The UK wine industry is to benefit from a research funding grant from DEFRA’s Farming Innovation Programme (FIP) which aims to increase productivity and sustainability in UK viticulture. The research work, which will be led by NIAB both at its East Malling Research Vineyard and on commercial sites, will investigate the potential impact of groundcover management practices on soil health, yields, juice quality and emissions.

The two-year project which involves an industry consortium, will receive funds amounting to just over £350K and will provide useful new information on the effect of cover cropping and mechanical weeding strategies on soil health. 

It will also lead to grower guidance on bespoke cover crop mixes to alleviate soil compaction, improve soil nutrition and control nematodes. Guidelines to support transition towards net-zero carbon emissions will be drawn up alongside this. 

Dr Flora O’Brien, Soil and Root Scientist at NIAB East Malling, commented, “We are aware that poor soil health can give rise to inconsistent yields and juice quality in vine growing and sometimes costly interventions are necessary in the vineyard and winery. We are therefore delighted to secure funding from FIP to work with the wine industry, which recognises the benefits that improving vineyard soil health will deliver.” 

The project, which will be led by commercial wine producers Gusbourne Estate Limited, will involve a number of industry partners, ensuring that the research will meet the needs of the whole industry. Jon Pollard, Vineyard Manager of Gusbourne, said: “Commercial uptake of cover cropping is currently limited due to concerns over associated risks such as harbouring insect pests, higher disease pressure, competition for nutrients and water, and additional maintenance work. However, there is evidence that cover cropping can bring significant benefits to soil health and enhance marketable yields.

Gusbourne, along with another major English wine producer Chapel Down, will host commercial trials in their Kent vineyards. Bespoke cover crop mixes will be developed by Denne & Sons, NIAB will lead the research programme and carry out experiments in its R&D Vineyard, and Natural Resources Institute (University of Greenwich) will carry out the biophysical characterisation of soils in field and laboratory. 

Vinescapes Ltd are one of the partners for this important research project for the UK wine industry, and will lead on dissemination, exploitation and commercialisation of project outcomes.