2015 Blog




8 February

Who says there is nothing to do to the vineyard in February?

Tom Bartlett, of Stopham Vineyard in West Sussex, has kindly agreed to come up and teach us how to lay down the Chardonnay canes in anticipation of our first harvest this summer. We have decided to go with the single guyot method of vine trellising which means that the shoot will be bent over in one direction (as opposed to a double guyot) and the shoots will grow vertically from the horizontal cane. We decide, having taken advice to plant each vine just 1 metre apart — quite a concentrated plantation.

When we first met Tom I could not place his slight accent and thought, with his viticulture background, he was an Australian; but he put me right immediately: I am from Essex!

Cane laying

At first we are both a little nervous of breaking the vine as we bend it over onto the fruiting wire but Tom strides down the row in confident fashion and demonstrates those canes which are thick enough in girth to bend and how to bend them slowly over and attaching with twine. Selection is key because there is no uniformity with a Lilliputian plant growing next door to a giant (Brobdinagians, I guess?). Is this due to poor planting, we ask ourselves or just what lies beneath each vine?


First, off come the rabbit guards, next on go the rubber bands to support the main shoot against the metal tutor, and then the cane is tied down with twine to allow 4 buds to produce (our max first year allowance). Some of the vines whose stems are not yet thick enough to bend over will still produce a few bunches of grapes, says Tom, but we need to be careful not the jump the gun and stress the vine into producing too much fruit before it is ready. I wish we had started this game a few years ago as Mother Nature takes its time.

‘How many tons will we get this year, Tom?’ There is a lot of head scratching and the phone’s calculator is brought to bear. It is not quite clear as yet but he thinks we might get 300-400 kilos.


26 February

‘Fail to prepare, or prepare to fail’ — an old adage my old school master used to employ as exams loomed, and of course he was right. Last year we got a nasty shock in April and even May — after the bud burst when we were hit by we several clear nights when the temperature went down to minus 2. This killed off many young buds. 2nd May was a legendary -3 and caused havoc up and down the country. It was also the cause of us getting no cherries that year as all the blossom was hit badly. Last year we installed thermometers at various parts of the vineyard in a bid to discover where the frost pockets were and this task was repeated. The area down by the hedge next to the road was a chilly area — a frost pocket as it is called — and also the area on the hedge line of the Pinot seemed exposed.

Robert and I have been investigating systems for frost protection: from the very expensive frost busters which run on calor gas and throw out hot air to dispel the frost, to the old fashioned French method of lighting candles (bougies).  There have been experiments with heated wires, similar to those installed on oil pipelines in Siberia, which are attached to the fruiting wire. The installation cost is hugely expensive. The idea of flicking on a switch from beside the bed and witnessing the temperature in the vineyard rise by 5 degrees in a matter of minutes is very appealing… but sadly the jury is still out as to whether it actually works.

Most vineyards in England (apart from those on the coast) suffer at some time or another from spring frost due to the fact that we are all growing vines at the extremity of what is possible given our climate; whilst in France, notably Burgundy, the enemy is hail.

There is only one French manufacturer of bougies, it would appear, and they are located inconveniently somewhere south of Lyon. Bougies come in 10 litre tin cans and are composed of oil wax and a rudimentary cardboard wick. Not to be mistaken for the other type of bougies, which is a ‘slender, flexible, cylindrical instrument that is inserted into a bodily canal, such as the urethra, to dilate, examine, or medicate’! I think not.

After many calculations we decide to buy 800 bougies costing €5,000, hoping this would last us for several years as the cost of transport was so high, and have them transported on pallets all the way from south of Lyon. Theo, who is studying in Aix-en-Provence this year, was enlisted to discuss the logistics in his best French with the supplier and to ensure that the delivery was tracked on its journey so that we had a forklift at the ready when the lorry arrived at Kintbury Holt Farm nearby. Despite the plans of mice and men I had a call on the day in question from the delivery company to say that the driver was parked up in the farmyard and where were we? Even in this day and age of mobile phones, why does one bother! It turned out that the driver had arrived in Kintbury with 2 minutes to spare on his tachometer so, after taking off the load, asked to bed down in the yard for his required 10 hours rest.



18 March

Time to manure. We go to work moving manure from the compost heap to the vineyard. Capability Louth devises a system with tractor and trailer chugging slowly down each row with a man and shovel behind it soon becomes clear that there is nothing quicker than 2 wheelbarrows and two shovels. We dress the base of each ‘runt’ vine with a shovel-full of well-rotted compost. Our neighbours, The Quintavalles have just taken delivery of 10 tonnes of Progrow from the local recycling centre and, with permission, we help ourselves greedily to some of the steaming pile. It is easy to handle and no weeds


14 March

Apply the first spray of the season by knap sack of headland sulphur on the advice of John Buchan who says it will help build up protection against disease in the vine. Our other advisers think we are nuts! The opinionated world of viticulture!


18 March

After much desk research, and after threatening to make one himself, Robert locates a suitable boom sprayer that will fit behind our tractor from a supplier in Evesham.



4 April

Robert persuades Andy Stevens, a local farmer whom we shoot with, to lend him a family heirloom — an ancient fiddle for winnowing which looks more like a bagpipe. It is with glee that he fills its bag and winnows down each row spreading boron with metronomic precision. Within an hour the wooden handle is broken but CC comes to the rescue by digging up some copper tubing and drilling a couple of holes in each end for the string to go through. Job done.


7 April

It is key for the viability of the vines to keep the grass ride under control so that the grass and the vine do not compete for nutrients. We want each vine to be free from any weeds and grass. I volunteer to drive the tractor with spray tank attached with Robert in charge of applying Roundup by way of a lance. It is hard to keep the orange bucking bronco at a slow walking speed (we have no rev counter) so Robert is almost skipping down the row behind me and by the end of he is sweating profusely. ‘Time for a beer’, he cries.


18 April

It is key for the viability of the vines to keep the grass ride under control so that the grass and the vine do not compete for nutrients. We want each vine to be free from any weeds and grass. I volunteer to drive the tractor with spray tank attached with Robert in charge of applying Roundup by way of a lance. It is hard to keep the orange bucking bronco at a slow walking speed (we have no rev counter) so Robert is almost skipping down the row behind me and by the end of he is sweating profusely. ‘Time for a beer’, he cries.

When we installed the posts and trellis in the Chardonnay field in 2013 we had great trouble getting the anchors for the end posts at the end of each row inserted correctly (they will take the huge weight of the canopy) with the result that the end posts were beginning to move towards the vertical position. New plan — extra anchors for each post, which meant creating 3’ deep 54 holes with a metal post. Luckily Richard ‘Turbo’ Pearce was on hand to help with the manual duties but even he wilted towards the end.

Off to the Thames and Chiltern Vineyard Association AGM at Stanlake Park near Twyford, Berks where the new owners are kindly hosting the event. Meet the delightful owner of Dropmore Wines, an ex marketing director of American Express, who could not have chosen a better name for a vineyard if he had tried and we exchange stories on frost prevention. The camp is definitely divided into those that hire hands to manage their vines and those that get down and dirty their hands. Fascinating mix of folk as usual. I sit next to a Master of Wine who is charming but whose hands begin to tremble a little as the clock marches past midday with no sign of refreshment! Robert has a good conversation with the owner of Stanlake Park about what one can and cannot put on the back label of a wine bottle.


23 April

Our sprayer arrives with Edward from Weavings Agricultural Machinery who will fit the thing and make sure it attaches correctly to the Kubota. Tony and Robert spend the morning spraying water on the vines to test the nozzles. Too many levers and switches for my liking and I shall not be too hasty in coming forward to volunteer spraying duties.  I am qualified for knap sack spraying but little else at this stage.


24 April

The weather report looked ominous and a frosty night it was. I was up at 1am to light some 200 bougies that we had spaced evenly through both fields.   Using a blowtorch in one hand and a watering can with a mix of petrol and diesel in the other, and of course aided by my headlamp, I started my tour of torching each bougie. Under a starry sky, I staggered from one bougie to another, kicking off the lid with my boot, pouring in a quick slurp of fuel over the top of the wax and firing up the wick to catch fire with a ‘boom’.   Job done by 2.30 am. Luckily the local fire service did not come to visit as I think they would have been rather bemused by seeing two fields alight with a red glow as if UFOs had just landed.



John Buchan, our agronomist, makes his fortnightly visit. He is based in Shropshire but spends his time wending his way up and down England visiting vineyards in every county. As a result he has a very good grasp of what is happening on the ground: vignerons are like farmers in that they tend to moan all the time as growing conditions are never quite what they want. It is either too cold or too wet. John is ‘a cup half full’ man with broad shoulders so a visit from him always peps us up.

He is extremely knowledgeable, advising as he does some of the biggest vineyards in the UK… and some of the wackiest. I am not quite sure what he makes of the Louth/Cooke team as it is both a mixture of blue and white collar but at least he finds us eager to learn every nuance of viticulture. Robert lets him get away with nothing and grills him for every piece of information.

His advice this time is that we should install a top wire in the trellising to prevent the vine tips from being damaged by flapping in high winds. Luckily we have invested in a spinning jenny which means we can uncoil rolls of 2mm wire over 100 metres without it kinking — which was the case when we first tried to do this with much loss of humour on all sides.

We also have a discussion if there is a forecast of nigh time frost about the pros and cons of spraying Frostec on the vines. This contains a concentrated nutrient called Harpin whose application increases the natural defence mechanisms in the young buds from frost damage. Who knows whether it works but we do it anyway.

Of all the manual tasks in a vineyard, bud rubbing — removing the young shoots and buds on the trunk of the vine —must be one of most back breaking and sends a shiver down any vineyard labourer’s spine.  We have 1,500 vines to do in the Chardonnay field so Capability Louth puts his mind to devising a tool which looks much like a bog brush on a long stick with which one can rub up and down the vine inside the rabbit guard without taking the thing off. I have my clipboard and time watch as Tony and Robert creakily work their way down each row. I make a mental note not to volunteer.




Blue skies and warm weather at night mean that we can remove all the bougies from the vineyard and store for next year. A lot of trips are needed to the store with barrows full of these very messy & half used tins. Gloves are essential. We should have enough to last for at least 3 years.

The vines are powering vigorously towards the sky and we need to keep on top of them. We spend 3 days moving from row to row carefully pruning each vine. I wonder how they can do this effectively in a commercial vineyard. The answer is with a large gang of labourers yet it is hard to imagine that they can spend much time on each vine. Hopefully, we will speed up as we get more experienced.


If you don’t know what to look for the flowering process can happen right in front of your eyes without you realising. Depending on the temperatures, flowering usually happens 40-80 days after bud burst with small clusters of flowers appearing on the tips of the young shoots. ‘A few weeks after the initial clusters appear, the flowers begin to grow in size with individual flowers becoming observable. It is during this stage of lowering that pollination and fertilization of the grapevine takes place with the resulting product being a grape berry containing 1-4 seeds.’ So there you have it! Now vitis vinifera grape vines are hermaphroditic and both male stamens and female ovaries being able to self-pollinate.


Robert and I are out with the reference books and doing site studies every day in a bid to work out what is happening under our very noses!


16 June

Appointment with an officer from the Wine Standards Agency, an off-shoot of the Food Standards Agency. We are obliged to register the vineyard and have done this already, so now they just want to know that we exist, and more importantly when exactly we plan to have our first harvest. The young chap is called Jindrich Sedlecek and he covers all of Berkshire and surrounding counties. He seems impressed but does not have much knowledge of viticulture. The production of wine is highly regulated in this country and both the WSA and HMRC take a keen interest in making sure all vineyards and wineries make accurate declarations.


20 June

Who is going to design our wine label? The most important part of the bottle other than the contents.  We have gone slightly ‘left field’ and hit upon a fine typographer who resides in Edinburgh by the name of Robert Darymple. He does a lot of work for the Fine Art Society in Bond Street, and, in fact so it seems, most art galleries south & north of the border, . Rob is up for the challenge and sends me a wine merchants’ catalogue he designed a wee while ago as a sign of positive intent.

I send him a specification of what we have in mind: I trawl all the UK vineyards’ websites for elegant fizz labels and send him digital copies. I also include a sample of the also-rans, which make up the majority of UK wine labels alas, just to indicate what we do NOT like. For good measure, I include a few of the French labels, like Moet and Tattinger, distinguished by their reds, greens and gold colouring. The UK sparkling labels are distinctive yet understated, with sparse typography, which by and large I prefer.

Rob calls back. Gosh, there is a lot of protocol to follow when it comes to designing a wine label, he chortles. And so there is:

  • The front label normally displays the alcohol content ( although some put this on the back), whether it contains sulphites, the quantity, the derivation and of course the wine name
  • The back label is customarily used to provide the background to the wine, the grape varietals, the name and address of the vineyard, the terroir (soil, topography and climate), and sometimes the maker of the wine
  • The neck label, which sits below the foil, is equally critical to the look and feel of the bottle; it usually has an oval or round rose at the front and back of the band on which the vineyard’s logo is normally applied.




7 July

Key task of pruning back the leaves on the Chardonnay vines as they are getting quite shaggy. It is important the bunches are exposed fully to the sunshine and not shaded by leaves. Takes longer than we imagined, well that’s a first!


10 July

We planted the Pinot Noir vines in 2014 so this is their second season in the ground. Now is the critical time to select the primary shoot as we want all the vine growth concentrated on this one cane; if we don’t do this now we will have missed the best part of the growing season. It’s all hands to the pump and we pull in Tony and his son, Martin, to help. Back-breaking work that is best done on one’s bottom shuffling along the ground. At the same time we slit each rabbit guard open with a knife and put back on with a cable tie so in future the task of bud rubbing will be facilitated but simply untying the cable tie or sliding it up the stem.



20 July

John Buchan has impressed on us that we have to keep the leaf vigour of the vines in check and that means topping each one just above the top wire — ‘we are not growing a hedge’, is his mantra — and making sure there are no stray shoots which can be decapitated by the tractor and sprayer as it comes down the row. Capability Louth does both fields methodically as always.


29 July

I source the correct length cable ties, second time round, from a website called Just Cables. These arrive the next day and I set about tying ties around 2,500 rabbit guards. It will be some years before we can safely take them off.


31 July

Major canopy task: de-clustering the grape bunches and de-leafing around each bunch to afford plenty of sunshine. We are told by John to select the best bunch on each shoot ­— ideally the one nearest to the laid down shoot and discard the rest. This is heart- breaking to lose all these bunches but you have to be cruel to be kind and avoid stressing the young vine by letting it over-crop. It takes 3 days to do 27 rows. Now that is dedication and I wonder how they do this in a commercial vineyard, or not!






After a wonderful hot and dry July we enter August with heavy rain showers and the long range forecast is for unsettled weather throughout the month. August has had poor weather record for several years and I feel sorry for all those holidaying under canvas. Robert is back in Greece sweltering in the Cyclades on his boat Ria and wishing for gentle winds to cool things.



3 August

Borrow a hedge cutter from A4 Hire to give the vines a haircut. The trick is to walk down the vines slowly, holding the cutter blade at belt height horizontally to the vines, and cutting smoothly as one paces slowly down the row— not easy as the ground undulates. No one admits to cutting a wire but just the odd grazing here and there. Eventually CC goes for broke and severs a top wire— PING!


14 August

This rain is stimulating the grass and weeds around each vine. In between the showers I get out with a knapsack sprayer apply Diquot. Each row takes about 15 minutes. It is a contact herbicide that seems to have little effect on the grass…..or weeds for that matter. I might even mix it with my G&T it is so mild.


18 August

John Buchan drops by to cast his eye over the vineyard. He thinks we have a mineral deficiency in parts of the vineyard which is showing in some of the leaves — quite common and something that can be addressed through regular granular application in the winter with boron, magnesium etc.; in the summer one can apply foliar feeds. We agree to do a ‘random’ leaf sample and send off for analysis.


19 August

A lovely day, at last. Tony comes and sprays, as he has been doing every 10 days since June.  This is not a job for the amateur as it requires maintaining a constant speed down each row, having the correct nozzles open as you start each row, and with full concentration that you don’t miss a vine — not easy with the orange bucking bronco of a Kubota. Tony is a master tractor driver and has got the hang of her ladyship. She is strong-willed.


We have been following the spray programme guide issued by the UKVA (UK Vineyard Association) to all its members but John Buchan adapts it according to the conditions. He sends us small bottles each week made up in brown parcels. Given our bijoux size we only require tiny amounts of pesticides that only John can decant for us from his ‘laboratory’ at home. Next year we will get more organised, says Robert.

 August has given us 3 weeks of God-awful weather such that the poor vines have hardly seen a ray of sunshine for more than 2 hours at a time each day. This bodes badly for the swelling of the grapes.



 The first week of September is much like August: raining cats and dogs with cold temperatures. I cannot believe that the night temp last night went down as low as 4.4C.


7-12 September

Plumpton College, South Downs, Sussex. Centre of Excellence for Wine Education

Off to Plumpton (College not races) for the week. Although we will not be making the wine ourselves we feel that a sharp intensive course will set us up in the knowledge department and of course help us influence how Hattingley Valley make our fizz— or at the very least comprehend her methodology. The weather is perfect with bright sunshine every day so our vines should be basking in the early September sunshine back in West Berks.

The students for the ‘Principles of Wine Making’ intensive course all gather at 9.30 sharp on Monday morning in the lecture theatre. Our lecturer for the week, one Tony Milanowski (an Aussie), begins by asking each in turn — a good ice breaker this —what was the last bottle of wine each of us drank. We have a round of dull New World pinot noirs and then Robert chirps up “a bottle of Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux 2001”. This was consumed in our hotel restaurant last night having brought from R’s cellar in swaddling clothes. R, cheekily, told the hotel as part of our wine course we were doing tastings and thus needed to do homework in the hotel; they took it hook line and sinker… and no corkage). Tony pauses and a balloon comes out of his head along the lines of, “Strewth, that is a humdinger of a bottle, who the feck is this fella drinking Margaux as his vin de table.” Robert looks quite smug.


The students for the week are a mixed bag: retired doctor, an Australian barrister with a vineyard in Adelaide (we told him this did not count) who wanted to swop it for one in Italy, bio-dynamic enthusiasts currently lecturing as landscape designers, wine ‘educators’ on the London Eye, Lincolnshire farmer who has eyed an opportunity to increase her land value possibly by planting vines, an ex-mountaineer and IT specialist with a vineyard north of Inverness which made our enterprise seem rather tame, and a lovely lass working in the family wine supply business to off and on trade who has a plan to plant a seriously large vineyard in Dorset. And I nearly forgot Neil, the delightful chap who made chocolate machines for the Germans and who was only doing the course so that he could ‘mug up’ and enjoy time with his ex-pat son, whose passion was growing vines in his walled garden back in Leicestershire — that is when he was over from Brussels where he worked for the Commission as a lawyer! I think we confidently call ourselves a mixed bag.

Tony Milanoswki is quite a fella himself: a chemical engineer by training, he has worked in wineries in Australia and Italy with 12 vintages under his belt. He had the misfortune to end up in England having married a pommie sheila but takes every occasion to moan about this wet and crowded island. Hampshire comes under most stick as a county with no roads going through it. He must be related to my postman in Hungerford as they both wear Dr Martens and shorts in all seasons.

Plumpton has become, in the space of 10 years or so, the centre for the study of viticulture and oenology in the UK; their undergraduates and post grads come from all over the world and then filter out into various wine fields. Emma Rice, our wine maker (and UK wine maker of the year 2014), is herself on the list of glittering alumni from Plumpton College. It also runs a semi-commercial winery making 50,000 bottles a year of sparkling and still wine from its own estate.

Tony teaches us each morning in the lecture theatre, with mini breaks every 50 minutes, and makes it fun with his little reflexions on English life (Bill Bryson-like) and stories of making wine in extreme climates. He manages to impart a huge amount of information, much of it very scientific, to an audience many of whom — like us — have not been in the classroom for 40 years plus. Clearly, making wine is both a science and an art but, boy, I wish I had paid more attention in chemistry lessons at school. Robert is in his element but I find myself struggling with the scientific concepts and complex processes.

The afternoon sessions are spent in the winery and the adjacent laboratory with Sarah Midgley, the winemaker, who purports to teach us the wine making processes: from operating the de-stemer, pressing the grape (rejects from Waitrose) in a bladder press, pumping the juice into a tank, analysing the grape juice, and doing various filtering to remove solids. There is a lot of sniggering and eye rolling as she has hold over her students’ attention and many of us stand around waiting for instructions that never come. So lets hope her fizz is better than her teaching.

This what we covered on the course, such that by the end of the week we should have be in a position to carry out the following:

 The Harvest:

 Describe the structure and composition of grapevine berries

 Describe the ripening process

 Evaluate mechanical harvesting and different modes of transporting grapes

 Collect representative samples from a vineyard and perform analyses of sugars and

acids in order to monitor berry development

Grape Processing:

 Justify the need for processing operations such as sorting, de-stemming, crushing and

pressing and evaluate the different methods of carrying out these operations.

 Evaluate the need for must treatment operations

 Pick grapes, operate a crusher/de-stemmer, press and must pump.

The Alcoholic Fermentation:

 List the major criteria for selecting yeast strains

 Use sulphur dioxide effectively and safely in the winery

 State the reason for monitoring the alcoholic fermentation and evaluate different

methods of temperature control.

 Carry out juice treatments on white must such as racking, chaptalisation, de-acidification

and yeast inoculation.

Red Wine Production:

 State the main differences between the objectives and operations in red and white


 Evaluate different methods of cap management in red winemaking

 Describe the malo-lactic fermentation and the methods by which it can be encouraged

or prevented.

Wine Clarification:

 Evaluate different methods of clarification of wine

 Assess the effects of different fining agents on wine

 Perform filtering operations using pad, earth and cartridge filters

Wine Stability and Bottling:

 Perform stability tests on wine and prescribe treatments for instabilities

 Understand the causes and prevent the onset of microbial spoilage

 List the precautions required for a successful bottling operation

 Operate a filler and corker safely and effectively

Sparkling Wine Production:

 Distinguish between the different methods of sparkling wine production

 Describe the steps required in the production of sparkling wine by the traditional method.

 Identify specific sparkling winemaking equipment


Along the way Tony explodes various urban wine myths such as:


  1. ‘Sulphites give me a headache.’ Unlikely. Sulphur has been used since Romans times as a preservative and today sulphur dioxide is used in gas form in carefully controlled amounts to stabilise wine and hold back oxidation. It is requirement of the Food Standards Agency that wines containing SO2 must declare so on the label. Very few wines do not contain traces of SO . However, some asthmatics can be allergic to sulphites.
  2. Most wine and all sparkling wines in cool climates have sugar added to aid fermentation (chaptalisation)
  3. There are vegetarian and orange wines as demonstrated to us by Tony. Not appealing
  4. Wineries contain lots of carbon dioxide (CO2) and a build up can be fatal. There have been plenty of accidents of deaths from workers climbing into tanks to clean them and being overcome within seconds. Windows and doors in wineries are always opened in the morning and left open all day.
  5. Yeasts are added to aid fermentation and there are a myriad on the market heavily promoted by food businesses all with various claims of suitability. There is not much between them in reality, but they are a whole lot better that the natural ones found in the tanks of wineries which are not kept spotless when unused.




 The beginning of October brings continued sun and our fingers and toes are crossed that the grapes will speed up their ripening.

3 October

Our first vine leaseholders’ lunch was held in the barn with a very good turn of some 30 guests. There is nothing like organising a party and then failing to turn up oneself. I had been laid low all week with a nasty virus and by Saturday had still not managed to shake it off, so regretfully, on what was a glorious early October day, I stayed in bed and nursed a migraine. Robert was left to hold the fort and did an admirable job; he initiated proceedings with a lecture tour of the vineyard before lunch and answered, on the hoof, highly probing questions from several of the vine lessees. Bright lot these wine buffs, you can’t pull any wool over their eyes!

Simon Taylor, owner of Stone Vine & Sun in Winchester, kindly agreed to come along and talk about the wine he supplied for the event. Naturally (and most diplomatically) he chose an excellent English fizz from Hugh Liddell of Cottonworth whose vineyard is close by to SVS in Hampshire.   This fizz is made by…..you guessed it….. Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley. Jeremy and Serena Hawkins very kindly contribute one of their lambs which Jeremy barbecues to perfection on a charcoal b-b-q situated just outside the barn doors. Situation is key so he does not miss out on any of the jollity or suffer a momentary empty glass. Leonie and Frankie effortlessly prepare the remainder of our sumptuous fare and I hope a lovely day is had by all (except for yours truly).


5 October

A visit from John Buchan to check on berry veraison progress. The majority of the vineyards he visits are at least 2 weeks behind in terms of ripening — some comfort — so he estimates we will not be picking until the end of the month. He inspects for disease but finds all is healthy. We do a Brix test for the sugar levels and record a brix of 11.4. The target Emma is looking for is close to 16! The legal minimum for natural alcohol in wine grapes as set by the Wine Standards Agency is 7.5% so we are not there yet.


8 October

Robert takes a random sample of grape berries, puts them in a plastic bag and takes them down to Custom Crush at Hattingley Valley. They do the analysis there on the spot which is mighty efficient and we leave with a printout of the results … plus a nod to come back with better results. R was told to bring 300 berries but, through a misunderstanding, only takes 30 so gets a bit of a gentle ticking off! The key measurements are as follows: The Brix is 11.1, the TA acid level (Tartaric Acid) is 25.5, and the pH is at 2.83. The lack of sunshine during August and early September has badly affected the acid levels in the grapes so we are well behind where we should be at this time of year, i.e. 2 weeks away from harvesting. Ideally the T/A level for harvesting fizz grapes needs to be in the region of 16.00 – 18.00! Still some way to go.


14 October

On this occasion we both take separate samples of berries and then test the sugar levels on our new refractometer (expensive but v useful). We get different results — mine is higher by a 1 Brix point!

In the meantime we are noticing increasing signs of botrytis in the grapes and Robert embarks on the tedious but essential task of removing as much as we can from the affected bunches, whilst doing with utmost care so as not to do any further damage to the bunches. It is also clear that something is nibbling the low hanging bunches it is the local pheasant population that have started to trot into the vineyard in order to supplement their diet of corn. Therefore it is decided to install a gas gun at the top of the vineyard to scare them off. To increase the decibels R places an empty drum a few yards away from the end of the gun. When it goes off it sounds like the starting gun at Cowes Week and we both run for cover. They must be cursing us in the neighbourhood.


20 October

I drop in on Jane at Cobbs Farm shop nearby where they have a 5-acre vineyard. This will be their third year of harvesting so she is an experienced hand. This autumn will see the launch of their first vintage with their Alder Valley 2013 sparkling. In spite of the fact that Cobbs grow every kind of fruit imaginable Jane and her colleague Alison finds grape vines the trickiest of all her fruity children. She reports that whilst the sugar levels of her chardonnay and pinot noir are acceptable, the acid levels are still way too high.   We have a small joint moan.


24 October

It is my turn to take a sample of grapes down to Hattingley Valley. I arrive early and Jo Tommy is already in the Custom Crush laboratory, a converted farm building which sits in the corner of the yard. She takes the grapes and crushes them inside a plastic bag until there is a goodly amount of juice created which she extracts with a syringe and then goes to work on the lab bench. I wait with baited breath.   The Brix is up to 14.3 (identical to reading from the refractometer at home), good news, but the tartaric acid is still too high at 19.5 but coming down. She gives me that sympathetic hospital nurse look. Let’s wait another week.


30 October

Red Letter Day — The Vendange

The season has become decidedly autumnal but we have a small weather window. Having consulted with Emma at HV, where they have been taking in grapes now for over a week, she looks at her timetable of slots on the wine press and the die is cast. We must go for this Friday if we are to have a chance to harvest.

Robert and I spring into action. Calls are hastily made to local VLs holders and friends with a horticultural bent and within 20 minutes we have a gang of pickers.

Robert ‘prepares’ the barn like a surgery: plastic sheets on the floor, various benches in line, a quantity of buckets, and vine secateurs by the dozen laid out for the pickers. By 9 am the pickers have all arrived and are assembled in the barn — dressed in wet weather gear with buckets and secateurs at the ready— for the pre-harvest team talk given by the two vignerons. Each picker is allocated a row and instructed to cut out where feasible any berries on bunches which have signs of rot (botrytis) as they go down the row. Bunches are placed in buckets which when full are brought by Leonie, Frankie and Theo up to the sorting tables in the barn, manned by Robert and me. For the first hour things are slow with a multitude of questions from pickers but after that a good rhythm is established with less chat, and the bucket begin to come in steadily. Each bucket is tipped carefully on the table top and we sort through, rejecting any bullet bunches (very few) and snipping out the odd rotting berry, which has been overlooked.

There is no uniformity in the quantity of grapes picked from each row; the young vines are at different stages of maturity and some canes were not thick enough to lay down on the fruiting wire, albeit they still produced a few bunches on the vertical, so it is hard to estimate the length of time it will take to pick. For instance, row 1 has 173 bunches whilst row 23 is a monster with 367, and the latter takes 4 pickers over one hour to harvest.

One of our pickers is more accustomed to harvesting in the Languedoc where you are down to shirtsleeves by 9am and, for protection from the beating sun, a hat is de rigueur. I fear cool climate harvesting is rather a different experience! At least the predicted rain has stayed away.

After the first couple of rows are harvested we have hardly any grapes and Robert and I look at each other with a certain apprehension: help, are we going to fill the trailer at this rate. But after the second hour the buckets pile in and the crates begin to multiply nicely. Robert moves them to the awaiting trailer that is parked outside the barn doors and neatly stacks them.

Lunch is a hurried affair as we are up against the clock having underestimated how long the process is gong to take. Some folk, who we only booked for the morning, have pressing commitments so down tools at midday — luckily to be replaced by others. A couple of hurried calls later and Doug Garrod and Nick Boden appear to lend a hand.

A big round of applause for our harvest helpers who all did sterling work:

Doug & Christine Garrod,Tina Lowe,Kate Rossiter (vine lease holder),Chris & Bridget Roupell (vine lease holder),John Burleton (vine lease holder),Jeremy Hawkins,Sirio Quintavalle,Tatiana & Becky Quintavalle,Jilly Smith, Leonie Cooke, Frankie Louth,Nick Boden


By three o’clock we are done… and done-in. The last crate is stack on the trailer and Commodore Louth lashes them together in fine nautical style so that even my erratic driving on the A34 will not affect their stability. We celebrate with cakes, coffee and beer— no time for a leisurely lunch, as we have to get to the winery for our booked slot on the press.

We arrive at Hattingley Valley by 4.30. We are the first vineyard to deliver that day. A welcoming party materialises from various buildings as we draw up in the yard and lots of jolly young men start to help get the crates off and onto a waiting pallet.   They inspect the crates of grapes and make appreciative noises. Emma Rice appears in her fetching cowboy hat and mans the electronic scales.

Within half and hour we are back on the road with an empty trailer heading home, both feeling slightly light headed after the day’s exertion. After 3 year’s of blood, sweat and the occasional tear, our first crop of fine chardonnay berries is finally harvested. We are now completely in the hands of our winemaker.