THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

The UK Wine Industry From A Winemaker’s Perspective

John Worontschak

John Worontschak, Litmus Wines

Almost exactly 40 years ago John Worontschak obtained his BSc in winemaking at Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga, in New South Wales. It wasn’t long before he found his way to the UK having spent time in vineyards in Australia, California and France. In 1988 John established his first contract winemaking company in the UK. The exuberance of youth got the better of him and, by his own admission, in the fledgling industry of winemaking in the UK, he put a few noses out of joint. “I was an arrogant young *****, I thought I knew everything there was to know about winemaking but, looking back, it is clear to me now that I was simply making wines without faults, it was quite revolutionary for the UK at the time, the wines were fresh and good as long as they were drunk relatively young”. John was, at the same time, gaining many accolades, for example, he won the Gore Browne Trophy for ‘English Wine of the Year’ for 5 out of 6 years.

John then spent the mid-1990s helping wineries throughout the established and not so established winemaking regions of the world. Countries as diverse as Mexico, Russia, Serbia Turkey, Moldova and Israel have all benefited from John’s experience gained whilst working in the more established and recognised regions such as the Barossa Valley and Burgundy. There are very few regions where John has not shared his experience. At the time he would have been termed a ‘flying winemaker’. “Life is short, you only have so many vintages. I have been lucky in that I started young, and I have been involved with vintages in both the northern and southern hemispheres and so added to the number of vintages that I will experience”.

In 2008 John established Litmus Wines and the first vintage of Litmus Element 20 was produced in 2010. In addition to Litmus wines John has continued to advise people under the consultancy John Worontschack Wine Services Ltd. He is also managing director of Ginking Co, a director at Casa Madero Winery in Mexico and the Panel Chairman of the International Wine Challenge.

Litmus Wines is based at Denbies Vineyard in Dorking Surrey. In addition to everything else that he undertakes, John is the Chief Winemaker for Denbies. From the Litmus winery at Denbies, John and his fellow shareholder and winemaker Matthieu Elzinga, make wines for numerous vineyards in the UK. “Harvest can be fun, it is certainly very busy, we can have 100 ferments being carried out at any one time. Matt is brilliant he is constantly involved with a lot of the production and he also liaises with the vineyards that we make wine for. As an example, he has a very good working relationship with Nick (Nick Wenman at Albury Vineyard for whom Litmus make wine).”

“With our own Litmus wines we try to leave them as long as we can without intervening unless necessary We are not under the same pressure that some winemakers are in getting the wine out and getting it onto the supermarket shelves. A lot of winemaking is timing.”

John is particularly proud of the 2022 Litmus Pinot Noir that has just been bottled and will be ready for sale in April. “When I was over here first-time round, I couldn’t have dreamt of making a still Pinot Noir this good, but the wine that we have just produced has been in oak for 13 months and unusually for English wine received 33% new oak. To give the wine some structure we put 10% of the stalks into the mix and this wine will have some very good ageing potential”. It goes to show how the making of wine has developed in the UK since John’s first visit in 1988.

John says that a great deal has changed since he was first here in 1988. The climate is now similar to the climate that they had in Champagne about 30 years ago, there are different winemaking techniques, there is more focus on vineyard practices and producing good fruit because with good fruit you can make very good wine.

When asked about the future of the UK wine industry John is concerned about capacity in the south-east of England “the south-east of England is like a car park, there is no land available”. It is really difficult in the UK to make anything. John says that “trading is easier because making stuff in the UK is so expensive”. John makes reference to the costs of labour, the costs of land and the additional cost of administrative and regulatory hurdles. “You can see what they’re getting at and you can understand why the regulation is in place and each piece of it on its own is fine but when you put all of the regulation together it becomes a full-time job and you need to take someone on to deal with it and that adds to the overall costs of producing wine”. This is especially onerous for small businesses.

A concern that John has is that, whenever there are additional costs, it is not the supermarkets or retailers who are going to lose out, it is the vineyard owners and winemakers. Margins are going to become more and more squeezed and the complexity of the new duty system is not going to help. When you have a banded system for alcohol levels, as has been introduced, makers are going to try to limit alcohol levels. John says that in the future “you will see a lot more 11.0% abv wines because the duty is increased from 11.5% abv”. John thinks that the banded system is going to cause a lot more complication that vineyard owners and winemakers in a relatively new industry can do without.

And the 2023 vintage? John thinks that there was a lot of fruit produced but the quality was variable. There were parts of the growing season that were really quite wet and so mildew was a bit problematic in parts. When compared to the 2018 vintage, which was large but also of very good quality, John doesn’t believe that 2023 was up to that standard. With so much fruit there is going to be some quality but it is patchy.

What about the future of the UK wine industry? John likened the UK wine industry to that in Australia when he was starting out. You had a lot of people with small vineyards which money was being thrown at. They developed the vineyards and wineries, they were bought out by bigger companies and in turn those bigger companies were bought out by even bigger companies until people lost sight of what they were trying to do on the ground and tried to divide things up again. John thinks there is going to be a period of consolidation in the industry. After all, it is a fledgling industry.

Oh! And one last thing, what is the future for John Worontschack? “Well, I’m 62 years old, I have no intention of returning to Australia, and so, as things stand, I will keep going here for at least another five years and then I might find a shed somewhere and make a couple of barrels of Pinot Noir”. I would certainly like to try a glass of that!