By Andy Bruce
LONDON (Reuters) - Forget green fields and clouds. Blazing sunshine and rows of grapevines are now a growing part of the English countryside, leading to a rise in locally produced sparkling wine - boosted this year by a bumper harvest.
At the Chapel Down winery in Kent, about 40 miles southeast of London, dozens of fruit-pickers are busy loading grapes into bins for the harvest, which is about 60 percent bigger than last year's.
While Britain's 2018 summer was the joint-hottest on record -- adding to concerns about global warming -- the heat has been a boon for England's wine industry, which accounts for about 2 percent of all the wine bought in Britain.
"The conditions have been, frankly, perfect," said Mark Harvey, managing director of the wines business at Chapel Down.
"We are seeing huge demand for the limited supply that we're able to deliver to the market, so the need to bolster stocks is urgent. To have a harvest of the scale that we're having this year is just the best."
At Chapel Down, which has chalky soil similar to the famous Champagne region of France and utilises the same "Traditional Method" of winemaking, the bumper harvest has come at an opportune time.
Trade data from Britain's customs service show imports of champagne into Britain have fallen to a 17-year low, in part reflecting the pound's post-Brexit fall against the euro.
GRAPHIC - UK champagne imports: https://reut.rs/2A0isBV
"Champagne prices have crept up because of the weakness of the pound. Does that make it a more attractive place to be selling English sparkling wine? Undoubtedly," Harvey said.
Other wineries tell a similar story.
Simon Robinson, chair of the Wines of Great Britain (WineGB) trade body and owner of the Hattingley Valley winery in Hampshire, reckons British winemakers have also benefited from a growing preference for local produce among consumers and an improved standing among wine critics.
"That's what's changed over the last few years -- particularly the larger producers have been concentrating on quality, with a significant degree of success," he said.
THE BREXIT TERROIR
The plentiful harvest has been a welcome distraction from uncertainty ahead of Brexit, due to take place in March next year.
While the bulk of Chapel Down's wines are sold domestically, the production process is heavily international.
Outside its warehouses there are giant metal tanks built by a French company, all full of wine. Inside there are lines of barrels of French oak, as well as giant pressing machines built by a German company.
And on the vineyards, teams of mostly Eastern European workers, many Romanian, pick the grapes.
How easy it will be for wineries to attract seasonal labour for the harvest after Brexit remains to be seen.
"It's a big issue. It's an issue in terms of grape supply into the wineries in the UK, it's a big issue for Kent. There's lots of fruit that needs to be picked in Kent," Chapel Down's Harvey said.
"I'm confident that we'll find a solution, but the answers aren't there yet, that's for sure."
And in the longer-term, the prospects for England's wine industry may well hinge on Britain's ability to strike trade deals with countries outside the European Union.
"Hattingley Valley sells roughly between a third and 40 percent of its own brand for export. The biggest market by far is the United States. After that is probably Australia and Japan," Robinson said.
Chapel Down's Harvey also highlights the United States as a major potential source of growth for the company.
By contrast, the EU is not such a big market for English winemakers, given the prominence each wine-producing country gives to its own product.
"The idea that we would introduce English wine is a bit difficult," Robinson said, adding that Germany at least seemed to be a little more open-minded.
But right now, it is impossible to say if the British wine industry's fast growth will be aided or impeded by Brexit.
Underlining the challenge, WineGB estimates that 3 million grapevines have been planted over the last three years.
"In a reasonably good year, that should produce around 8,000 or 9,000 tonnes of grapes," Robinson said.
"And I have no idea where those grapes are going to be processed."
(Reporting by Dylan Martinez, Helena Williams, Will Russell and Andy Bruce; Editing by Hugh Lawson)