As we enter what will be our 5th year in the vineyard and our 2nd year of grape production, it is frustrating to think that we are still 18- 24 months away from the release of our 2015 vintage. Our bottles sit on their lees ( dead yeast) slowly maturing in a darken room at Hattingley Valley winery. You need to have the patience of Job in this game. Not until June 2017 we will have a chance of our first tasting from the 2015 vintage in the bottle.
It is a chilly February day as we gather in the vineyard with Tom Bartlett of Vinecare and his replacement, Jake, for a practical lesson in how best to prune a vine using a single guyot system (i.e. one cane). Jake is taking over from Tom who, as assistant wine maker at Stopham Vineyard, is juggling too many duties to continue touring the country as a peripatetic viticulturist consultant. He is very knowledgeable and has been great. First we have to cut away all the dead wood from last year’s growth which involves disentangling all the incredibly strong tentacles which the vine throws off to grip the wires; next we select a new cane with 12 potential buds plus a spur from the trunk which ideally is located 6 inches below the fruiting wire so as to make bending onto the fruiting wire straightforward. The spur will become next year’s cane. Their advice is to wait for the cane’s sap to drain away before we actually tie the cane down so as to avoid any disease seeping back down into the trunk. This will be a job for early March.
On the dog and bone looking for second hand Burgundian barrels to buy in which to oak a small parcel of our wine before it is blended with the tank fermented juice. Last year Emma Rice did not have enough spare barrels to lend us any and we are keen to source our own. As it turns out this is not as easy as it first appeared because we can have no idea of the quality of the barrel before buying. Abandon the search and decide to rely on Emma and Jacob to source.
After lots of research into frost prevention methods we have decided to take the plunge and install a heated wire system which will run along the fruiting wire and keep the little bursting buds nice and toasty on a cold nigh in April/May. Getting up in the middle of the night to light bougies is a filthy and tiring job — the first time is quite exciting but after that it quickly becomes a chore of some magnitude. We have sourced a company called Gaia Climate Solutions who commonly provide heated wire such mundane applications as underfloor heating and arctic oil pipelines. Apart from Ridgeview Winery in Sussex who have trialled a few rows we will be the first vineyard in the UK to undertake such an installation. With a measuring wheel we estimate we will need nearly 1 kilometres of coated wire. This we will attach by ties so that it is in contact with the vine cane. When the temperature drops to a set level as triggered by a thermostat the wires will heat up to 20 degrees — just a noticeable amount of warmth if you grip the wire tightly. Certainly the thermal imaging photos from Gaia taken in frosty conditions are impressive: there is a halo of orange around each cane. Once we have finished installing the bridges carrying the wires over the rows, the armour cabling back for each circuit running back to the meter box the whole enterprise looks like HS2!
I go to Barlow’s sawmills in Hermitage and pick up a wooden sign they have made for the vineyard. A nice job after the second attempt and I hang it ceremoniously next to the vineyard. Perhaps it should go close to the road to attract passers by. On second thoughts, lets wait until we have product to sell — there might be a stampede otherwise.
Southern and Scottish Electric arrive on the appointed day and install a power supply from a pole next to the pinot field. The engineer shimmies up the pole and attaches what looks like a pair of giant bulldog clips from the top wire and then brings a cable down the side of the pole and into empty meter box attached to the wall. It takes 10 minutes and costs £320. A week later another section of SSE comes on site and installs the electric meter inside the box. Hey presto we have power. Why cant the same man do both jobs?
Rolls and rolls of heated wire are delivered on site and we sit scratching our head as to how best to start. Our electrician also scratches his head: it’s a new one for one and all. Each roll of wire has been designed to be 200 metres long and there are 5 circuits in all to cover 1,000 metres plus. At each end these are connected to an armoured cable and then tied and carried together along the top end of each vine row to an assembly point at row 1. Here they all go under ground in a trench back to a board in the meter box. The whole job takes 3 days and happily the calculations from Gaia prove to be bang on. The only item which is not fit for purpose is the thermostat: it is so small you can move it from +4o to -2o with one click. This is upgraded and off we go.
We are now ready to tie the pinot canes down onto the fruit wire for the first time. Despite all our anxieties the canes perform beautifully and bend under our hands to a horizontal position and we attach two ties per vine. Gaia, the supplier of the wires, give us a word of warning: strong they may be but should they suffer any sharp incisions there is no repair kit. Caveat emptor.
When it comes to tying down the pinot it is plain ailing as the canes bend under our guiding hands but the chardonnay canes present different problems. Last year’s spurs provide this year’s canes. However, possibly because we did not quite know what we were doing, the canes are not in an ideal position for bending horizontally: either they are too high or too low down the trunk. Added to which they are very brittle and a few snap as we operate. A quick think and we get our helpers — Jeremy and Christine — to walk down the row in front of us spraying each cane with water to soften them up. It works mostly with a few nasty cracks followed by expletives. Another bottle of fizz down the drain. We three keep a silent tally of ‘breakages’. Tony has a great gift of knowing how best to twist and bend some of the most hideously looking canes into a supine position. This job takes about 7 days in all and by the end we are exhausted but triumphant.
John Buchan, our agronomist, advises that the vines should, in their first years, get as much fertiliser as possible. We fetch upon the idea of buying in local authority fertiliser called Progrow that is produced from folks’ recycled green rubbish. We order 10 tonnes in all but not before someone has done an ‘ealth and safety’ check on the site. Lord help us. It is light and beautiful to handle and we drop a shovel load around each vine. Nonetheless a tedious and long job carried out by David and Turbo.
In my absence on holiday Robert pressgangs his mate Nigel to come and help him install top wires throughout the 2 fields, the theory being that this will provide more stability for the vine. The tricky bit is unwinding the wire from its pool without it twisting — not a problem now we have bought a spinning jenny. It takes two days and Nigel’s wages of sin are access to Robert’s wine cellar in the evening.
Finally, Robert plants roses at the each of every fifth row and appropriately source a rose called ‘Compte de Champagne’.
5th March — A Red letter day as we drive own visit to the winery for a blending session of the 2015 vintage with wine makers, Emma and Jacob. We have 3 samples to try with different proportions of still pinot and chardonnay. We rely on their recommendations as clearly we don’t have the knowledge to choose.
It that time of year to get out the thermostats and place the bougies on guard like sentries at the ready. Gosh, it really is a filthy job and we get covered in dirty bougie wax.
We take the tarpaulin off the spreader that has been sitting idle since we bought it and Robert manages to give it an overhaul with grease and oil. Amazingly it appears in apple pie order. We take delivery of the lime and John’s special mix of minerals based on the last soil analysis that highlighted any deficiencies we need to correct. On a beautiful day with clear azure skies Robert hammers down each row with the spinner open. The job is done within the hour — one of the few tasks on which we over estimated the duration.
Sunday and the annual Thames and Chiltern Vineyard Association lunch at Cherwell Boathouse in Oxford. Awards are presented for various classes and strange how it always seems to be the same winners every year. Bit cliquey but maybe when Winding Wood Sparkling is released we can have a pop at a rosette. We have a visit form the newly appointed CEO of the UKVA, one Barry, and I sit with him at lunch. Jolly fellow with good connections at Westminster so lets hope he shakes up the organisation —starting with an overhaul of its antediluvian website.
Visit from John Buchan as he winds his way south (he lives in Market Drayton) doing large loops around the country as he calls on 50 vineyards. He is the fount of all knowledge on matters of agronomy (the science of the soil). He checks on the bud development and declares that we are not far off bud burst.
This is a critical month when night frosts can kill the tender vine buds and ruin the whole crop in minutes. On 13 April we spot the chardonnay buds beginning to change their characteristics and move from dormant to woolly white. On the 15th we spot early stages in the pinot vines.
On 16th and 17th we experience heavy frosts, as predicted by Metcheck, and we are up all night lighting bougies in the chardonnay field. It falls to +2o by 8pm and the heated wires in the pinot wires, which are set to come on at +2o, perform perfectly and are on by 8.30pm! There is reported devastation around the country and in Europe too. Bush telegraph moves fast. We get calls from fellow vignerons as to how the heated wires are working? And ‘Do you have any bougies for sale?’
Temperatures can drop in a matter of minutes to dangerous levels. Dawn is known to be the coldest time — just before the sun rises. Air frost is more critical than ground frost largely as the fruiting wire is 80cm from the ground so mowing the grass low in April is advised to reduce the ground frost on the grass.
There are two main types of air frost: radiation and advection. Radiation frost is rapid heat loss from the earth’s surface that occurs on calm still nights. Advection is ‘the result of a large cold mass of air moving into an area’ — definitely the hardest to mange and control.
In 2016 vineyards in France suffered badly and Champagne particularly. Vineyards in Austria too were devastated so it is not just England that gets badly hit. Parts of Hampshire experienced -5 degrees on one night in April.
Take a short pole, attach at one end a washing up brush, then fix well with gaffer tape and voila you have Louth’s magic bud rubbing brush. Designed perfectly to slide down a vine guard and rub off the trunk buds. The only ones we want are those on the cane.
The call goes out for a bud rubbing gang and on the appointed day we have a gathering of ‘the faithful’. Slowly we work our way down the rows, on our knees, removing each vine guard and rubbing away any buds that tend to sprout on the trunk of the vine. If we don’t take them off now these will become shoots and cause us a nuisance later — we only want growth through the cane shoots.
Debs Higgins has dressed in a sou’wester as if she is either volunteering for the Salcombe lifeboat or going to Glastonbury. But she has the last laugh as the heavens open and we get drenched.
We have a bad frost forecast for 13 May and we keep an eye on MetCheck. The trouble is with frost it can be very localised and we know for a fact that our site is always colder than Kintbury down the road. The bougies are in position.
By mid month as night-time temperatures begin to rise we decide that the time is right to attack the final prune. On the advice of Tom Bartlett we left our canes left extra long to protect against frost. Has it worked? We don’t think so. As a result we have another procedure to undertake which will take the best part of 2 days as we have to go to each vine and remove excess buds: 9 or 6 buds depending on vigour of vines. Spur selection is critical, as this will provide the can we lay down next year. We have left 2-3 buds as a precaution against frost but we will select the chosen shoot later on.
We suffered some vine casualties last year and these we will replace with new vines. I work my way through making a count, mark with a clothes peg, and then put an order in for 20 replacements.
By the end of the month it is possible to count the cost of the damage by seeing which buds Monitor how many buds have made it and which have been zapped by the frost. In the Chardonnay field it look as if we have lost 25-30% thanks to that bad night when even the bougies could not hold back the heavy frost. As for the pinot noir vines which were less advanced when the heavy frost hit (at woolly bud stage) but which also had the protection of the heated wires, we have lost almost nothing. Food for thought.
At the beginning of June we commence the second prune by taking off any secondary buds and any crowded shoots — each node can produce 3 buds but so if the primary one is damaged the secondary will take over. Secondary buds will crop later and will not produce the same quality of fruit. Also, we check that the spur’s shoot is okay and secure.
Weather-wise, the first week of June is fabulously hot. Long may it continue. By the 12 June we collect up all the bougies form the vineyard and store. The empty ones are taken on a trailer to the metal recycling depot near Bradfield which is full of old cars being crushed. I park the Land Rover carefully as far from the crushing machine as possible. We receive a miserly £2.70 for our 200 empty tins. I will not bother again as I must have used £20 of fuel to get there.
We have to bud rub once more as the wet weather has produced new buds and shoots on the trunks. Clearly we did not perform the first bud rubbing effectively enough. Biz and Hannah come along to help rubbing on the chardonnay.
20th June and Robert returns from month away sailing in Greece. I pass the baton and he starts working through each row taking out blind shoots (no bunches) and tucking in rampant shoots so they are not swiped by the sprayer as it runs down each row.
I can’t believe it is June for it has rained every day for three weeks. Things had better improve fast or our vines will go backwards. Sure enough, when John Buchan, our agronomist drops by to check on flowering progress he pronounces that it will be later this year thanks to the cold weather. Bother.
This is the month when major canopy management is most required. Sunshine and rain have made everything grow madly.
12th — There is lots of tying back of rampant shoots in the pinot field. Next job: take off 2nd bunches on secondary shoots as they will not catch up. We want all the ripening to at the same time.
13th — First hedge cut of the season. Boy it is hot. Wimbledon finishes and finally the skies clear with fab weather. Record 33o today and it barely drops below 28 o for the entire week.
19th — Visit to Johnny the Fish at the Queens Arms in East Garston where we regale him with stories of a local vignerons, i.e. us. He laps it up and says he will definitely be a customer when the vintage is released.
21st — Another visit from John Buchan. Bunches are setting well which means we should not have the same problem we had last year of uneven ripening ( I will hold him to that!). He reports that he can reduce acidity levels with the additional of nutrients. We will hold him to that too! High acidity levels in England are the big challenge to a wine maker and late harvests are common as the grapes need long periods of warm temperatures. Last year we harvested at the beginning of November.
I mull over how we can gauge the success of the heated wires we installed in the pinot field along the fruiting. What is the scientific evidence? Certainly we had no damage in the pinot but the buds were dormant when the late April frosts hit whereas we suffered 20% damage in the chardonnay. I make a note to contact the NZ vineyards that use the same method but our supplier is not very helpful in giving us contacts.
We have something called rain today. All very odd. Nevertheless temperatures still hover around 20 o. Chardonnay: we start thinning the leaves, topping and taking out laterals yet leave 2 leaves so it can re-grow.
Hot weather continues unabated, hurrah.
9th— Can’t believe after the frost devastation in April ( we recorded -5 o one night) how the chardonnay has bounced back to look luxuriant. We estimate losses of 20-30% of chardonnay buds from frost which is a blow. It has been much worse in parts of Hampshire in supposedly protected sites.
11th — Visit from Jake of Vinecare who recommends we take off more leaves around the bunches to allow (a) the spray to reach all parts and (b) to increase sunlight penetration. We do so but Tony scratches his head and recommends that to begin with we just carry this out on the less sunny side.
16th —To Thorpeness in Suffolk on holiday for 3 days with the Warners taking the ‘manopause’ Jagwar with us and leave the vines on their lonesome as Robert is away in Greece on his beautiful boat, Ria. He must be sweating in the heat.
22nd —Drop in to Cobbs Farm Shop and look at their vines. Their bunches are smaller from which I deduce that they really did suffer badly from frost without any bougie protection. These bunches may well be secondaries and thus smaller than primary bunches.
23rd — Lots of questions for John Buchan: Q1 stripping leaf, Q2 leaf condition, Q3 laterals cut off, Q4 how to spot downy and powdery mildew early. Everything we do is prophylactic, i.e. preventative; Q5 spray intervals.
27th —Visit from Polly Wood, a seasoned gardener, who wants to come and learn about vineyards.
30th — Pinot veraison begins and the grapes begin to change colour.
9th —pinot bunches are really turning red – and startlingly so. Hot weather continues and hovers around 25 o all week. Lovely for the vines. Lots of green harvesting to do in each field and we spend all week doing so. Hard work. This watch and wait time while we keep the canopy in good order and the rides mown.
A short sojourn to the south of France to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in the Jagwar soft top. It purrs all the way and does not miss a beat. First stop is Épernay in the heart of Champagne, then we wind our way down to Beaune in Burgundy; and then finally stop just south of Lyon for the night. We have arranged a tour of a few Northern Rhone vineyards in St Joseph and Côte Rotie with an Englishman who was a tax accountant in a former life, then became a wine supplier and now has gone most definitely native. Without his contacts we would never have had this sort of access — wonderful.
Down to Hattingley Valley with grapes samples. We will use this sample as a benchmark: the pinot is miles ahead of the chardonnay in terms of its acidity levels as measured by T/A ( tartaric acid) as the chardonnay has a whopping 27 T/A pts! A very long way to go.
This is the build-up to harvest thus lots of samples and analysis to make. Our methodology when sampling is to ignore the outside rows and the beginning of each row as they tend to have the least ripe bunches. Walk down the row, close eyes and pick off a berry and pop it in the plastic bag. 300 is a good sample number. We use a Brix test with a refractometer to test the levels of sugar but we don’t have the equipment to undertake a T/A test as this requires laboratory equipment.
12th — Vendange day for the pinot Pinot as sugars and acids are in perfect harmony. Hattingley Valley winemakers say Go! Last year we borrowed crates from a local nursery but this year we have been on a buying spree and located crates for sale in Devon from chap who sadly is selling up his house and vineyard after 12 vintages. Astonishingly he grubbed up his vines in order to sell the house. Additionally we borrow another 100 green nesting crates in Henley from a chap growing still wine in a vineyard planted by his mother 30 years ago. The vineyard looks a bit unloved as he lives in London and comes irregularly to spray and tend.
The calling cry goes out and we gather a posse of pickers. A dry day, thank goodness. We start with a Robert lecture on what to pick and what to leave aside. Then, off we go. By 1.30pm we are all done with 600 kilos of beautiful black grapes glistening in their crates. On arrival at the winery we are met by young apprentices and one asks what grapes we have onboard. ‘Pinot’, we cry. It turns out that he is from Germany. He should know better as he works in a winery making only sparkling wine! We are a bit light on volume for the smallest of the presses. By luck Jacob has 300 kilos of pinot meunier for sale which, when combined with our 600 kilos of pinot, makes for a good pressing.
Now in the 3rd week of October and the ripening of the chardonnay bunches is proving difficult. It is a fight against disease setting whilst wanting to leave the grapes as long as possible to lose some of their high acidity levels. Emma wants a T/A of 14-15. To that end we do a botrytis patrol each day and take off anything infected. To make sure we prevent any spread we cut out any berries close to any rotten ones. On average we take off 2 kilos per circuit. In between we spray with a product called Serenade which works by eating the bacteria within the bunches; we also use Foli K which contains potassium for reducing acid levels.
The weather has been like an Indian summer for most of October with temps of 14-16o most days plus warm nights which are key as ambient temp is what the grapes need.
17th — We take down another sample of grapes to HV for testing. Not quite there, we are told. Another dry and warm day at average daytime of 14 o.
21st —Another beautiful day in the vineyard with max of 19 o
29th — We strip at least 15 kilos of bunches either infected with botrytis or bunches with shrunken berries and fungus on the stalks. Very bitter on the tongue. Largest amount to date.
31st very hot at 18 o. Our Brix is 17.2 which is fine. Another 15 kilos taken off
1st — We take down another sample of grapes to HV: their advice is to pick now as frost is predicted this week which could wreck our harvest if we don’t pick. We get on the dog and bone forthwith and assemble a team for the morning. Test results: Brix 17.1 and T/A 15.9. The goal has always been 15 T/A or under. The sample of 300 berries is taken from both sides of the vine and it is clear that the east facing bunches are less ripe than those facing west.
2nd — The chardonnay harvest starts at 9am sharp with 12 pickers. It all goes to clockwork and we are finished by 1.30pm with 84 crates on-board the trailer – slightly less than we had estimated. We are booked on a flight out of Heathrow for New York at 4pm so alas we miss out on the harvest lunch which goes on through the afternoon. It is a good feeling to be done and dusted before the frost. It is over to the winemakers now. They analyses the grapes and the final Brix comes out at 16.5, T/A up slightly at 17.3 and pH 3.0. Our tonnage from the chardonnay is 1,248 kilos.