Nick Peters visited Plumpton College, a key contributor to the success of English wine and the only place in the UK that offers degree-level training in wine making and management.
Driving across the Sussex Downs nowadays, one passes acre after acre of vineyards, evidence that the quality of English wine is not only being taken seriously by the critics, but is also becoming a profitable crop. On the day I drove to Plumpton College, about eight miles north of Brighton and five miles to the west of Lewes, there was little to see. The harvests were in and the wineries across this region and throughout the land (grapes are grown as far north as Yorkshire) had begun the serious business of winemaking.
I was greeted at Plumpton College, itself the proud owner of several acres of vines, by Paul Harley, who lectures in the business of wine. He took me straight to the heart of the matter – the winery. Students at Plumpton not only learn the theory of viticulture (the study of vines), oenology (the study of wine and winemaking) and how the global wine business works, they also manage the college’s own crop and take it through the entire process, right through to bottling.
“The students do all the work, we are merely the orchestrators, showing them what to do,” he told me as we surveyed the stainless steel tanks where different wines are being made, adding rather gleefully, “And they pay for their tuition!”
He was very quick to forestall any suggestion of students being used as cheap labour, given that any profits the college makes from selling its own wine, and the wine it makes on behalf of other growers, is ploughed straight back into buying more equipment, in order to provide even better tuition.
Growing in maturity…
Plumpton is not like any other college of higher education. Although it offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in winemaking and in business studies, there are very few if any students who have come straight from school. (We should make clear that Plumpton College offers other agricultural and horticultural courses, not just wine, and the student profile on those is much more traditional.)
Paul Harley told me most of his students have already been to university or college, have travelled the world and even worked in vineyards as a precursor to their studies.
The courses also attract much older second-career students, even a retired policeman, he told me with some pride as we walk from the winery into the bottling room, where he introduces me to Emily Moore, the college’s wine apprentice.
“My job here is to work in the vineyard,” she told me, “helping manage the vines, and getting in the harvest. Then at this time of year I take customer orders, help with the bottling and labelling and sending the orders out.”
Emily will forgive me for pointing out that she is not a typical apprentice. Indeed, she too is on her second career, having worked for 20 years on R&D in the pharmaceutical industry. This is a labour of love for her, which she will take further with a full degree course next year.
…and in reputation
Students are not drawn to Plumpton simply because it is the only place one can earn a degree in wine. It also happens to be a standard bearer of quality that underpins the entire UK wine industry. The UK may be the sixth-largest wine market in the world, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, but it also happens to be the most varied in terms of the wine sold here.
“We import wine from all over the world in the UK,” Harley said, “so we actually attract a number of international students from places like Italy, Hungary, Greece – even California. They could study over there, but they choose to come here because the UK wine trade is so diverse and varied.”
The college benefits from significant support from the industry. Growers, wineries and retailers all recognise that a degree from Plumpton is something to be honoured, and do what they can to keep the college and its students plugged into the beating heart of the trade.
“The involvement of the English wine business is fantastic,” Harley explained, “and if you scratch the surface of the industry, what comes back is Plumpton. Everyone has been through our system; all the big names, all the big producers who are beginning to get global success through exports, they’ve all come through our doors.”
Bacchus to the future
English sparkling wine, which is produced broadly across West and East Sussex, and Kent, is now beating French Champagnes in blind-tasting competitions and is very definitely the cream of the English wine crop. (Think of names like Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Chapel Down.) I met up with Sarah Midgley, Plumpton’s winemaker, who teaches students the art of making wine, to discuss the growing quality of English sparkling wine.
“The chalk of the Champagne region is actually the same as what we have here,” she told me, “it goes under the Channel and pops back up here in Sussex.” Climatically, England is at the very edge of the boundary where winemaking is possible, and the coolness here poses a real challenge to the winemaker.
However, sparkling wine’s grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – thrive well in cooler climates like the Champagne region, and that is why global warming is promising to bring a sparkling bonanza to the south east of England. It means increasing numbers of vineyards will be able to produce reliable harvests that can only improve yield and quality. Even Champagne houses like Taittinger are investing in English vineyards.
“The climate in Sussex now is very similar to what it was in Champagne 20 years ago,” Midgley explained, “so we’re actually dialling the clock back. The French are having to adjust to this because their grapes are ripening earlier, while ours are starting to ripen really well, which is nice!”
English wine represents only a tiny fraction of the wine sold in the UK, but with Plumpton’s help, the fondness of the British for a glass or three of wine, and a nudge from climate change, the future for the industry looks bright.
(Data courtesy of English Wine Producers. For full information and detailed data attribution, visit: www. englishwineproducers.com)