27 October 1995

How EVAtackles the political issues of vine production

Wine growing has had a chequered history in Britain mainly due to politics, plague and religion, rather than the weather. The Romans first introduced wine to Britain. The Norman Invasion gave a boost to wine production, but less than 100 years later, it was set back again when a Royal marriage and new trade links brought in French wine.

In 1348, the Black Death took its toll of wine estate workers. In the 1530s the dissolution of the monastries decimated not only 300 religious communities but also the vineyards belonging to them.

Vineyards disappeared completely from Britain during the two World Wars. The past 30 years has seen a resurgence.

WHATS in a name? Just one vote for the English Vineyards Association*. A move to change its name to the English and Welsh Vineyards Association was defeated by this narrow margin last spring.

Discussions about restructuring continue and there are those who would prefer it to be called the UK Vineyards Association, even though no wines are grown in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The most northerly vineyard in England and Wales is just outside the city of Durham, says Geoffrey Bond, the EVAs chief executive.

Britain has 436 registered vineyards. "Under EC law if you wish to sell wine, even half a bottle, you are required to register any holding of 0.1ha," explains Geoffrey, who has administered the EVA from an office in his home in a London suburb for the past 10 years.

A retired naval commander, his own interest in wine was cultivated years ago when he was detailed to take on the role of mess wines officer while serving on the Ark Royal.

The proprietors of about 170 of the countrys registered vineyards are full members of the EVA, while those with only half an acre are welcomed as associates. The EVA tackles the political issues which affect the industry and promotes the sales of all UK-produced wine. It is also a medium through which members exchange news, views and information.

The industry is slowly contracting as those who pioneered its revival of 30 years ago are now retiring.

"It never was a great profit-making one in England," says Geoffrey. "There is so much stacked against it."

Taxation is a big hurdle. In France the tax is 2p a bottle, in this country it is £1.05 plus VAT. Cross-Channel shopping has taken its toll but, points out Geoffrey, such shoppers may not always get the bargain they expect when quality is taken into account.

Because Britains professional wine buyers only import the top 20/30% of wines from other countries, it is easy to believe that all French wine is good. Likewise, because all qualities of English and Welsh wine are available on the home market, it is easy to fall into the trap of condemning them all on the strength of one or two not so good bottles.

"I am proud to say that the best of English wines can hold their place anywhere and especially the sparkling wines. English wine has won gold medals in Bordeaux – proportionately we are top of the league," says Geoffrey, adding: "There are few red English wines but I have sampled a couple of English ones every bit as good as a good Burgundy."

Britain does export its wines but only about 1-1.5% of production and they are often received as a novelty, almost a curiosity, says Geoffrey.

"The UK comes in at the very bottom rung of the EU wine industry ladder. The bottom line is 25,000 hectolitres."

In 1992 total production was 26,640hl but the then Minister of Agriculture John Gummer chose to opt out of the EC anti-wine lake schemes and to monitor production for five years instead. Annual production has been nowhere near 25,000hl since then and it is unlikely that 1995 will produce a bumper crop, though quality should be good.

"All that sunshine is bound to have raised sugar levels," says Geoffrey. He explains that the frosts that occurred three days after Easter, four degrees of frost across most of the south east and as much as -7C (19.4F) in one or two places, greatly reduced potential. Some vineyards suffered more severely than others. For example, of two neighbouring vineyards in Wales, one was almost wiped out for this year and the other almost untouched.

In northern Europe demand for wine exceeds production. It is the countries to the south which are chiefly responsible for filling the European intervention wine-lake, used for industrial purposes and products as diverse as vinegar and plastics. These countries are being encouraged to cut production with one-off vine grubbing grants and a total ban on new planting. This grant is not available to English or Welsh viticulturists, who currently have a total of 1036ha (2590 acres) under cultivation, even though a handful of them would like it to be.

Ann Rogers

*English Vineyards Association,(0181-857 0452).