THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Nick Wenman’s Albury: From Economics Prize to UK Wine in 50 Years

Nick Wenmen at harvest

Nick Wenmen at harvest

Very nearly 50 years ago Nick Wenman won an economics prize at school. His choice of book, ‘The World Atlas of Wine’ by High Johnson. Shaun went to see Nick to chat to him about the 2023 harvest, sustainability and what the 2023 Nick would say to his younger self.

Having spent many years in the IT industry, Nick Wenman now owns and runs Albury Organic Vineyard. The vineyard produces a variety of styles of wine, predominantly sparkling. The still rose has been so popular this year that it sold out halfway through the summer.

“Running a vineyard has to be a passion” would be one of the first pieces of advice that Nick would give to his younger self and anyone considering the leap. “It is hard work, expensive, challenging and, at times, frustrating”. It is really important to understand that whilst someone has a passion for wine, and Nick certainly does, it does not mean that they are a skilled vineyard manager or winemaker. Nick didn’t feel that endeavouring to grow his own grapes or make his own wine after a short course on the subject was the right approach.

“When I started out, I took advice from and employed the best people I could. I was very aware of my limitations and wanted to ensure that I gave the project the best chance of success that I could”. Nick took the advice and guidance of Stephen Skelton and employed Alex Valsecchi, who had planted the vineyard at RHS Wisley, from the outset.

Just under 21,000 vines were planted on the original 10 acre, south facing slopes in the Surrey Hills in 2009. In 2021 a further 8 acres were populated with 17,100 vines. The two plots are biodynamic.

Nick is proud of the fact that “Albury vineyard was the one of the first certified as a sustainable vineyard in the country”. He is very aware that, whilst the English and Welsh wine industry is growing very quickly, it is small compared to other European countries. “Despite the relatively small size of the industry everyone has to do their bit as far as sustainability is concerned, we all have a responsibility to ensure that we the industry is sustainable for the future”. Nick feels that during this period of initial growth in the industry it is a good opportunity to get good sustainable viticulture practices in place. “Running an organic vineyard isn’t easy there are strict limits on what can be used to battle against mildew and other pests. Mildew, in particular, can be very problematic particularly in the warm wet weather”. Anyone looking back on 2023 will remember a very wet summer.

“Summers are becoming wetter and weather patterns are becoming more difficult to predict. However, at key points this year we have been lucky. We had very little frost in the Spring when the vines were budding and then at the end of June, which brings on flowering and fruit set, it was relatively dry. Then, during the growing season the rains came but then we were very lucky with sunshine hours and warmth into the early autumn”. The damp weather during the growing season did cause some difficulties with mildew. However, it looks like Albury has achieved a near record-breaking amount of good healthy fruit from the 2023 crop.

2018 was the most successful harvest nationwide resulting in the UK producing just over 13 million bottles. Nick suggests, if what he is hearing is correct and from the experiences of Albury, that figure will be significantly exceeded. “You have to remember that there are far more vineyards now than there were in 2018 which, together with the good growing conditions, might lead to there being in the region of 20 million bottles from the 2023 harvest”. Vintage fluctuation in terms of production can be marked. In 2012 just in excess of one million bottles were produced. The figures are increasing year on year meaning that an average of about nine million bottles a year have been produced over the last five years.

Whilst this should put a smile on vineyard owners faces, it does bring its own particular challenges. “One of the problems that vineyard owners are now facing is lack of winery capacity, it is quite possible that there will just not be the tank space this year for all of the fruit, which is a great shame”. Some of the larger wineries whether attached to a vineyard or not that, at one time, might have helped smaller vineyards produce their wines are tied up with their own capacity issues. Therefore, smaller vineyard owners are finding it harder to get their fruit made into wine. Fruit is regularly sold to wineries or winemakers and, in years of less production, fruit has greater value. For example, Chardonnay has sold for as much as £4000 per tonne. In years of such high production, the price achieved would be not much more than a quarter of that figure.

From a commercial point of view having more fruit than usual means additional costs in terms of tank space, winemaking time and storage. “It would seem that having a good crop would be excellent news for a vineyard but there are additional costs to take into account and the wine being made this year will probably not be on the market for another three or four years and so additional capital is tied up”, meaning that despite bumper harvests increases in sales don’t immediately follow.

In 1964, 1500 bottles of wine were made commercially in the UK. English and Welsh wine production has grown enormously since then. However, it is still a relatively young industry and finding its feet. There has already been a great deal of interest from investors both in the UK and from overseas. Takeovers, acquisitions and mergers are often in the news. Eye-catching names such as Berry Brothers, Frexinet and The Jackson Family are only a few of those investing in the UK wine industry. International expertise has reached these shores from other parts of the wine world. “Making wine in the UK has its challenges but I can only see it going from strength to strength. It is always difficult to accurately predict the future but, if things continue to grow as they are, by 2040 we will be producing, in the region of, 40 million bottles of UK wine a year. New markets will need to be found and that, in itself, will present challenges but it is an exciting time to be involved in the UK wine industry”.

The wine industry is the fastest growing area of agriculture in the UK. The number of vineyards in the UK has grown exponentially over the last five years and continues to grow. The area under vine has more than doubled in the last 7 years. The figures fluctuate but broadly the industry employs, on a full-time basis, about 2,300 people and on a part-time basis 8,300. With the growth in the industry the demand for viticulture jobs, winemaking jobs and roles in many ancillary industries such as suppliers to the wine industry will be in demand. It is, indeed, an exciting time to be involved with the UK wine industry.