Dreaming of a career in wine? Take the new 'A-Level' in viticulture 

A-Level equivalent in viticulture
The English wine industry is opening up new opportunities for would-be viticulturalists Credit: Ian Pack

Demand for vine workers and interest in learning how to manage vineyards and make wine in the UK is now so high that Plumpton College in Lewes is launching an A-level equivalent qualification, aimed at 16-18 year-olds (but open to all ages). 

Plumpton College is currently the only institution in England to offer wine courses at university level, including the only European undergraduate degree in wine production taught in English and a Master’s degree in viticulture and oenology.

Vine management is a varied job that would appeal to the green-fingered

The introduction of an A Level equivalent in viticulture is expected to promote the career paths available in the English wine industry to younger people.

In 2017, figures revealed that the English wine industry had evolved into a £130m industry. Now, in 2018, English sparkling wine is pitting itself against champagne (the Rathfinny Wine Estate's eagerly awaited first sparkling wines, the 2014 blanc de blancs and the 2015 rosé, were unveiled last month).

The full-time Advanced Technical Certificate in Viticulture launches in September, and will be composed of both tuition and work experience.

It will take on the seasonal, practical aspects of running a vineyard, including tractor driving and operating vineyard machinery through to key vineyard operations such as pruning, trellising and harvesting. There will also be a focus on plant biology and disease protection. 

Life on the vines is outdoorsy, says Chris Foss Credit: Ian Pack

According to the course description, students will "benefit from excellent links with wine producers and distilleries, including visits to the world’s key marketplaces in wine." Chris Foss, Plumpton College's head of wine, says vine management is a varied job that would appeal to the green-fingered.

The English wine industry is still tiny and has a long way to go, but it's growing fast and has great potential

"In terms of workforce, we do suffer a little bit from the fact that we’re a new wine making country," he says. "There are only a few second-generation wine makers in this country, whereas in Bordeaux it's passed on to sons and daughters.

"In England, there's a demand for vine managers who are qualified and confident driving a tractor and harvesting. You don't have to be a young person. It's not a question of age, it's a question of the direction you want to go in. 

"If you want to become an international wine-making star, you can go on to do the undergraduate Bachelor of Science course in Viticulture and Oenology - but vine management itself is an interesting, varied job. It's a great life: active, and suited to people who enjoy working outside and lots of walking," he says. "It's very seasonal. You do different things in winter, autumn, spring and summer, and you adapt by the day to changes in the weather.

"What I like about it is that it’s large-scale horticulture. Growing big crops like wheat isn't as hands on, and you spend more time on a tractor - and if you work in animal husbandry, you’ve really got to like the animals."

Located in Lewes, the college is in the county of Sussex, which was recently awarded prestigious protected regional status by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). 

Working on the vines is seasonal, and viticulturalists at this level have to adapt constantly to the weather Credit: Ian Pack

The Plumpton Wine Estate boasts 9.3 hectares of vines, with varieties including chardonnay, riesling, reichensteiner, seyval blanc, pinot noir, pinot meunier, rondo, and triomphe (you can buy a bottle of Plumpton Estate wine crafted by their students, including sparkling and rosé). 

"Sussex has got sunshine, a decent temperature, and not too much rain or frost," says Foss. "But Kent is also fantastic. Surrey would be great too, but the land is expensive, and much of the North Downs is green belt.

"The English wine industry is still tiny and has a long way to go, but it's growing fast and has great potential. The key thing is to work on is our export markets, which hero brands like Rathfinny, Nyetimber and Chapel Down are doing. They’re conquering the world - the rest will follow." 

The introduction of the new diploma chimes, too, with a concern that the English wine industry will lose agricultural workers in the wake of Brexit. As a result, Plumpton College has also announced a partnership with the Royal Agriculture University in Cirencester to attract young people to work in agriculture. We'll raise a glass of Bolney Estate Pinot Noir to that.