“Recent research suggests an area in the UK the size of the Champagne region would be profitable for vineyards, extending far beyond the traditional fruit growing regions. The improved quality of the product and the benefits it offers for carbon storage and regenerative agriculture are making viticulture an interesting option for growers,” comments Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE (formerly known as Agri-Tech East).
Viticulture of interest for those looking to diversify
The organisation is bringing together viticulture experts with enterprising farmers and technologists to discuss the emerging agri-tech that is supporting growth in this industry. Belinda continues: “Hot summers could extend the area where grapes can be grown productively in the UK, but this comes with challenges for farmers looking to diversify”
This will be discussed at an event for growers and technologists to discuss the opportunities for innovation in viticulture on 11 February, hosted at Cambridge Consultants’ headquarters on the Cambridge Science Park.
Chris Roberts, Head of Robotics and Associate Director of the Technology Leadership Group at Cambridge Consultants, comments that there is a strong desire to focus on sustainable farming against a background of climate change and new technologies and techniques such as precision agriculture and robotics are required to meet these needs.
“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think there is a reluctance from farmers to invest in new technology, the concern is more of the risk of it going wrong and the impact on the bottom line,” Chris observes.
” The challenge is how to create a viable business model to support its adoption.”
Ripeness indicators improve decision making
Increasing the resilience of the vineyard is the focus of Vidacycle; Community Lead Annie Landless will also be speaking at the event.
Vidacycle has developed the SectorMentor software with a collection of tools to enable more informed decision making in the vineyard. For example, their Ripeness Indicator enables the winemaker and vineyard manager to compare the ripeness curve between different sites in real-time to see how the acids and sugars are progressing to support better decision-making at
harvest. Visualisations based on data collected over a number of years is making the tools more powerful and is revealing insights into climate change.
Annie comments: “Using the tools to look at historical data we can clearly see that ripening dates have gradually shifted earlier and earlier over the last 20 years – there is no doubt things are changing and the summers do appear to be getting hotter.
“Certainly, the reality of climate change to date is that everything becomes less predictable and more extreme, so building resilience becomes more important – and a healthy soil is the ultimate buffer. We encourage people to build soil health with regenerative agricultural practices to improve water retention and bioavailability of nutrients. Vineyards can also provide a carbon sink.”
Innovation at NIAB EMR
Julien Lecourt, Senior Research Scientist at NIAB EMR at East Malling (Kent), says that although temperatures are rising climate change is “not going to make the UK the new Spanish Riviera!”
He explains: “Our climate is going to remain categorised as “cold/cool” for viticulture and climate change predictions forecast more extreme events such as late frost. However, warmer temperature can also mean higher diseases pressure.”
The withdrawal of chemicals and lesser acceptance of chemical treatments by consumers makes the need to breed varieties of grape that can tolerate these pressures more acute. NIAB EMR’s team is at the forefront on this topic, working on Divico, one of the most promising new red varieties.
Additionally, work has started this year in a dedicated project named ‘Britadapt’, as Julien explains: “We are running a project in collaboration with the University of Bordeaux at the Research Vineyard. There are 13 varieties: five are already largely planted in the UK, while eight are considered as not yet suitable for our climate but are indicative of which varieties could be grown in the future. The first crop has been obtained this year (2019) and data collated to model the varieties which are going to be suitable for our climate.”
Increasing resilience to pests
Claire Donkin, Technical Associate at Global Plant Genetics, comments that it is not only conditions for the plants themselves that are changing but also the background pests and diseases; a multi level approach is needed to give plants a healthy start and a robust resistance to environmental change.
“Nematodes are a major pest in vineyards – they feed on vine roots and compete with the roots for nutrition as well as causing damage and transmission of disease. In short cycle crops they can be controlled through rotation but a long-term crop like grapes the populations can build rapidly, especially where ground is replanted.
“At Global Plant Genetics we are looking at improving the root stock to enable resistance to phylloxera and nematodes. This is a new development for the UK and we are working with growers to support future expansion.”
Spotting the opportunity
Dr Alistair Nesbitt, CEO of Vinescapes, is the lead author on a report that assessed the areas of the UK that would be suitable for viticulture and found nearly 35,000 hectares across Kent, Sussex and East Anglia.
He comments: “Viticulture can be more profitable than some more commonly grown arable crops but much depends on quality, route to market and overall business structure. “The viticulture suitability model I developed for England and Wales used a process called Fuzzy Logic to overlay high resolution datasets of topographic, soil, land use and climatic variables to identify and grade land suitability. However, viticulture is a long-term and high capital investment. It requires specialist skill and expertise to get right.
“The last 30-years have seen significant warming during the UK growing season, which is why we can now grow the marketable varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier) that we do. “Projections are for warmer, drier summers; all else being equal this will aid viticulture in the UK and potentially open up the possibility of different wine styles and other varieties.”
Flint Vineyards in Norfolk is one the most recently established vineyards in the UK and co-owner Ben Witchell will also be giving his learning points at the event. Bacchus 2018 and Pinot Noir Précoce 2018 will be served at the event from Flint’s own Vineyards.
The Pollinator event ‘Nothing to W(h)ine About – Uncorking the Opportunities for Innovation in Viticulture’ will be held at Cambridge Consultants, Cambridge, 11 February 2020 at 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm. Register on the event page here.