UK Vintage 2018 Report #5 – July

As July comes to an end the weather has been so continually hot that comparisons to the famous hot summer of 1976 have moved on to comparisons with the equally hot 1937.

As I write we have just had our first prolonged bout of rain in 8 weeks which was much needed, but has only cooled the temperatures down to the low 20°C’s which would be a pretty good summer for us usually.

The vines have been getting on with their work, putting their energy in to the grape clusters and, for the most part, little pruning has been required.

July 18 Chard

Coping well with the heat and intense long sun hours, the Chardonnay continues to be the most vigorous, the MVN3 the most productive.

July 18 MVN3

My Ortega, however, hasn’t fared well at all and looks only one step away from dying off completely.

Perhaps struggling without water access, the canopies are thinning, with whole shoots/leaves turning brown in some places.  The almost non-existent crop hasn’t developed much further either, and they generally look quite sad.

July 18 Ortega

Even though temperatures are cooler this weekend and in to next week, further warm weather is on the way, with August looking to deliver much the same as July.

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UK Vintage 2018 Report #4 – June

Time for a quick check in on my vines now and how they’re doing in the blisteringly warm June sunshine.  Temperatures throughout the month have been at record breaking levels, with many days hovering in the high 20’s, and nights staying in double figures.

The main activity this month has been trimming back the increasing level of vigour and growth, allowing the remaining vines to focus their energy, which will help the clusters to continue developing.

UK June Chard

Whilst the Chardonnay is progressing OK, my Ortega is looking like it is going to be somewhat lacklustre this year, and there’s limited clusters coming through for whatever reason.  It’s been growing vigorously enough, but does get a lot of attention from mites, hence the blotchy leaves in the picture below.

UK June Ortega

The lack of potential Ortega grapes is well offset by my MVN3 which is getting itself ready to deliver a huge crop, so it’s a shame that I still don’t know which variety it is.  These vines were planted one year ahead of my Chardonnay and Ortega vines and so has a little more maturity to it, which may be helping.

UK June MVN3

Whilst allowing the lack of natural water to stress the vines just enough to promote growth, occasional watering is taking place so as not to dry them out completely.  Temperatures are set to hit 30° C this weekend, and the uninterrupted sunshine is set to continue as far as current forecasts go.

Summer is well and truly here!

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UK Vintage 2018 Report #3 – May

UK May18 ChardChardonnay

May in the UK has a Bank Holiday Weekend at both the start and the end of the month.  These two events, mere weeks apart, couldn’t have been more different to each other in terms of the weather conditions.

The first managed to continue the glorious early run of uninterrupted sunshine and warm temperatures that we’ve seen, whereas the latter (which has just occurred as I write) was just a touch cooler but several degrees less sunny.  There’s been mist, rain, and several prolonged thunder storms across much of the country.

To be fair, the general month of May has seen untraditionally high temperatures (generally 18-23°C) carry throughout the month in long uninterrupted periods.  It’s amazing to see the advances on the vines versus last month now that they have been exposed to a good few weeks of sunshine.

UK May18 OrtegaOrtega

Well on track despite the late April start, growth has accelerated, changing mere shoots in to fully formed trailing vines requiring early trellising, and buds have begun their transformation to grape clusters.  As per every other year, my Chardonnay and Ortega vines have bumpy leaves left from mites, whilst the MVN3 manages to escape.  As it is only a cosmetic malady it’s not too much of an issue.

UK May18 MVN3MVN3

Despite the current mist and dampness, the good news is that we are extremely far away from the May conditions of last year which saw the early development of the vines destroyed by late frosts.

The current projections for June’s weather are positive, with the sunny and warm days set to return.

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UK Vintage 2018 Report #2 – April

As pondered in my previous March vines blog, some 2-3 weeks later than expected, all my vine varieties have now sprung in to life.  This was definitely hastened along by the very un-seasonal and highly unusual weather conditions that we’ve seen in April, which (sadly) arrived just in time for everyone to return to work following the Easter holidays.

UK April18 ChardChardonnay

Although the whole week in general was hot by UK standards, Thursday the 19th through to Sunday the 22nd was our ‘heatwave’, ushered in from South Africa and giving temperatures up to something like 28°C at its peak.  This gave us our warmest April day in nearly 70 years and was extremely welcome.

UK April18 OrtegaOrtega

Although temperatures are now firmly back to circa 8-11°C and carrying with it a fair share of (April) rain and cold winds, further good weather is apparently back on the way and will hopefully eliminate the usual late April frosts.

UK April18 MVN3MVN3 (currently lagging slightly behind the others)

Traditionally our early May Bank Holiday weekend usually brings with it wet weather but, as forecasts currently stand, temperatures will apparently be lurking around the 20°C mark.

Here’s hoping!

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UK Vintage 2018 Report #1 – March

As we switch over to British Summer Time (BST) here in the UK and the nights start to get longer, it really does finally feel that the growing season is upon us.  It’s also about this time that I tweet a picture of my vines capturing the moment that the first buds appear.  A quick look back in my Twitter archive shows that, in 2017 this was on March 25th, and in 2016 it was a touch earlier on March 23rd.

2017 Vine Tweet

As it stands today, March 26th, my vines are all looking as dormant as they did at any point over the winter, such were the extreme conditions seen throughout the month.  The so-called ‘Beast from the East’ brought plunging temperatures, bitter winds and two separate bouts of snow.

Late 2018 Harvest Start

As fast as the conditions worsened though they cleared up almost as quickly, with the first batch of several inches of snow arriving and thawing in about 5 days and, and the second batch within 48 hours.  We did admittedly have it much easier here in the southern part of the UK than they did in the north, but it was still very freak-like conditions.

Snow Vine 1

Temperatures are now back up to the 10-12°C level and, with a third forecast of plummeting temperatures and further snow over Easter now not on the cards, normal service should be resumed.

I estimate that it will be another 2-3 weeks before we see signs of life on the vines, but I’m already thinking ahead to the potentially disastrous effects that the late spring frosts could cause.

This will be at a point when the buds are just starting to get going and a very delicate stage for them.  If it is anything like the notorious 2017 frosts we could be in for trouble.

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Grape picking at the Queen’s private Vineyard

DSC_0007 (1)An autumn day blessed by gorgeous summer sun

Having children and living not too far from Windsor, a trip through Windsor Great Park on the way to Legoland is almost a certainty.

Early one Saturday in late September I was able to make an unusual turning off of my usual route and, by putting a special vineyard pass on to my car dashboard, pass through a set of unassuming white gates that, on any normal day, you could easily miss.

In rock-star terms what was actually happening was an ‘Access All Areas’ moment and the neon-jacketed walkie-talkie wielding guard waved me through to a private area within the parkland owned by the Queen, and on the periphery of her Windsor Castle residence.

DSC_0024 (1)Vines gently sloping down towards the water

Outside of Royal staff, access to the private area is very much by invitation only and, as a guest of Laithwaites, I was about to visit their hidden-away vineyard and pick the grapes of the 2017 harvest.

DSC_0012 (1)Helpful hints as to what grapes to pick and which to discard

DSC_0011 (1)

Leased from the Queen, Tony Laithwaite is now the man trusted to oversee the production of the Royal Sparkling wine and, with Tony being a Windsor native, it seems only right that he should do so.  The vineyard has been in existence since the 12th century, planted for Henry II during his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, but with the location so remote it was no surprise to hear that during recent times the production of wine had stalled.

In 2011 the Crown Estate and Royal Farms allowed Tony to re-plant the vineyard to revive an almost 1,000 year old tradition.

DSC_0019 (1)Vineyard roses, used as an early warning sign for disease

My day was spent working with their Chardonnay vines (they also produce the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), picking the clean bunches and manually removing the compromised berries from bunches where rot or mildew had set in, so that only the best fruit remained.

DSC_0015 (1)

These were then collected up ready to be transported off to leading UK producer Ridgeview for processing as there are no on-site production facilities in Windsor.

DSC_0018 (1)

The first harvest of Great Windsor Park was the 2013, with the 4 hectare south facing plot yielding grapes to make just 3,000 bottles.  Released in 2016 with a good deal of hype surrounding both the resurgence of the vineyard as well as the Royal connection, all of the available bottles were snapped up straight away.

DSC_0027

The second vintage of the wine, the much anticipated 2014, is about to be released and on a break from the picking I was lucky enough to give it a try alongside Tony Laithwaite himself.  If the first release was characterised by crisp apple, peach stone fruit and a more delicate style, this second release has more body, weight and richer fruit tones, and feels like a real step forward.

DSC_0029Master of Wine and BBC’s Saturday Kitchen wine expert Peter Richards lends a hand

The grapes of the 2017 harvest will now undergo 3 years of ageing and finally hit the shelves (if the bottles don’t sell out straight away) in 2020.  I look forward to picking a bottle up as a fitting way to remember a great day.

DSC_0025

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #6 – September

The last blog piece written about the progress of my vines through the 2017 season lamented the less than stunning weather seen in August and hoped for a warmer September to compensate.

Any summer renaissance however (which was promised by several forecasters) never materialised and we are now fully in to the cooler temperatures and visibly shorter days of autumn.

Here’s an update as to how things are progressing in the final run up to the harvest.

Ortega

Ortega Sept 17

Furthest along in terms of maturity, this variety is there or thereabouts ready for picking.  The leaves are already starting to change colour to autumnal brown, and I measured the Brix level of the grapes as 19 (giving a potential alcohol of 10.8%).

As a short explanation for those not familiar with growing/picking grapes, a refractometer is an essential tool for a winemaker.  You simply squeeze a small amount of the grape’s juice on to the clear end plate, seal it in and look through the viewing lens.  As light refracts through the trapped juice, the angle of refraction measures the volume of sugars present, ergo the potential alcohol.

Refractometer

10.8% potential alcohol is fair for a white wine produced in the southern UK climate.  11.5% would be perfect so I’ll try to hang on just a little bit longer for now.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay Sept 17

Probably about 2-3 weeks behind my Ortega is my Chardonnay, with a current Brix level of 16 (potential alcohol of 8.8%).  The leaves here have also just started to change colour but, unlike my Ortega, the last couple of weeks have seen the vine continuing to grow, not so much in length/height, but in density.

MVN3

MVN3 Sept 17

As mentioned last month I have seen a very poor yield this year.  This last week has seen veraison (the changing colour of the berries) start to kick in, but the Brix is still tracking at a lowly 11, which is not even on the conversion chart!

You would expect a red grape to be trailing behind the whites, and this one looks like it will need every single remaining day of the harvest if the poorer crop is to come to anything at all.

Summing up, there is once again a slight resurgence in the temperatures forecasted for next week but, as this change has been on the horizon for a good few weeks now, I will believe it when I see it.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #5 – August

As suspected, the weather this last month has been variable and pretty typical of an English summer.  Whilst it hasn’t been overly cold (temperatures have been anywhere between 16-23°C) it has been generally overcast and cloudy, and fairly muggy.

Heavy bouts of rain have punctuated throughout, with at least 2 short hailstorms here in Newbury, so the grapes have been well watered.  Only one final trim of the vine length has been needed which hopefully means that all their energy is going towards swelling the grapes.

Chard Aug17

The Chardonnay and Ortega continue to track pretty evenly with a pleasing number of good sized bunches each.

Ortega Aug17

Conversely my MVN3, which is the more established of my varieties, is having a lean year this year (perhaps due to less keen attention on my part in taming its vigour).

MVN3 Aug17

Usually if we see such wash-out weather in August we get a late summer renaissance in September.  Initial forecasts look like this may be the case but, with a Bank Holiday weekend coming up, we can never be too sure!

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #4 – July

The recent weather, interspersed as it has been with some of the hottest days on record and most days hovering around the 21-22° mark, has a lot of similarity to the start of the 2016 harvest.  In terms of the progress of my vines, it couldn’t be more different.

A good portion of the reason I keep these short weather and growth diaries is to cross-check their performance year on year, and this month versus last July is a good case in point.

The 2016 vintage, although beginning with early warm weather, failed to produce a yield of any substantial size.  The temperatures pulled back somewhat in July and August and the potential crop never filled out, leaving slim pickings come October.

Back to 2017, and now that any risk of frost has been mitigated against, I’m blessed with numerous healthy and blooming bunches on both my Chardonnay and Ortega vines.

UK July17 Chard.jpg

UK July17 Ortega

My MVN3, which is usually quite a large producer (having been established slightly longer than the other vines) is actually the poorest performer at this point.

UK July17 MVN3

There’s been a good deal of cropping this month in the naturally extending length in all vine varieties, as well as significant leaf cropping in the Ortega due to the recurring issue with mite blistering to the leaves (Colomerus Vitis).  Although these mites are not harmful to the overall crop, I’m attempting to keep the soils and vines as uncompromised as possible.

UK July17 Mites.jpg

The last few days have brought significant rain, including one serious overnight storm, and damp conditions are forecasted for the next couple of weeks.  Hopefully this will serve to feed and swell the grapes just enough, without them being overpowered or diluted.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #3 – June

Once the late May frost had passed without too much incident to my vines I wrote of the promise of warm weather.  The warmth we’ve ultimately seen has been both a blessing and a curse, culminating in 2 of the warmest June days for some 40 years.

Post any minor loss of leaves to the frost I’ve been more blighted by strong winds, with both my more exposed Chardonnay and Ortega vines taking a hit and losing some potential new canes.

With a further eye on controlling the impressive early vigour of the vines I’ve cut back a good length of the extreme growth and am now thankfully in a position where I have a good number of healthy bunches beginning to form.   Potential yields for both the Chardonnay and Ortega are on a par with each other, with the MVN3 only a short way behind.

Chardonnay June17

Chardonnay

Ortega June17

Ortega

MVN3 June17

MVN3

A further month of extremely pleasant and warm weather is forecasted, but I shall be glad when the current heat of 30°C drops down to a more bearable 22-24°C.  Careful watering over the next few weeks will be key to ensuring that all progresses to plan.

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