager and that there needs to be more people coming into the sector at an entry level. A member of the audience pointed out that this is increasingly difficult as there is not enough interest in agriculture, or viticulture, from the younger generation.

Even with an engaged team, training is not always straightforward and despite bringing manufacturers over to teach the vineyard team at Chapel Down, Luke has discovered that the UK is still learning how to get the best out of European machinery in unique growing conditions.
David Sayell who spends a lot of time helping customers to set up their equipment, agreed, saying that under vine weeders and cultivators not only require a lot of site specific configuration, but that the smallest of changes from the operator can be the difference between a job well done and a disaster. 

Finally, the debate ended on the use of under vine herbicides. Keen to get “ahead of the game” if Glyphosate ever lost its licence, Luke pointed out that Chapel Down is moving away from spraying weeds, although he did question the total impact on the environment as mechanical alternatives do require more tractor passes. In response to this, Jon Pollard, vineyard manager at Gusbourne, who was in the audience, said that combining an under vine weeder with a mounted mower had led to an overall reduction in their tractor passes. On the other side of the fence, Cameron clearly stated that he would continue to use herbicide as he believes cultivations destroy structure in the long-term. 

Selling fruit is only going to get harder

In the afternoon, Simon Roberts and Matt Strugnell gave a brief introduction to Sussex’s Ridgeview Wine Estate, which was planted in 1995, before moving on to discuss the key aspects of contract grape growing and contract winemaking, which attracted both potential sector investors and current vineyard owners alike. 

“Imagine, and this scenario does happen, you have planted a vineyard, you have spent a lot of money, time and care establishing it, and then the third or fourth year brings a lovely crop and you start to wonder who is going to buy them?” said Matt. “By then it is too late, and you might be lucky to find a home for grapes, but if we see many repeats of 2018, growers looking for last minute buyers will have to be prepared to sell fruit incredibly cheaply.” 

With vineyard planted area rapidly surpassing the industry’s winery capacity, Matt Strugnell pointed out that even in normal vintages, selling fruit is only going to get harder and anyone looking to plant must know exactly what is going to happen to their grapes. 

“It is important to talk to prospective buyers about what they want, what they require and the potential quality of your vineyard,” said Matt. “In the not so distant future contract growers are really going to have to sell themselves because wineries will be able to be more selective about who they work with. It is important to build relationships right from the moment the vines go in the ground and you should also be prepared to take advice from those with experience.”

For those looking to be more involved in the industry and the sale of the end product, Simon Roberts ran through the different contract winemaking options, from the full winemaking option, to 100% purchase of fruit, swap arrangements where Ridgeview take a certain percentage for its own wines and Simon will produce a wine from the remainder for the customer, and finally own-label options where the client has no vineyard but wants an English wine to sell. 

“40% of our business is contract winemaking, which allows us to invest in more efficient equipment which also helps with quality control and traceability,” said Simon. “We have lots of small tanks, so that we can keep everything separate for as long as possible. That means we have 130 wines to choose from for blending and from a contract point of view, customers know that what they bring to us is exactly the same as what they get back.”

Moving on, Simon Roberts spoke about the importance of finding a producer who is going to make the style of wine you require, deciding well in advance what types of blends you want and also communicating effectively about your packaging, labelling and routes to market.

Focus on winemaking

The seminar programme then turned to focus on winemaking with Mark Crumpton from Bruni Erben giving an in-depth presentation into how winemakers can improve wine stability with help from the firm’s new range of products.

“Fundamental issues arise as the wine is going through a state of clarification and stabilisation, which has many different facets,” said Mark. “An off the shelf supermarket study of UK wines showed that protein stability was good, but tartaric was poor. We want to demystify this process to help winemakers produce a very clear, quality product.”

As well as explaining how acidity and temperature can affect the long-term stability of wine, (considerations for those transporting wine long-distances, especially export) Mark talked about the process of fining, including vegan friendly fining agents, methods for tartaric stabilisation including enzymatic treatments to remove glucons and improve filtration, SO2 management and other tools for microbial stability, and tannin additions to act as an anti-oxidant and colour protector.

Finally, Jim Rankin from Rankin Brothers and Sons proudly talked about his family’s business and how producers can use packaging as theatre, to tell a story and engage with consumers. 

“Closures are not just about keeping the liquid in the bottle,” said Jim. “Tactility might not seem important but even the weight and feel of a capsule can influence buyer decisions and help them to choose your wine from a crowded shelf. With the success of the UK wine industry too, there is an increasing risk that copycats will try to cash in. Today there are many options to prevent counterfeiting such as QR codes, which also help increase traceability and link with consumers.” 

As custodians of a cork forest in Portugal, Jim also explained the acorn to cork process and used the event to reveal that the company has recently pledged to plant one cork tree for every 100,000 corks sold to English and Welsh wine producers to show its commitment to sustainability and climate change mitigation. 

Most delightful setting

In the main marquee, delegates were also able to taste through the top 50 most influential English and Welsh wines, as chosen and reviewed by Vineyard magazine’s monthly columnist Matthew Jukes. The top 50 tasting area was kindly supported by membership organisation Wines of Great Britain, who’s passionate team were on hand to discuss the wines and producers in more depth, as well as being able to talk potential new industry entrants through the key facts and figures, such as the estimated growth of the sector. 

As well as curating the top 50, acclaimed wine writer and supporter of the UK’s home-grown wine industry, Matthew Jukes, hosted an incredibly entertaining English wine master class at 11:30 in the Vineyard magazine marquee, which was described by Matthew as the “the cutest, smallest, most delightful setting” in which he had ever held a tutored tasting. 

With just 30 tasting spaces, it was not long before a crowd formed at the entrance of the marquee to listen to Matthew explain how he carefully selects three wines each month which neatly fit into topical themes. 

He then moved on to run thought the six wines reviewed in the June and July editions of Vineyard magazine, including the Berry Bros and Rudd own-label English Sparkling Wine, which had only been released for sale the morning of the show and was urgently couriered from the merchant’s head office in St James’s, London directly to the showground.

With such an array of exceptional wines on tasting, the top 50 area proved popular throughout the day and show organisers were delighted that Oz Clarke, a familiar face to many in the wine industry and beyond, took time out his busy schedule to taste through the range, entertaining fellow Viti-Culture attendees along the way.

“To our knowledge, there is no other event in the UK like it and on behalf of all those involved with creating, hosting and producing this exciting new event, I would like to thank the event sponsors, HSBC and Kreston Reeves, exhibitors and the visitors from across the UK and Europe who attended,” said Karen. “Their confidence in backing the very first UK event of its kind matched our own confidence that Viti-Culture is destined to succeed as a must-see annual event for the viticulture industry.”