Simon with a big cluster of Gewürztraminer
I HAVE strolled around many vineyards and usually find something of interest in them but my eyes nearly popped out of my head when Simon Day took me into an experimental polytunnel at the Redbank vineyard at Ledbury in Herefordshire which he runs with Haygrove, the international fruit company. At first sight it looks like something you might see in my back garden – vines grown from (grafted) cuttings in ordinary looking plant pots. A closer look reveals the most densely packed clusters of grapes than I have ever seen on a single vine. This particular one was Gewürztraminer (rarely grown in Britain) and Simon reckons it will be producing 30 to 40 kilos per pot – which is equivalent to nearly 30 to 40 bottles from each vine! This is ten times higher than the national average.
If, and it is a big if, the experiment is successful it will more than offset the considerable cost of erecting the tunnels. And this at a time when the UK economy is supposed to be running out of productivity increases . . .
Simon thinks he may be the only person in the world doing this and many in the wine industry would say they are not surprised. How can you make good wine, which traditionally needs deep roots and historic “terroir”, from pots which aren’t even filled with earth but with coconut strands (“Coir”) mixed with perlite and fed with water from a network of tiny pipes?
Potted cuttings growing fast in a tunnel
He admits it will all depend on the quality of the wine produced. Other vineyards have shown interest but they are eagerly waiting to see what the wine tastes like first. So am I.
Simon is a vastly experienced prize-winning winemaker who has worked at vineyards around the world as well as in the UK before settling down at Redbank, a beautifully situated vineyard looking out over an undulating vista that takes in the Malverns and May Hill with its distinctive clump of trees at the top. Here he makes his impressive range of Sixteen Ridges wines.
This is hallowed ground. Part of the 19 acre vineyard is on soil where Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, instructed the replanting of a vineyard in 1266 so he could – for whatever reason – send wine to the Pope.
Among the varietals grown here today are Pinot Noir Précoce – which fruits a few weeks earlier than traditional Pinot Noir – and Bacchus, his favorite white wine which the choosey Wine Society has recently started stocking. He says he can’t produce enough of either to meet demand which is one of the reasons he is planning to double the acreage under cultivation as well as experimenting with pot planting. There are 5,500 vines under tunnels at the moment.
Simon is also doing what might be called retro-experiments by reverting to home grown cuttings rather than grafted ones. He says that cuttings put more vigour into the vines and believes that fears about diseases such as Phylloxera are unfounded as cuttings and soil are adequately tested in sterile substrata.
He claims that the risks of Phylloxera are particularly small in the UK, with its low density of vineyards. He adds: “There is zero chance of Phylloxera in our nursery as we use sterile substrate and there’s no soil transfer from mother vines. We are giving growers a choice between grafted and own root vines to potentially lower the risk of GTD – grapevine trunk disease, which are thought to be associated with grafted vines”.
Redbank gains from its association with Haygrove by having access to the fruits of their experiments as well as using some of Haygrove’s seasonal workforce even though recruits – almost all from overseas – have fallen from 850 to a bit over 600 because of fears about Brexit. When they advertised for English helpers only a few applied and those that were taken on gave up after a few weeks finding the work too hard despite piece-work related wages reckoned at between £12 and £14 an hour.
No one seems to know how bad the eventual threat of Brexit will be. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see the results of a Judgement of Ledbury contest – a blind tasting of Sixteen Ridges’s pot cultivated wines against posh ones honed by hundreds of years of experience. A lot of reputations are at stake.