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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Vineyards of Hampshire 5th Wine Festival & Cottonworth Vineyard Tour

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The 5th annual ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ wine festival was held recently and, welcoming the opportunity to try a whole host of local wines not too far from my doorstep, I popped along.

‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ is an umbrella name for 8 producers:   Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place, Meonhill and Raimes.  With each site taking it in turn to play host, the festivities this time were held at the Decanter and IWSC award-winning Cottonworth Vineyard, located in the heart of the Test Valley.

The wineries, alongside a line-up of local food producers, were set up in a marquee surrounded by the delightful installation of a vine maze.  Especially planted at the site as a focal point for events, the circular maze has some light-hearted obstacles to keep you searching for the exit, or perhaps to keep you trapped within with a glass of something nice.

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I wasn’t able to spend too long investigating though as, true to form, the late July weather was marked with grey clouds and some very heavy downpours.  This forced pretty much all of the attendees in to the central marquee causing much difficulty when trying to spend some quality time with each producer.  The deep queues also made further sense when I heard our host saying that attendance this year was something like 50% increased on last year.

Breaking free of the festival crowd I took a tour of the site with owner Hugh Liddell, who came across not just as knowledgeable, but also incredibly passionate about the vines and land itself.

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Having started out in the vineyards of Burgundy, his own personal winemaking philosophy is based around an intense relationship with the land.  Multiple times in conversation he was keen to point out how he aimed to harness and celebrate the chalky aspects of his south facing slopes.

A humorous moment came as he described the effect of the free-draining chalk soil on the vine roots, leaving them ‘stressed’ and searching for nutrients.  He mused that, like the best artists and poets, this stress brought about the best results.  Later on at the festival we were able to taste his Classic Cuvée and Rosé and both were notable for their pale colouring and soft and uplifting qualities on the palate.

With a terroir reminiscent of the Cóte des Blancs, Cottonworth are naturally growing the 3 classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier along with a tiny amount of Pinot Précoce.  Since the first plantings went in to the ground just over a decade ago they have been carving out their own corner of the growing UK sparkling wine market.

Forming part of the larger family farm, the grazing land once used for cows has been transformed plot by plot.  Covering some 30 acres, Hugh has specifically chosen individual sites where he believes the grapes will grow to the best of their ability.

We discussed the recent frosts that hit the UK (as well as many of the grape growing parts of northern Europe) and Cottonworth was badly affected, losing between 50-70% of their crop dependent on the plot.  Whilst they don’t currently produce a Vintage wine, 2017 will see them dipping in to their wine reserves to maintain a decent level of bottles available to market.

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The badly hit 2017 harvest wasn’t Hugh’s first brush with frost and the crippling crop losses that can occur.  He explained that the family had sold off some of their land to well-known UK producer Nyetimber allowing him to buy two vineyards in Beaune, France, taking him back to his winemaking beginnings.

The first year they suffered 90% crop losses due to frost and, adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen again, worked in collaboration with other local vintners to burn wet bales of hay to form a protective layer of smoke above the vines.  Hugh recalled how the widespread smoke made it almost impossible to breathe in the vineyards, but the vines remained safe!

The conversation then moved on to pruning which, as a grower of vines myself, I found extremely interesting.  Hearing his views on how best to trim, canopy manage and prepare the vines for the following year will definitely affect how I look after mine.

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Following the tour it was then back to the festival to try some more wine, and thankfully the sun had appeared meaning that there was a bit more space to manoeuvre around the stands.  All in all, this was a very interesting and informative event, and I look forward to returning in 2018 to see who the next host will be.

Technical Info

Cottonworth Classic Cuvée NV – 45% Chardonnay / 46% Pinot Noir / 9% Pinot Meunier, Alc 12.5%, Dosage – 6g/l, RRP £28

Cottonworth Sparkling Rosé – 43% Pinot Meunier / 32% Pinot Noir / 18% Chardonnay / 7% Pinot Précoce, Alc 12%, Dosage 9g/l, RRP £30

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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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Wyfold Vineyard Visit – June 2017

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I recently had the pleasure of doing a little working stint at Oxfordshire based Wyfold Vineyard, helping to re-trellis just a few of their 9000 vines as they look towards their summer growth spurt.

Trellising

Not open to the public, and well hidden-away down some very tiny country lanes, the two hectare Wyfold site is part of the empire of Barbara and Tony Laithwaite, the couple behind leading mail order wine merchant Laithwaites.

Roots and Soil

Planted in the early part of the century on stone and gravel soils at an altitude of 100 metres, the cool climate site is home to just the classic Champagne grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Buds

Used to create an exceptional multi-award winning sparkling wine since 2009, the range has now expanded to add a sparkling Rosé from the 2014 vintage for the first time.

Son Henry Laithwaite now runs the show on a daily basis alongside his business partner Ben Postlethwaite and all were present on the day to guide us through our tasks which, on the page, didn’t sound too taxing.

Merely being required to adjust several different trellis wire heights to direct the vines skyward, the generous springtime summer sun heat was both a blessing and a curse.

Like most vineyard work in the UK, payment came at the end in the form of a wonderful home-cooked meal supported by copious amounts of wine.

Marquee1

In addition there was the provision of musical entertainment in the form of ukulele based band Pure Fluke as well as the genial conversation of vineyard friends both old and new.

The Band

To top it all off we were basking in the late evening sun in the lovely surrounds of a vineyard, and any heat fatigue and other aches and pains instantly disappeared.  All in all this was an insightful and rare visit to a vineyard not readily accessible, and another chance to directly help towards the success of English wine.

Vines3

With thanks to Laithwaites for arranging this vineyard visit.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #2 – May

My previous growers blog left off with the expectation of a possible bad frost heading my way and, sure enough, the end of April saw low temperatures arrive in the UK.  Like most French wine regions, the south of England saw much destruction with some producers having as much as 75% of their crop affected.

Although France suffered a slower, week-long grip of bad weather, the pain-point here was the night of the 27th/28th of April, and the specific hours of 3am to 5am.  To try and curb any destruction of the early flowering I was one of those lighting small fires around my vines to bring the temperatures up even just one or two degrees.

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Creating this small micro-climate could well have made the difference to this year’s yields, and thankfully (very much due to this precaution), my losses were only small.  The leaves and buds that were destroyed were in between the various heat sources I had laid out and therefore at the mercy of the natural temperatures which dipped down to about -6°C.

Since then the weather has been fair with occasional rain and temperatures in the low teens, and all three of my varieties are now showing good signs of growth with clusters forming.

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This week has seen me start adding some additional trellising to begin to control the vine growth which, as usual, is led by my Chardonnay vines.

Forecasted for the next two weeks ahead are some glorious clear and sunny skies with temperatures in the range of 20-26°C.  Happily this means we are beyond the worst of the weather and can now look forward to a good growing season.

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UK Vintage 2017 Report #1 – April

As usual, one month after the first signs of life in my Chardonnay, Ortega and mystery vines I like to kick of the yearly document of their progress.

UK17 Twit Pic

Compared to last year we have more leaf and new stem growth in all varieties, with the Chardonnay taking the lead as usual.  The weather has been very pleasant, with one early April weekend warmer than many parts of Europe, and temperatures of circa 26°c gave us one of the warmest April days on UK record.

UK17 Chardonnay

                                                                                      Chardonnay

UK17 Ortega

                                                                                          Ortega

Generally the weather has been hovering around the mid-teens celsius with patchy cloud, and there’s only been a handful of days with rain but, as I write, the vignerons of Champagne are reporting crop loss due to bad frosts.

UK17 MVN3

                                                                               Mystery Variety #3

I’ve noted at least one English wine producer worried about this hitting the south of the UK, and the forecast for the week ahead does seem to be punctuated with overnight temperatures around O°c and more rain than we’ve seen up to this point.

Here’s hoping that the good progress so far isn’t spoiled early on.

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