Slopes and Soils

by Susan McCraith, Master of Wine

With English Wine Week this week, I thought it would be worth reflecting on where Woodchester Valley Vineyards sit in the grand scheme of winegrowing in the UK. There are now over 880 vineyards in the UK (the number has more than doubled over the last 20 years), though only 50 of these are over 25 acres. There are 12 ‘big players’ with over 100 acres each. Woodchester now has 55 acres under vine. 

If you look at a map of vineyards in the UK you’ll see that the majority (59% of all acres planted in the UK) are situated in the southeast, in the counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Gloucestershire’s vineyards are less than a tenth the size of those in Kent, a county well known for its fruit production and gently undulating vales with outcrops of chalk. The weather in the southeast is slightly warmer than it is in the west, unless your vineyard is down in Devon or Cornwall. So why is Woodchester Valley, in the heart of Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds, so special?

The answer lies in the steepness of slopes on this limestone escarpment. If you have ever driven round the some of the wine regions of the world – I’m thinking of Burgundy, Germany, Bordeaux, the Loire to name just a few – you’ll have found that the best vineyards are often in the most picturesque locations, perched on the side of a hill facing the sun with a magnificent view. There’s a scientific reason for that. Vines that are planted on steep slopes get more sunlight – the steeper the slope the more sunlight they get which means the grapes ripen better. 

In Germany the best wines of the Moselle are on incredibly vertiginous slopes where you need a pulley and harness to tend the vines and pick the grapes. In Burgundy where it is somewhat warmer, the slope doesn’t need to be as steep and here what matters is the aspect to catch the morning sun, a gully to protect from cold winds and the cross-section of soils. The limestone soils tend to be at the top of the hill with an increasing amount of clay towards the bottom and the best Grand Cru vineyards are generally found in the middle (see illustration below). The limestone acts like a sponge, holding water in reserve for dry periods. It gives a crystalline quality to the wines whereas clay soils give wines with a fuller, fatter structure.

This is exactly what we have at South Woodchester. A steep-sided Jurassic limestone escarpment facing due south, where the extra sunlight helps the grapes to ripen and the limestone gives that fresh, lively character (which some call minerality) which gives the wines great length on the finish.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the wines of Gloucestershire are becoming renowned once more. There were two arpens of vineyard in Stonehouse mentioned in the Domesday book in 1086 and in the 12th century the historian William of Malmesbury said that the wine of the Vale of Gloucester was “abundant and of good quality”. The warming climate is doing wonders for UK viticulture and we no longer have to look abroad for good quality wines. 

Woodchester Valley now has 55 acres of vineyard spread across three sites and it is going to be a fascinating journey to discover which specific plots do best year after year and why. Is it that extra little bit of morning sunshine from a southeast exposure or a more sheltered location? Are certain plots better for producing sparkling wine from Pinot Noir grapes and other plots better for full-flavoured red Pinot Noir, or does it depend more on the weather during the year? The Burgundians may have centuries of experience of finding the right sites but Woodchester Valley are true pioneers and the story has only just started…

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