The story in the soil
It seems fairly obvious when you think about it, but the type of soil in which a vineyard stands, the shape of the land itself and the intricacy of the micro-climate around all add to what’s known as the ‘terroir’.
It is this combination that determines the type of nutrients the vines will find in the soil, the amount of moisture they will receive and, critically, how much sunshine will fall upon the vines. And in turn, this alongside any prevailing weather conditions during the growing season, will define the quality of the wine and the success of a particular vintage.
It’s said, for instance, that the year 2016, with it’s long hot summer, was a particularly good one for grape production in the United Kingdom and I know, talking to Shropshire’s wine makers, that their harvests reflected as much.
Shropshire’s vineyards fit in the 52nd degree of latitude, which means that on the longest day of the year, they will be receiving just under 17 hours of daylight (https://www.suncalc.org).
Generally, Shropshire’s climate is described as warm and temperate, although it does receive significant amounts of rain even in summer, averaging a little over 700mm a year (about 28 inches).
The average annual temperature is a little under 9°C, ranging from around 8°C to 15.5°C in the growing season.
The ‘weather’ arrives mainly from the south west, driven by systems in the Atlantic Ocean, and tends to be moderated by Welsh mountains and Shropshire hills.
Even then, Shropshire has been known for its occasionally severe weather. RAF Shawbury, just north of Shrewsbury, was the coldest place in the country in the severe winter of 1981-82, when the temperature was below -25°C.
While I doubt they’re expecting anything like that any time soon, Hencote, which is only seven miles down the road from Shawbury, is well prepared for frost at least, with a fabulous machine that fires warm air upwards in a vertical column from the lower slope of its vineyard which then sinks to create a warm blanket across a swathe of vines when it gets a bit chilly.
For the majority, the vineyards sit on loamy soil, that is to say soil made up mostly of sand, but with some silt and clay mixed in.
Usually, they are high in nutrients, moisture and humus than sandy soils, they drain better and they are easier to work that soils that contain more clay.
Who knew, but there’s a scale for these things. The Cranfield Soil and AgriFood Institute (CSAI), which incorporates the National Soil Resources Institute (NSRI) has defined now fewer than 27 soil types or Soilscapes, going from salt marsh soils (1) to fen peat soils (27).
Shropshire’s vineyards sit on freely draining slightly acid loamy soil (Soilscape rating 6, 5 vineyards), slightly acid loamy and clayey soils with impeded drainage (8, 4), freely draining slightly acid sandy soils (10, 1), freely draining floodplain soils (12, 1), freely draining acid loamy soils over rock (13, 1), slowly permeable seasonally wet acid loamy and clayey soils (17, 2), and slowly permeable seasonally wet slight acid but base-rich loamy and clayey soils (18, 1)
Sandy and loamy soils are generally better draining than those that contain more clay and tend to be less fertile, although for grape production, having super-fertile soil is not actually an advantage.
You might almost say that where grapes are concerned, the poorer the soil, the better. Poor soil, as long as it retains some moisture and drains well, encourages the roots of the vine to dig deep for nutrients. In that sense, at least, Shropshire is well served soil-wise.