2011 – England's miracle vintage


Plumpton graduate Janette Kelly (pictured) of the organic Meopham Vineyard in Kent sends this supplement to my overview of the challenging 2011 growing season on the burgeoning English wine business. She reports that, thanks entirely to a late heatwave, English vine growers have enjoyed one of the best growing seasons they can remember. She uses only sulphur – no copper – and reports that 'this year we had no mildews or botrytis – practically a miracle'. (Incidentally, Nick saw Italian wine guru Joe Bastianich in New York yesterday who also reported that 2011 has been an exceptionally good vintage for Friuli whites.)

Buds started swelling in early April – almost three weeks in advance of 2010 and the earliest on record. As a result, budburst happened exceptionally quickly and early, again almost three weeks in advance of 2010. April turned out to be one of the driest on record with well below average rainfall recorded. May was another dry month with below-average rainfall. Growth was substantial and things were looking very exciting indeed.

June started hot and sunny with flowering starting on some of the earlier varieties. But then the weather turned extremely unfavourable from 5 June and this set the trend for the month, with lots of rain and low temperatures. Flowering kicked in on all varieties by the middle of June, which was still early, but by the end of the month, with flowering still going on, the whole outlook for vintage 2011 was slowly changing. The month of June recorded well above average rainfall. Flowering in some areas continued well into July and lasted for a period of six weeks.

Fruit set was generally poor and in particular Pinot Noir was badly hit with millerandage. Chardonnay was the exception and managed to buck the trend. (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are now the most widely planted varieties in England, thanks to the potential for English sparkling wines.)

The months of July and August were mediocre with below-average temperatures and sunshine.

By September, spirits were low, with veraison very slow and general ripening on the classic varieties a distant dream.

But in the middle of September it all turned around when the sun started to make an appearance. On 21 September the weather really started to pick up and each day the temperatures, including night-time temperatures, increased. By the end of the month temperatures were in the high 20s ºC with full sunshine. And the real miracle was that the night-time temperatures remained high, which really accelerated ripening.

This mini heatwave continued into October, with nearby Gravesend recording the highest October temperature for the whole of the UK (29.9 °C on 1 October).

As a consequence of this autumn heatwave, grape growers recorded the highest sugar levels for many years in all varieties. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay not only recorded the highest sugar levels but also the lowest acids and, more miraculously, almost no botrytis. Winemakers are celebrating one of the best years for English grapes in living memory.