Of all the farming businesses to benefit from the much-heralded global warming, you might think grape growing in the UK should be to the fore. The trouble is that if you think too simplistically about the whole climate change issue, you will always be confounded by nature.
The British climate has always been unreliable and varied. We are influenced by so many things that it is pretty much impossible to predict how the changes in the state of the planet will affect us as a nation, let alone a county.
Oxfordshire has been subjected over the summer to an assortment of extreme climatic events that have had us all wondering if our mild and wonderful county is about to change its character completely. We are all wound up by the reports of the scientific doom and gloom merchants who suggest that we are at the edge of a precipice and, worse, that it's all our own fault.
It seemed to me that a good guide to whether the climate is really having a serious effect on our agriculture would be to find out exactly how the vineyard owners of the county were getting on, and to see if they get the impression that their lives are changing.
It should be remembered that at the time of Henry II the wine-producing business in this country was thriving. It was only when the king married Eleanor of Aquitaine and took over most of France, including the Loire valley and Bordeaux, that vine growing in England started to dwindle. Vines have always been an extremely difficult crop to grow, with their myriad susceptibilities to disease and weather, so it is not surprising that, given an alternative source of life's most important staple, the farmers of the time decided to take the line of least resistance and grow other things. We were, and still are, one of the most efficient and prolific producers of so many crops that it would have been perverse to struggle on with the temperamental vine.
The truth is that, even now, the people who grow the great vitis vinifera in the UK are an unusual bunch. From the business point of view it is a constant struggle to break even, and it requires both a time commitment that even a Prime Minister would find daunting and a fanatical enjoyment of the whole process. I revisited a few of the growers in the county to find out how they were doing.
Brightwell vineyard, one of our most successful growers, up above the River Thames between Wallingford and Shillingford, is a pretty good example of what I mean. Carol and Bob Nielsen bought this vineyard eight years ago, after it had been running for about 15 years. The soil structure was good, and there was no doubt that the original owners had started the whole thing with a minimum of schoolboy errors. It looked like a pretty good prospect. Admittedly the grape varieties that had originally been planted were, shall we say, conservative (it was, after all, at the very beginning of the reintroduction of vineyards into the UK), but the Nielsens saw potential. They weren't farmers—just very talented and enthusiastic gardeners—and I am certain they had no real idea what they were taking on, but all their instincts were right. What must be understood, however, is that it would not have been an exciting prospect for any normal business person. Carol told me that only now, after planting many more vines, improving the management of the existing plantations and eight years of staggeringly hard work, are they starting to see the vineyard becoming a serious contributor to the family budget. You can see that the commitment to the exercise is just enormous.
When I asked about the year and how it might have affected the vintage, Carol took me on a tour of the vineyard to have a look. The grapes are small but sweet, comparatively free of mould, (although I suspect this is because of a very committed spraying routine from the moment the leaves appeared) and there is every reason to hope that the vintage, which will be harvested over the next four or five weeks, will be very good. The volumes will be down on normal but the quality is distinctly promising. As a final illustration of the sort of people who take on this difficult business, I'll tell you that I asked her if she had experienced the terrific gales of a few nights previously. She said, "Oh, I was in bed. I just snuggled down and went to sleep. The vines have to look after themselves." If you want to take on this business you have to be pragmatic.
If you are thinking that it would be wonderful to own and run a vineyard, there is one for sale. Twenty-seven years ago, the Eland family started a really wonderful vineyard in Fawley, near Henley. It was a ground-breaking exercise and now includes a brewery, a liqueur company, a winery and a stunning barn in which some of the most distinguished of the world's musicians perform and great theatre productions are shown. This year, as a result of the impossibility of getting on to the land to spray on a regular basis, David Eland has decided to cut the vintage altogether. He had a terrific year last year, and, of course, expects another next year, so he decided not to risk his reputation on a vintage which, for him, has been difficult, to say the least. With a royal warrant for his vineyard and brewery and a reputation second to none, he simply didn't need to take the risk. David has finally decided that this is a business for a younger man. If you have £4 million or more to spare, go straight there. This has to be the most amazing lifestyle opportunity in the UK for generations.
Finally, the Bothy vineyard near Frilford is definitely on track for a good harvest. They started harvesting on 29th September, slightly earlier than usual, and only a couple of days away from the time of writing. As usual they are using volunteer labour to pick the grapes. A few hours romantic but back-breaking work for a great lunch and a sample of the last vintage is as close to ideal as I can imagine. I will certainly take part. At the Bothy there has been some damage to the original Ortega grapes as a result of a flaky fruit set early in the season. I remember seeing small grapes and flowers on the same bunch at the same time. However, the plant growth has been vigorous since and the grapes are certainly promising good flavour and acidity. There is some benefit in low yields as far as the flavour is concerned and the lack of wasps and other pests has also helped. Sian and Richard Liwicki have high hopes for the wine.
As you can tell, it is difficult to gather any major conclusions about climate change from these visits. The extraordinarily local effects of the extreme weather mean that vineyards within a few miles of one another have very different stories to tell. Certainly there are some variations as a result of different decisions at specific times of year; there are also great differences in topography which influence possible reactions to wet and wind. However, what is clear is that none of the dedicated and professional grape farmers I have spoken to about this summer's weather feels that nature threw anything at them that was particularly unusual. Not one of them is able to confirm that there are major differences in the general climate. England has always thrown up anomalies which create problems. It is just one of the things that farmers have to live with. When I asked Carol Nielsen if she had noticed any major changes in climate trends, for better or worse, over her time as a vigneronne, she looked, for the first time in our long interview, slightly bored and disappointed. "We have only been doing this for eight years," she said. "There has certainly been nothing in that time to lead me to believe that major changes are happening." "'Twas ever thus," I think.