English wine producers take stock of a 2020 vintage ravaged by May frosts
Lyme Bay Winery, Devon: Grand cru fruit from Essex
Lyme Bay Winery may be based in Devon, but it sources its fruit from 16 growers across the south of England.
This year’s frost, according to managing director James Lambert, was not just brutal as far as the 2020 vintage was concerned. It has also exposed which vineyards are most likely to have a long-term future, and those which are going to struggle.
“There were some sites that suffered from really late frosts in May,” he says. “For us the Oxfordshire site was the worst – and the secondary shoots never really got to ripeness. The marginal sites really were affected.”
Lambert is increasingly excited about the grapes coming out of parts of Essex, and this year’s harvest has only reinforced that feeling.
“There’s an area just around the Crouch Valley where we noticed the fruit was riper than elsewhere, and on top of that the fruit was very consistent,” he says.
“This year we had some Pinot Noir come in from the Crouch Valley at 106 Oechsle, which is a record for the UK. The lowest we’ve had this year for Pinot Noir from the same area is 93 Oechsle. These are extremely commercial levels of ripeness.
“Once you get to that level, you’ve got the physiological ripeness, which allows you to really go to town on extracting without worrying about astringency – it becomes a virtuous circle.”
Lyme Bay is working on long-term partnerships with its growers in the Crouch Valley, where the river runs from west to east with south-facing vineyards on the northern banks.
Chardonnay is also thriving in the vicinity. “There are more and more vineyards popping up, and in the next 10 years that particular area will become a like a grand cru for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” Lambert predicts.
Lyme Bay is not just pinning its hopes on Burgundian varieties. It’s been a good year for Bacchus, and Lambert says the best results come from blending riper and under-ripe fruit together. The variety is sometimes called England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc, but Lyme Bay is actually investing in Sauvignon too, again in Essex.
“We’ve got some Sauvignon Blanc in barrel,” Lambert says. “It’s 97 Oechsle and we’ll be planting three acres of that next year. It blew me away. This is ripe Sauvignon Blanc – it’s incredible.”
Lambert sees no reason why English Riesling couldn’t be viable, and is also exploring more ambitious red varieties.
“I think Shiraz might be quite interesting, and people are talking about Cabernet Franc and Gamay,” he says. “It’s only going to take one or two trailblazers in the right areas to try something and hit the market and people will follow.”
Simpsons Wine Estate, Kent: A year for £100 still wines
Simpsons did its due diligence on its three vineyard plots, the first of which was planted in 2014. “We were pretty confident that we had relatively frost-free sites,” says Charles Simpson.
“What we hadn’t understood was how warm we are in east Kent, and we have got very warm springs. We are surrounded by the sea on three sides, so we are getting premature bud break and our exposure is much earlier than we had predicted.
“In a normal year, we’d get a frost incident maybe a maximum of three times, so you’re trying to fight frost for two or three nights a year. But this year we had six, and three of them were in late April and three of them were in May. It was the May frosts that were a big surprise.
“We lost between 45% and 50% of our crop.”
The silver lining in this particular cloud is that the vines focused their energies on the surviving buds, producing concentrated fruit that Simpson says will be “fabulous” for the still wines that make up 40% of the company’s production.
“We are really excited about the quality of the liquid in the winery,” he says, “even though, frustratingly, there is not as much as we would have wanted. But that’s life. It’s what makes it so exciting.
“We’ve got some liquid that would certainly look like high-end red Burgundy. We won’t do a cru classé every year but certainly this is a year where we would launch a super-premium Chardonnay and a super-premium Pinot Noir.”
These wines, he says, may well end up being the first still wines from England commanding a £100 price tag.
That would take some of the sting out of the cashflow issues that the 2020 vintage might create, although Simpson says the business model is already geared up to factor in extreme weather.
“This year our cost of production will double. It’s a fixed-cost business. You take all of your inputs, which never change in the vineyard, really, and rather than dividing it by what should have been 250 tonnes, you’re dividing it by 125 tonnes.
“Consumers may remark that English wine is expensive, but we have to build into the cost of our wines the fact that you can have catastrophic frost. We thought it was going to be one or two out of 10 years, whereas we were hit really hard in ’17 and here we are in ’20, so that seems like every third year.”
The business is investing in paraffin candles to use as bougies, having found that frost fans aren’t particularly effective.
“We have no choice,” says Simpson. “They are expensive, but if you’ve lost 100 tonnes, the relative cost of the bougies is almost nothing.”
Breaky Bottom, Sussex: Rejoicing in a frost-bitten vintage
Peter Hall is not used to frost. Since his first vines went in at Breaky Bottom in the mid 1970s, he’s barely seen any in the growing season. This May, that situation changed, quite violently.
The downland vineyard is only a couple of miles from the East Sussex coast and is normally protected by the sea.
“There was no warning at all,” says Hall. “This was a beast from the Arctic, a very particular frost and it was very random, hitting places that never get hit – while the places that usually get frost got none.”
To put that into context: Mount Harry vineyard, just a few miles north, is not significantly bigger than Breaky Bottom but harvested 14 tonnes, while Hall settled for two and a quarter.
“This frost took away at least 80% of my crop. We really were hit, and we had virtually bugger all,” says Hall.
“On the first day of picking we had two tonnes in two separate presses. On the Sunday I thought we might get a third press, but we got half a press, so we’ve got 1,750 litres quietly fermenting away.”
It must have been heart-breaking to see so much damage. “It was,” Hall concedes. “But on the other hand, to have 44 years of no problem and suddenly have a mega problem … I accept it. I’ve been bloody lucky. And I rather like the challenge of having a very small one-off crop which has never been made in its particular way, so we’ll see what happens.”
Breaky Bottom’s conundrum this year is how to make the best of fruit picked at often quite varied stages of ripeness.
Hall remains upbeat. “We’ve had to taste and see … but anyway, it’s worked out fine now. We need hardly any chaptalisation and we are going to have some really interesting wine as never before seen at Breaky Bottom, because of this balance of marginally ripe grapes with good acidity and very ripe grapes, which probably gave too much softness in the end.
“Who knows – in three, four, five years from now, on the lees, it might make quite extraordinary individual wines.”
Breaky Bottom specialises in sparkling wines, most of which derive much of their character from the Seyval grapes that account for 60% of planting.
Hall doesn’t have capacity to store reserve wines and, in any case, prefers to make wines that reflect the vintage.
“I’m happy that way,” he says. “In fact, by doing that, I’m not muddling a classic Breaky Bottom taste, I’m rejoicing in the fact that each vintage is a one-off.
“This is a single-vineyard wine. Each bottle is numbered, with the total number of bottles given on the label, and it means that every wine is going to be different – wonderfully.”