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WineGB AGM and Climate Change & Sustainability Conference

Held in London at the Vintners Hall, the mood of this second AGM for WineGB (Wines of Great Britain) was confident and buoyant. As Chairman and Hampshire vine grower Simon Robinson said in his opening remarks, a lot has happened since last year, few could have predicted just how good a harvest, estimated at 15.6 million bottles, 2018 would produce. This was due, of course, to a combination of near-perfect growing conditions and more of the recent huge surge in new plantings coming on stream – about five million vines have been planted in the last four years. Simon stressed that WineGB has the task of steering the expansion of the industry to avoid problems such as a lack of winery capacity, as extra plantings will mean more wine – mostly sparkling – in five to seven years. Quality must be maintained, and markets encouraged, both domestically and overseas. Lobbying of government and local authorities has paid off and certainly there has been active encouragement from the Government.

Peter Gladwin has taken on the role of interim managing director and, together with Chairman Simon Robinson, will manage the organisation in the short-term as CEO David Parkinson as had to step down for health reasons. David will remain on the WineGB Board as non-executive director, with a specific brief to drive the industry’s strategy across government departments, MPs, regional and local councils, and other related bodies.

The work on the benefits for WineGB members is ongoing. After its first full year the organisation has 368 producer members and 88 associate members. The ultimate solution to ensure that all UK vineyards are helping to fund the industry body, and the one used around the world as the fairest means, is a statutory levy. However, as Simon pointed out, this needs Parliamentary time and is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

WineGB has secured sponsorship from two partners – NFU Mutual and Strutt and Parker. Both gave helpful presentations after the AGM. In breakout sessions, delegates had the opportunity to visit trade stands representing a range of patrons. David Harrison said that, as part of the partnership, NFU Mutual would provide support on topical matters, such as insurance and risk management, at WineGB events throughout the year, and relevant content in the Grape Press;and he looked forward to building relationships with regional vineyard associations. NFU Mutual wanted to engage in product development and enhancements over time by working with WineGB to understand emerging trends, what’s over the horizon, and what solutions they can provide.

The question ‘How is viticulture changing the UK land market?’ was posed by Edward Mansel Lewis, Strutt & Parker’s Head of Vineyard Group. Certainly, the UK has suitable climatic, soil and landscape conditions, but it’s critical to identify suitable land and the scarcity of such land is driving premium prices for it. Vineyard land can reach over £15,000/acre, with arable land below £10,000/acre. Strutt & Parker has its own set of criteria and access to data to identify suitable land via their Vineyard Site Finder. However, persuading existing landowners with suitable land to sell for outright purchase is not the only way of securing land to establish a vineyard. Edward gave details of three others apart from freehold purchase: long lease, which ties land up for 30 years; grape growing contract or share farming; and set out the risks and ‘pros and cons’ of each for the owner and the vineyard operator. A grape growing contract is particularly rewarding for fruit growers who have transferrable skills and machinery for grape production. Whilst risking 100% of the initial capital investment and taking the risk of crop production failures on the chin, the reward is that the grower receives 100% of the proceeds of the sale of grapes. And premiums are often paid for high quality fruit.

How will the UK embrace sustainable viticulture?

Climate change and sustainability are ubiquitous terms nowadays, but a range of well-chosen speakers were able to put their relevance to vine growing in the UK into the spotlight during the afternoon conference.

Seeing how others are approaching this subject is always helpful. Growers in the Champagne region, via the Comité Champagne, are involved in a long-term sustainability project treating the region as the ’Champagne company’. With 34,000ha, 280,000 vine plots, 16,000 winegrowers, 140 co-operatives, 340 houses (merchants) and 302 million bottles produced, this is somewhat daunting.

Clément Pierlot from Vranken-Pommery showed how they have identified four major environmental challenges: management of inputs and environmental and health risks reduction; preservation of terroir, biodiversity and landscapes; responsible management of water, wastewater, by-products and waste products; and energy and climate challenges throughout the supply chain.

Much of the approach can be summed up as‘more agronomy, less agrochemistry’. Since 2001, this environmental approach has already achieved decreases in pesticide and fertiliser-use and improved wastewater recovery and re-use. The scheme has ambitious goals for zero herbicide-use by 2025 and for 100% of winegrowers to be environmentally certified by 2030. So far 4,293ha, about 20% of the region, are signed up and about 1.5% is in organic production.

The main session dealing with climate change included three speakers: Alistair Nesbitt, managing director of Vinescapes, who can be termed a ‘viticlimatologist’; Steve Dorling, Professor of Meteorology at the University of East Anglia; and Professor Declan Conway from Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change and the Environment. They discussed their roles and observations so far in an ongoing project – Climate Resilience in the UK Wine Production Sector (CREWS-UK). They were also able to ask delegates to vote on some preferences as to how to communicate results from the project in future.

Climate change in the UK has provided headlines summarised as: ‘a greater chance of warmer wetter winters and hotter drier summers’ and this has largely been taken as positive for the UK wine industry. However, what we don’t know is: How this will affect viticulture specifically and what variables and impacts we can identify? The three speakers outlined the crucial need for more and better information on climate change, tailored to the UK, to be made available to growers and investors to help inform their decision-making. They will be focusing on ‘future gazing’, not looking back in history, and looking at how the industry can adapt to ensure that it is resilient.

Looking across the globe at where vines thrive, Alistair pointed out that they grow in a narrow corridor of latitude around the world. There was not much room for wine regions to migrate south, and there are already impacts on which varieties that can be planted where. In general, the start temperature threshold for the key varieties is a mean temperature over the growing season of 14C. The shift in South East England is in this direction, so the climate is becoming more suited to vines. “We are starting to see a large shift in what is able to be grown where.”

To fill the gap in the specific knowledge tailored to help UK growers, the CREWS-UK project will see collaboration from climatologists, wine sector specialists and social scientists. It will capitalise on the Met Office’s launch of new UKCP18 climate projections to explore how critical growing season characteristics, including frost risk, may change over the coming decades. The project has attracted research funds as vines will provide a ‘guinea pig’ crop as a climate-sensitive sector already making climate-change-related decisions. Running until early 2020, the research is going well, according Steve Dorling, but more involvement from growers with weather data would be welcome.