Viticultural scientists in Kent believe the South East could soon be producing more high-quality red wine thanks to a grape variety which has been trialled at East Malling for the past three years.

NIAB EMR believe the Swiss-developed Divico grape could be the much sought after game-changing variety as it produces quality red wine and thrives despite the challenges of the UK climate. Until now the focus of English vineyards has mainly been on sparkling and still white wines. 

Dr Julien Lecourt, head of viticulture and wine R&D at NIAB EMR, said: “Red wine accounts for only five per cent of the UK’s current production, but we believe Divico now offers strong commercial prospects by producing quality red wines. The yield is great and, crucially, the variety has three key growth attributes which mark it out from all others.”

Divico flowers in early June, which is late enough to avoid frosts and when temperatures are slightly higher allowing optimal pollination, better yield and quality. It is also proving to be naturally resistant to many of the economically-important diseases affecting grape crops – a factor that is key for growing crops in the UK’s warm humid environment which often favours development of fungal diseases.

The wine quality is outstanding as Divico’s precocity and its natural resistance to fungal diseases allows a long ripening, resulting in an optimal aromatic and phenolic quality.

“As a variety, Divico is considered likely to supersede Pinot noir, the previous industry-standard red variety, as the UK season often doesn’t allow for consistent full maturation of the fruit, which hinders the quality of the wine produced,” said Julien. “While our UK-produced Pinot noir wines have improved, they do struggle to compete against our European and New World winemakers in terms of consistency. Based on the trials and our work with the industry, we believe that many UK vineyards should now consider Divico as the red variety of choice and it offers a very important opportunity to help drive the industry forward.”

Planting and producing wine from Divico vines in the UK’s only research vineyard offering randomised and replicated trials has given the team of scientists at East Malling the earliest possible opportunity to see how it responds to the climate of Kent and the South East.

The variety, Divico was bred at the Swiss Centre of Excellence for Agricultural Research (Agroscope) in the late 1990s and first released for planting in 2013. The viticulture research at NIAB EMR is about undertaking world-class science and applying that to commercial benefit in the industry. The results are helping de-risk the decision to plant a variety such as Divico, and helping transform the UK’s red wine industry.

The 2019 harvest will be the first one processed at the recently completed ‘research winery’ at NIAB EMR. The bespoke state-of-the-art facility underpins the rapidly expanding viticulture sector and is thanks to a £150,000 vine-to-wine R&D infrastructure investment.

The NIAB EMR research winery adds to the 10,000m2 concept vineyard planted in 2015 for scientific and demonstration purposes. The vineyard makes it possible to deliver randomised and replicated trials to ensure the research is robust and supports forward-thinking viticulturalists.

“The UK wine industry is increasing by tens of millions of pounds per annum and urgently needs this bespoke research capability that focuses specifically on the country’s terroir and climate,” said Julien. “The research will ensure our commercial vineyards are best-placed to respond to climate change, bring forward viable new varieties and improve growing regimes and systems to compete with international wine growers.”

The winery uses the latest equipment to produce small batches. Its press is able to process up to 500kg of grapes at a time. Wine production is undertaken in temperature-controlled tanks, with 15 each of 110 litre capacity, alongside three 700 litre tanks. The computer monitored system makes it possible for the scientists to produce highly replicable wines and fully control the pace of fermentation.

“This centre offers nationally significant viticulture and production-related research at a time when there’s a growing commercial interest in investing in wine production throughout the whole process,” said Mario Caccamo, NIAB EMR’s managing director.  “The combined efforts of the research vineyard and the winery will give greater confidence to our country’s wine makers who are looking to reduce the risk and improve the commercial certainty in the pursuit of excellence.”

As well as working with UK vineyards, the team at NIAB EMR also collaborates with companies involved in the whole wine making process. The winery was funded by East Malling Trust and NIAB and will primarily be focused on servicing the members of the NIAB EMR viticulture R&D consortium including Bolney Wine Estate, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Halfpenny Green Vineyard, Hencote, MDCV UK, and Nyetimber.