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Susanna Forbes: Can England teach the world about making wine?

Jul. 6th 2011

 

 

Why are we asking this now?

As the UK becomes more professional in its wine production, so too do the practical courses on offer. Part of the University of Brighton, Plumpton College in West Sussex began offering viticultural courses in the late 1990s, with full degrees coming on stream a few years later. With Chris Foss heading up the wine department, Plumpton now has some 400 full- and part-time students, with up to 120 on its full-time Wine Business and Production degree courses, of which around 20% are from outside the UK.

 

In recent years, Plumpton, has expanded its strand of business courses, secured EU funding for an extensive Wine Skills series of practical courses aimed at the domestic industry, and ramped up its postgraduate repertoire and research capability under the guidance of Dr Belinda Kemp.

 

How’s it going?

The winery is well equipped, staffing has gone beyond critical mass, and Foss – half-French himself and with extensive Bordeaux experience – heads up a multi-national team. In addition, the department is due to break ground for new laboratories for its Plumpton Wine Research Centre in 12 months time.

 

Meanwhile links with universities such as Reims and Geisenheim are strengthening, exchange visits throughout Europe are becoming the norm, and discussions are ongoing regarding a possible Chinese link-up.

 

But why pick the UK rather than, say, Bordeaux, Geisenheim in Germany or Davis in California?

First, the production course offers a mix of viticultural and oenological studies, whereas elsewhere, often for historical reasons, “it can be one or the other,” explains Foss.

 

One of the college’s strengths is “it doesn’t just make wine in the style of one country,” says Foss. Staff and students give the place “an international dimension”, something which is not always evident in colleges in producer countries.

 

Despite family in New Zealand and contacts at Davis, Mumbai-based Dimple Athavia chose Plumpton because she wanted to learn “a more traditional way of making wine”. Two years in, she’s already worked at Furleigh Estate in Dorset, run by UK Vineyard Association (UKVA) chairman Ian Edwards, and hopes to do her vintage experience in Champagne.

 

Are there any language barriers?

Quite the reverse. For Rhône négociant Simon Tyrrell, Sussex beat France not just because of proximity to his Irish homeland. “Chemistry is hard enough anyway,” he laughs. “I wanted to be taught in English.”

 

“We are the only place in Europe that delivers [wine production] courses in English,” confirms Foss. This offers students great flexibility upon graduation, whether it’s winery work or further study that beckons. Having learnt English at school, Hangun Seob from Korea chose Plumpton. After qualifying, he hopes to do a Masters in France or California before returning to Korea “to develop wine quality”.

 

Is Plumpton the only place attracting overseas students?

No, the Wine Business Management MBA at the Royal Agricultural College (RAC) in Cirencester also has an international rollcall, bringing in students from Brazil, China, Bulgaria and India. The oldest agricultural college in the English-speaking world, wine is one of three MBA specialisations, alongside the equine and farming options.

 

“With the UK the number one wine market by value for wine, we offer a shop window on the wines of the world,” says former Waitrose buyer and senior lecturer Susan McCraith MW. From this vantage point, the cast list of visiting speakers is second-to-none, and students appreciate the course’s ability to cover all aspects of the supply chain with authority.

 

Why Plumpton?

For some, Plumpton’s proximity to the bright lights of Brighton and London is important, while for others like Canadian, Meeghan Murdoch, the closeness of Europe was critical. A diverse range of study trips and harvest internships becomes possible, such as Hangun’s forthcoming stint at a biodynamic winery near Maury.

 

How do people find out about the courses?

Without huge budgets, for Plumpton it’s via Brighton University’s marketing efforts, the internet plus word of mouth – its alumni are spread far and wide. Over at Cirencester, although McCraith does advertise in the UKVA’s journal, for “the link with the domestic industry”, she finds her course gets many enquiries via sites like www.findamasters.com.

 

But after graduation, don’t overseas students just desert team GB?

Not necessarily. Often students will work for a while in the UK before heading elsewhere or returning home. In any event, this dispersal happens at all viticulture and oenology places of study.

With alumni like well-travelled South African John Seccombe making wine at Elgin’s award-winning winery, Iona, Tersina Shieh managing Hong Kong’s prestigious Independent Wine Centre, and Xenefon Panayiotou heading up the Cypriot government’s inspectorate of vineyards and wineries, the UK’s reputation would seem to be in good hands.

 

* Susanna Forbes is a freelance writer who runs a specialist website looking at all issues around drinks in the UK on her website, www.drinkbritain.com

via Susanna Forbes: Can England teach the world about making wine?.