How a new frost-resistant grape could make British red wine come of age

Only a tiny percentage of wine produced in the UK ends up as the red, still variety. But that could be set to change thanks to a marvel of viticultural tinkering.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020,
By Dominic Bliss
'Bougies' – paraffin burners – blaze in a vineyard in West Sussex to protect grapes from the cold. ...

'Bougies' – paraffin burners – blaze in a vineyard in West Sussex to protect grapes from the cold. Such measures have so far made growing grapes for still red wines in the UK possible – but impractical, costly or environmentally questionable. But a new variety of frost-free grape may change that. 

Photograph by ian west / Alamy

“It’s a game changer for the wine industry. It could be the golden nugget.” Julien Lecourt is strolling between the rows of his vineyard, stroking the bright green leaves and baby grapes as he passes by. He believes his precious crops – a relatively new Swiss variety of grape called Divico – are on the cusp of revolutionising English red wine. 

The lion’s share of wine grapes grown on this island of ours end up as sparkling or white wine. Currently, around two per cent (according to industry association WineGB) become red wine, and of that the majority is made from the Pinot Noir variety. 

Now Lecourt and his colleagues at a horticultural research centre in Kent have brought a new grape to the table. For the last few years they have been experimenting with Divico, a variety which has a good tolerance for frost and a strong resistance to fungus, making it perfect for England’s cold springs and wet autumns.

(Raise a glass to the British version of Champagne.)

There are over ten thousand grape varieties grown on Earth, producing countless styles of wine. In cooler climates, viticulturists favour white wines. It’s in the temperate zones, where longer growing seasons allow red grapes to mature on the vine for longer, that most red wine is made. Pinot Noir and Divico, however, are two red varieties that can withstand the inclement weather of southern Britain.

The Divico grape is resistant not only to frost, but some common fungus conditions that plague temperate vineyards.

Photograph by Agroscope / Carole Parodi

Unlike Pinot Noir, though, Divico produces a heavy, full-bodied wine. As Lecourt explains to National Geographic, it requires a very short season to fully ripen. Then there’s its ability to withstand frost more than other grape varieties. “We had temperatures of minus three degrees in the spring and it was fine,” Lecourt adds. 

Most crucially of all, it is resistant to fungal diseases such as grey mould (botrytis cinerea), downy mildew (plasmopara viticola) and powdery mildew (uncinula necator) which attack vines in wetter climates like ours. This is thanks both to a natural genetic resistance and to the grapevine’s loose bunches and spacious leaves which allow the air to circulate and dry the plant after rainfall. Less fungus also means fewer rounds of fungicidal spraying, thereby reducing the production costs. 

(Read: Climate change is altering the flavour of French wine.)

“We tried to find a variety that would fit, not fight the UK climate,” Lecourt says. “To me, Divico was the one that fit the bill.” He sees this grape eventually overtaking Pinot Noir in English viticulture.

The research centre where he works is called NIAB EMR (National Institute of Agricultural Botany, East Malling Research). A short distance west of Maidstone, in between the River Medway and the M20 motorway, it boasts more than 200 hectares of crops, trees, polytunnels and glasshouses. Among these is just over a hectare devoted to this new Swiss grape.

A vineyard in the Kent countryside. Despite vineyards now being widespread across England and Wales and numbering some 700 sites – mostly in the south-east – red wine is still very much a minority product due to the climate.  

Photograph by Stuart Black / Alamy

Pinot Noir grapes growing in Herefordshire. Mainly grown in the UK for sparkling wine, the still variety this grape produces in the UK has had mixed success. 

Photograph by Andrew Fox / Alamy

Lecourt and his research partner, another Frenchman called Paul Tuteirihia, are currently working on behalf of a consortium of English vineyards, all of whom believe in Divico’s enormous potential. They include Chapel Down and Gusbourne (in Kent), MDCV UK and Nyetimber (in Sussex), Hencote (in Shropshire) and Halfpenny Green (in Staffordshire) – all big industry players, and proof this experiment is no flash in the pan. This autumn Lecourt will harvest his third consecutive crop of Divico grapes. 

“We want to make some noise about Divico because we think it will benefit the whole industry,” he says. But whether his research will be released to the public remains to be seen. As he stresses, ultimately it’s the consortium members who own the information.

Creation, not discovery

Divico is a hybrid species of grape. Invented in 1997 by Swiss viticulturist Jean-Laurent Spring at the Agroscope agricultural research centre in Pully, on the north shore of Lake Geneva, it’s a crossbreed of the Gamaret and Bronner varieties. Between 2006 and 2012 Spring and his colleagues trialled the plant in three vineyards across Switzerland. In their ensuing report they attest to its hardiness and explain how, within just 48 hours of being attacked by mildew, the grape is able to produce high concentrations of organic compounds (called stilbenes) which stifle the fungus’s development.

The name for the grape comes from the figure of Divico, a hardy Celtic king who led several campaigns against the Romans, eventually settling amongst the Jura mountains near the Swiss border. Here members of his tribe, the Helvetii, burn their homes on Divico's orders before invading Gaul in defiance of Julius Caesar. 

Photograph by Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy

Spring named his new grape after a Helvetian chieftain called Divico, a legendary character who enjoys an elevated position in Swiss folklore thanks to his fearsome reputation in standing up to the Romans. In 109BCE he led his tribe on an invasion of Gaul and later defeated the Romans at the Battle of Burdigala. A sort of Swiss version of Boudica, Divico resisted the Romans – just as the grape named after him resists fungus.

One modern pocket of resistance, and the site of the UK’s first commercial experiment in growing Divico, is a vineyard called Halfpenny Green, in Staffordshire – part of the aforementioned consortium that Lecourt is helping. Here, Martin Vickers and his sons, Clive and Ben, farm 12 hectares of vines on south-facing, sandy slopes 75 metres above sea level, producing up to 60,000 bottles a year. They already make two red wines, using Rondo, Regent and Pinot Noir grapes. In 2019 they decided to give Divico a trial, planting 3,000 vines across a hectare of land. Aside from Lecourt’s research vines in Kent, there are a handful of other British vineyards experimenting with Divico – including one more in Staffordshire and one in North Wales – but not on the same scale as Halfpenny Green.

“Divico will take our reds to another level,” Vickers told National Geographic. “I really do think it’s a game-changer for English red wine. For years the English have grown Pinot Noir, mostly for sparkling. Or in the Southeast, in good years, they’ve made Pinot Noir still wine. But it lacks the depth and body that people are looking for in a red wine.”

The end result

Like the chieftain who thrashed the Romans, Divico wine is altogether much more robust. “Really, really deep colour,” Vickers adds. “That good purple and deep red colour that you get in a Shiraz, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot. And a flavour of black cherries or blackcurrants; that depth of flavour you’d expect in a full-bodied red wine with a good, long finish to it.”

His first harvest of the new grape will be in the autumn of 2021, probably ready for sale late summer 2022. Vickers expects to produce around 2,000 bottles, at around £15 each. “Given fair flowering weather at the end of June, which is the key to the yield, and also provided we don't get spring frost like we did this year, I would have said something like 2,000 bottles would be doable,” he says. “Then perhaps twice that amount the following year.” Until then, the only chance of tasting this variety is to order bottles online from certain Swiss vineyards.

Back at NIAB EMR, Lecourt is swilling his own Divico around the glass, showing off the wine’s deep colour. “Very fruity. Ripe, black cherries. Very soft tannins, silky and smooth,” is how he describes it.

He sees this hardy grape thriving in other northern climates. Belgium, Denmark and eastern European nations could benefit, he believes. Canada is a possibility, although it’s a country dominated by American grape varieties. But it’s the UK market that Lecourt considers perfect for his new grape on the block.

“Reds represent just two per cent of our wine production, which is nothing,” he says. “There’s a gap in the market because a lot of British people drink red wine. There’s a massive opportunity to replace all those imports we currently have.”

Given time, he thinks British wine-makers, mainly in the south of England, will eventually be producing up to 10,000 tonnes of Divico grapes every year. That equates to six million bottles; a fair amount of quaffing.

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