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Salvatore Leone The Italian Salvatore Leone has been working as a consulting oenologist in several English wineries since 2013. In conversation with Raffaella Usai, he talks about the challenges he struggles with - and the opportunities that are opening up for viticulture there. Because international interest is growing tremendously.

Mr Leone, you come from Sicily, an island where the sun almost always shines. And from there you have moved to cool England?

Salvatore Leone: (laughs): Yes, that does sound absurd. I have to elaborate a little to answer that. After graduating from high school and doing some internships at Sicilian wineries, I started studying oenology. During my studies, I went to Rioja to gain practical experience, followed by a study visit to Chile... In short: I never finished my studies. But what I learned in South America, New Zealand and Australia would have been enough for three courses of study. In Argentina, I met an Englishman who told me about the sparkling wines from his home country. Until then, England had not been on my radar as a wine country, but it interested me a lot, so I came here.

I always wanted to broaden my horizons.

Making wine in England is so much more interesting than in the rest of the world?

Salvatore Leone: No, not that, but here I can do what I enjoy. In Argentina, I worked in a winery that bottled 25 million bottles a year - that's more than twice as much as is produced in the whole of England. Often I just sat at a desk, I had little to do with making wine, more with organising the production process. That was not what I wanted to do. In England, wineries are smaller, younger, more open to innovation. Most of them are just establishing themselves.

That means that there you actually make the wines yourself and the wineries trust you and your style?

Salvatore Leone: Yes, I take care of every single production step. In England, the wines bear my signature. Also because there are no traditions to fight against here. The whole viticulture is still so young, we are talking about 30 years. The winemakers have little experience. They are almost all wealthy lateral entrants who get advice from professionals or it is champagne houses that invest here.

How did your first vintage in England go?

Salvatore Leone: During my first vintage in England, I worked for Nyetimber, the largest sparkling wine producer in the country. I remember being overwhelmed by the high acid musts, I had never tasted anything like that before! It was a completely new world. After that, I wanted to work on smaller projects like Albourne Estate or Oxney Organic Estate.

Which grape varieties do you work with?

Salvatore Leone: In warmer regions like Essex, Sussex and Hampshire in the south of the country, mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grow. In colder regions, such as Cornwall, you tend to find German grape varieties like Reichensteiner, Siegerrebe or Bacchus.

What are the biggest challenges?

Salvatore Leone: The climate is very changeable, which leads to extremely fluctuating harvests. On the small farms I look after, production can vary between 15,000 and 50,000 bottles a year. Planning is therefore very difficult.

You have to be very flexible, make quick decisions.

Isn't that frustrating for a winemaker?

Salvatore Leone: Well, yes, sometimes it is. But it's also very exciting because you have to find new solutions all the time. In 2020, for example, I decided for a winery two days before the harvest to make a red wine that had not been in the portfolio before. The Pinot Noir grapes had such an overwhelming aroma and ripeness that I had never experienced before in England. I spontaneously had the idea of making a still wine out of it instead of a sparkling wine. There are only 1043 bottles of this, an absolute rarity, because I don't know when the climate will allow this wine to be produced again.

Current studies say that viticulture in the UK will benefit from climate change, as temperatures are rising and rainfall is expected to decrease. Do you see it that way too?

Salvatore Leone: Yes and no. Last autumn I attended a conference here in England on these very issues. Yes, it is true that temperatures are tending to rise, but it is not unlikely that rainfall will also increase. And that would lead to higher disease pressure in the vineyard. People are therefore discussing the cultivation of Piwi grape varieties. But the first voices are being raised that want to stick to the classic champagne grape varieties at all costs.

Do you have to fight a lot with vine diseases?

Salvatore Leone: Yes, the cool climate brings that with it. But the vines are extremely adaptable, they react differently to cold and rain than in warmer regions, they are more resistant. It is comparable to the immune system of children who are allowed to play outside in wind and weather.

The Oxney Organic Estate in East Sussex, which you look after, is the largest organic vineyard in England, cultivating 20 per cent of the country's total organic wine-growing area. How difficult is it to work organically?

Salvatore Leone: Almost impossible (laughs). It is a great challenge and a courageous decision. Because the regular rainfall makes it difficult to drive a tractor through the rows of vines. And at Oxney we have to spray around twenty times a year. It's a bit of a contradiction in terms of sustainability, I'm aware of that.

Is England really suitable for viticulture?

Salvatore Leone: I am convinced that it is, even if in some years you demand an incredible amount from nature. The terroir is particularly suitable for the production of sparkling wines. They have an enormous elegance, especially in cool years with low yields. For the wineries, such years are commercially difficult, but for winemakers they are wonderful. The fact that many believe in viticulture here is also shown by the fact that the area under vines has increased to around 3,600 hectares in just a few years.

The production costs in England are very high, and the wines are correspondingly expensive.

Salvatore Leone: Yes, because the average yields are very low. In some years you only harvest 3,000 to 4,000 kilos per hectare, which is very little. But even in good years, a winegrower can only expect a maximum of 6,000 kilos per hectare. That is reflected in the prices.

Why are the yields so low?

Salvatore Leone: Among other things, because the vines don't grow as fast here as in warmer regions. In addition, we have big problems with spring frost. As a rule, we all keep our fingers crossed until at least mid-May, after which we can breathe a sigh of relief. The vegetation cycle starts very late compared to other wine-growing regions, we are about a month later than Champagne. It often rains heavily during flowering, which also reduces the yield. The big goal is to have a more constant harvest in the future with innovative techniques like "gentle pruning" according to Simonit & Sirch.

British wines are hardly exported. If at all, you can find some sparkling wines abroad, but only if you explicitly look for them. How many percent of the total British production are sparkling wines?

Salvatore Leone: Of the approximately 10.5 million bottles bottled in the UK in 2019, around 55 per cent were bottle-fermented sparkling wines. But the trend is changing at the moment, more and more wineries want to produce still wines, although the flagship of British wine culture is clearly Sparkling Wine. There are commercial reasons for this. The wineries can bottle and sell a still wine as early as next spring, but a good sparkling wine takes time.

The story of British wine has only just begun.

How would you characterise sparkling wines, how do they differ from champagne?

Salvatore Leone: British sparkling wines are very fresh and mineral, tend to have less structure and body than Champagne. They are finer, but less complex in the mouth. Also, when they stay on the lees longer, they have less pronounced brioche notes than many champagnes.

What about the dosage? Can they also shine in the supreme discipline of Pas Dosé?

Salvatore Leone: Yes, but the base wines have to have a certain balance. I myself am a big fan of Pas Dosé, but unfortunately not every vintage gives it. The British sparkling wines with their pronounced acidity are wonderfully suited to ageing in barriques, as this gives them fullness and suppleness. I experiment a lot with new and used barrels. My goal is that you don't taste the wood, but that it makes the wine more complex. I'm constantly trying new things to keep the acidity of the wines in check.

Do you plan to stay in England?

Salvatore Leone: Absolutely. The work is interesting, varied and the story of British wine has just begun. I'm proud to be part of writing a chapter.

Photos: © Oxney Organic Estate & © 123rf.com

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