Students are shifting their wine-making out of the garage and into college, reports Andrew Mourant.
FEW agricultural ventures have more pitfalls than making wine in a cool, wet climate. England sits on the northern rim of the viticultural world where late frosts can decimate the vines at flowering time. Too little summer sun means the grapes won't ripen properly, and a surfeit of rain can cause rot.
Wine-making in England is still regarded by the uninitiated as a pastime for eccentrics rather than a serious commercial activity. But there's nothing cranky about the wine studies courses at Plumpton College in East Sussex.
Graduates are making their mark not only in the domestic trade but in some of the world's leading wine areas.
The operation at Plumpton is a world away from that of the cloudy demijohn stored by the amateur enthusiast in their garage. The college, whose grounds fan out into countryside on a dip-slope of the Sussex Downs, has a semi-commercial winery, and each student produces around 750 litres.
Chris Foss, the course tutor and founder is Bordeaux-trained, and Marianne McKay, the wine-making lecturer, has a masters degree from Stellenbosch, South Africa, another bastion of wine production.
Typical students are in their 20s and 30s, either in the trade and wanting to improve their prospects, or seeking a change of direction. Matt Strugnell, 29, was in electronics before a year out in Australia catalysed his interest.
After working as a casual grape picker in Victoria and South Australia, he decided his mission was to make wine. And, he reckons, he could make a career in England. "Things are definitely on the up here - quality levels have got much better," he said. "People are getting more serious."
As if to emphasise the point, three major wineries - Carr Taylor, Lamberhurst and Tenderden - have just merged to form English Wines plc, intent on a concerted attack on the mid-price sparkling wine market currently dominated by Spain and the New World. The commercial possibility has not gone un-noticed at Plumpton.
"I think production of sparkling wine is something we'll end up doing here," said vineyard manager Kevin Sutherland. "But it is a big commitment. The base wine needs to mature for a minimum of eight months, and then another two years in bottle."
If Plumpton opts to make fizz, some students may not see the end result. The college's main course - an HND in wine studies launched in 1996 - runs over two years. Students with an aptitude for the technical element can stay on a further 16 months and gain a BSc in biological sciences (wine studies) wherein vine physiology and quality control are studied.
Plumpton, which claims its course is unique, operates 12 hectares of vineyards. Some are on site but most are rented nearby: at Ditchling, at St George's vineyard at Waldren, and at Rock Lodge near Haywards Heath. There lies the scope for hands-on involvement. "All students learn to drive a tractor," says Chris Foss. "They closely monitor development of their vines and, at harvest, produce a report explaining the quantity and quality of the vintage they helped make."
The course, run jointly with the University of Brighton, is backed by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. Plumpton has close contact with production and retail elements of the wine trade. "Close proximity to London, one of the key market places in the world, provides good opportunities," says Chris Foss.
Things have come a long way since the first acre of vines was planted in 1988 and part-time courses began in the early 1990s. "We sell our wines from the college, have our own off-licence at the garden centre and several local delicatessens," said principal John Brookham. "We also hold the English wine festival here."
Plumpton wines - a dry white and a medium white - are a blend of each student's output. "Students have their own tanks and can experiment," said Marianne McKay who teaches students scientific analysis of all the processes. "But ultimately the wine has to be saleable. In blending, some good individual things may be lost, but so will some faults."
In one small patch under vine no fewer than 25 grape varieties are grown, including classics such as pinot noir, the main constituent of red burgundy and riesling, which makes the finest wine in Germany. "These are experiments to see what will grow well here and what won't," said Kevin Sutherland.
Plumpton students get to find out exactly what's what before going out into the world to ply their trade. One graduate, Gavin Crisfield, is now setting up a large vineyard and winery in the Languedoc region of southern France. "I've come into contact with many French-trained students and feel Plumpton offered a broader, more practical education," he said. "There's a strong emphasis on the global outlook."