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6 February 2024

British Wine On The Up As Davenport Vineyard Proves ‘A Cut Above’

WineGB’s version of a traditional contest for pruning vines common in a number of European wine-producing countries, which was held at Tinwood Wine Estate in West Sussex last quarter, saw Davenport Vineyards take top team spoils, with Gusbourne in Kent taking the yellow jersey in the individual competition.  

Held just prior to the Coronavirus lockdown, the winner of these ‘Battle of the Secateurs’ would have gone on to compete internationally in a vine pruning competition sponsored by leading Swiss secateur manufacturers Felco – but for the onset of the virus. That event in Switzerland (Neuchâtel region) was subsequently cancelled.

It would have seen top pruning experts fighting it out from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. 

The latest annual UK event, which is in its second year highlighted the skill and hard work that goes in to looking after Britain’s burgeoning wine industry. Certainly it appears to be on the up. Today there are more than 500 commercial vineyards and 165 wineries in the UK. Around 8,000 acres are now under vine cultivation – equating to a quadrupling of grape growing since 2000.

A little shy of three quarters (69%) of the wines are sparkling with the remaining 31% being still. The south east of England accounts for over 50% of the total, but vineyards can be found in Wales and there have been recent plantings in Scotland.

Just as with winemaking, grapevine pruning is part science and part art. Doing it right will determine the size of the actual harvest and the quality of the resulting wine. With vines going dormant during winter months and losing the last of their leaves with only bare cane shoots in their canopies, this period (November-December) is the ideal time for pruning the old wood.

It’s hard work, a laborious task and can result in strained shoulders, hands or back muscles. And, I can testify to that having worked in my student days over in France as a coupeur (grape picker) and as a porteur (transporting grapes to a lorry) during harvest time. Advances in technology with pruning machines can help ease the burden, but there is only so much that can be mechanized at a certain level.

“Pruning is the bedrock of viticulture and therefore the most important vineyard task in the year to secure not only the quality of the coming harvest but the longevity of the vines, which can last 30 or 40 years with the right care,” stated Stephen Skelton MW, Chair of the UK wine industry’s Viticultural Working Group.

He added: “Our wines are achieving world-class recognition. And, it all starts in the vineyard. This competition is here to celebrate and highlight skills needed to produce top quality grapes.”

Vine Pruner of The Year

The latest annual event in Sussex attracted enthusiastic uptake of entrants into both team and individual trials. A total of twelve teams of vineyard technicians from leading producers across the South East counties and nine individuals each battled it out to win the title of ‘Vine Pruner of the Year’.

Following a hard fought battle the ‘Champion Team Trophy’ was awarded to Davenport Vineyards (Philip Harris, Ben Connor and Tom English), based in East Sussex, repeating their winning success in the inaugural event last year. Runners up were teams from Gusbourne and Vine-Works (vineyard consultants).

Each of the teams (of 3) and individuals competing were allocated a bay of five vines to prune and tie down. They were judged blind and graded on proficiency, cutting technique and accuracy, cane tying and speed in the process by leading viticulturists. But it wasn’t just about speed, which account for a fifth of the overall score.

Dragos Nitu from Gusbourne took first prize in the individual category, with runners up Davenport’s Phil Harris and Ben Connor.

Davenport Vineyards

The beginning of a life-long business as a wine producer for Will Davenport, who heads up Davenport Vineyards, dates back to 1991 when he planted five acres of vines at Horsmonden in Kent, whilst at the same time working for a Hampshire vineyard. Prior to setting up his own winery he studied winemaking in Australia, worked in the London wine trade and undertaken a variety of stints working in Alsace, California, Australia and the UK.

Now over a quarter of a century later the vineyards, mostly at Horsmonden in Kent with a smaller vineyard next to the winery at Rotherfield, East Sussex, make up 24 acres, grown across five parcels of land, with nine grape varieties.  The winery is capable of making 80,000 bottles of wine a year. Their own production is c.30,000 bottles, depending of the weather and crop yield each year.

English Organic Wine

A decision was made in 2000 to convert all the vines and winery to organic systems, certified by the Soil Association.  Whilst acknowledging this was a “huge risk” at the time according to Davenport, the fruit quality is claimed to be “second to none”, and the wines display a depth of character that they believe “could not be achieved with the use of chemicals in the vineyard and winery.”

The vines at Davenport are managed by Phil Harris, an archaeology graduate, who is regarded one of the most knowledgeable vineyard managers in English organic wine.

Beyond the immediate results of the UK pruning competition to help to promote industry wide improvement, in future the organisers competition and the WineGB Viticultural Advisory Group hope to host a pruning seminar looking at the different systems as well as the best techniques for UK conditions, and possibly developing it as more of a national event, where machinery suppliers could showcase the latest vineyard equipment.

Besides Felco’s involvement in the competition, a host of vineyard equipment manufacturers and suppliers provided support. These included N.P Seymour, vineyard equipment manufacturers and suppliers, viticultural suppliers Gripple and Hadley Group and French vine nursery specialists Pepiniere- Tourette.

The event was organised by James Dodson of Vine Works, viticultural consultants to the UK wine industry and Tony Purdie of Yotes Court Vineyard in Kent. Vineyard Magazine and NFU Mutual Haywards Heath branch sponsored the awards themselves.