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 2016 Vintage Report #7 – October

A final note now on the progress / harvest of my 2016 grapes.

The recent weather has turned fully autumnal and temperatures have plateaued at around 10°C each day (and obviously cooler overnight).  The rain, which had been sporadic since the start of October, has picked up and most mornings are now damp from overnight showers.

As I write, we are just in the midst of several showers and they are forecasted for the week ahead.

Tracking nicely ahead of my other varieties from the start of season, my Ortega was the first to be picked on the 9th of October.  Prior to picking I tested the sugar content of the grapes with my refractometer and they came out at 20-21° on the Brix scale (which measures the sugar content of the grapes).  This converts as a potential alcohol content of 11.5% and is absolutely spot on for a white grape in the south of the UK.

Apart from some mite damage during the season my only lament is that the overall crop was significantly down on expectations (this was a feature for all of my varieties this year, and that of the wider UK as I’ve seen).

chard-sept-16

I’ve unfortunately given up on my Chardonnay crop.  I was rather holding out as this is a late ripening variety but, even with the recent rains, the grapes have not swelled and have remained small and hard in nature.  The leaves have turned in colour, much the same as my cropped Ortega, and this means that the saps are descending and there is no future growth to see.

For purely academic reasons I also tested the Brix ° on these grapes which came out as a lowly 9, or a potential alcohol of 4.7%.  Perfect only for the health conscious amongst us!

mvn3-oct16

My MVN3 began changing colour towards the end of last month and have now reached the point where all berries have universally transformed (it’s a real shame I still don’t know exactly what variety this is!).

The current Brix ° as I write is 13, or 7% potential alcohol.  I’ll be leaving these grapes a further week or two to realise their potential alcohol, prior to picking them.

Yields for the MVN3 have proved to be best overall (but this is likely due to the different cane training I used on the vines last winter).  I will be training all varieties the same from this point on and looking forward to the 2017 vendange.

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Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 2)

In this fifth and final part of my historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the end of the 1890’s.

The vintages of both 1894 and 1895 were poor, but whilst the former year went universally undeclared, several of the better growers attempted to salvage something from the latter.

Mercier3

From a weather point of view growers would have been glad to see the back of the damp dismal spring conditions which saw much of the crop blighted by mildew.  By harvest time the sun was shining again and spurred some of the better growths to attempt a Vintage wine.  Many of the lesser growths avoided the exercise, probably all too aware that there was still a substantial amount of the massive (and better quality) 1893 Vintage still in the market place.  In time they would be the ones shown to be vindicated.

Only those who purchased and quickly consumed the wine would manage to avoid a sediment that many of the bottles gave off, even with just a small amount of ageing time.  The particles and their associated ‘smoky’ quality completely ruined the crystal clear aesthetic that consumers had come to expect and, even though the wines tasted fair, in the end much of it was returned to the shippers as ‘faulty’.

One London entrepreneur, keen to capitalise on the situation, was reported as foregoing his opportunity to return the bottles for a full refund (plus interest) and sold on the 1895 vintage as either ‘thick’ or ‘clear’.  With the thicker wine sold at a slightly cheaper price-point to acknowledge the quality difference, this was a very early example of giving the customers the option of tasting Champagne in varying styles.  The experiment worked and despite him technically only having half of his stock in saleable condition he soon sold out of his allocation completely.

1896 provided a yield as prolific as the 1893 but unfortunately it did not have the quality to match and was not offered as a vintage Champagne.  1897 was an even worse failure being only of average quality and with a tiny yield akin to the low level of the 1892.

Whilst 1898 saw an average sized yield, quality ranged from very good to very poor which created something of a mixed final product.  Only those shippers who were prepared to sacrifice any harm to their reputation in favour of having a product in the market after several lean years shipped this as a Vintage year.

Mercier2

As if to save the best for last, the final year of the decade (and indeed the century) saw wines of great quality produced.  The 1899 was a spectacular return to a quality not seen since 1892, but like this earlier vintage it also only delivered the quality in a small yield.  The forefather of modern wine writing Andre Simon described it as having the greenish tint of ‘Australian gold’ (as opposed to the reddish gold of a UK sovereign), and that it had a finality of expression unlike any other.  In addition, due to the fact that good quality Champagne had been some years in coming forward, merchants were happy to keep prices realistic and even swallowed a duty rise of 5 shillings per bottle up to 7 shillings per bottle so that they could keep their allocations.

Due to a strange quirk of fate and in spite of the demand it wasn’t just the limited number of bottles available that meant that this great wine would disappear from shelves fairly quickly. As they sat ageing in the cellars the Vintage of 1900 came along and being of equal quality and of much greater quantity it was widely favoured over the 1899.

At this point in time, due to the varying weather conditions seen from year to year, in was unlikely that you would get a Vintage release in consecutive years.  It even became something of an unwritten rule in the industry that consecutive vintages would not be released as it would help to preserve the notion that any declarations reflected the pinnacle of a growers offerings.  It seems unthinkable today that such a good wine would be kept aside when there was a perfectly good market awaiting it although it does occasionally happen (the 1990 over-shadowing the also great 1989 vintage is one recent example).

This side-stepping of a Vintage could have marked a somewhat muted end to the century that had seen Champagne come of age, but with exports to the UK higher than ever before (10 million bottles shipped across), producers would have been content enough.

The following century, which saw Phylloxera finally taking hold and the physical destruction and financial instability caused by both World Wars, was now only just a blur on the horizon.

That, as they say, is another story.

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Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 1)

In the fourth part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the start of the 1890’s.

Perrier Jouet Car

The final decade of the 19th century was known by some as the ‘gay nineties’, a time of peace and prosperity where the notion of care-free enjoyment spread throughout the population.  Catering for people who were keen to see and be seen, London was a vibrant hive of new restaurant openings including the Savoy in 1888 and the Trocadero in 1896.  The thriving rail network was also growing in expanse and prominence, opening up socialising opportunities to an ever growing number of people in the provinces.  When celebrating the good times there was only one drink to be seen with; Champagne.

If this all paints a rosy picture in England, for the French the beginning of the 1890’s would see their worst expectations realised, and the beginning of a battle that would haunt them for many years to come.

They would have begun the decade in an optimistic mood.  The 1889 had been the best wine of recent times and, although it had only yielded a small crop, this scarcity led to higher prices achieved in the market which was clearly good news.  In the end, they would need this extra revenue to carry them through the poor harvests of both 1890 and 1891, neither of which were considered of vintage quality.  This process of taking the rough with the smooth was very much part of daily life for wine producers at this time, but there would have been one additional problem lurking in the back of their minds.

Thus far Champagne had managed to avoid the widespread devastation caused by Phylloxera (the vine destroying louse).  Although most of France had already succumbed, the louse had yet to affect the northern French vineyards of the Loire and Champagne, as well as those in the lower half of Germany.  Many believed that it was the cooler climates of these northern European sites that kept them safe but, as they would soon find out, they were wrong.

The Marne was the first area to report a problem.  Champagne giant Moét & Chandon immediately bought the affected vineyard and burnt every last vine in an attempt to curtail the outbreak but it was too late.  The only let-off they would get would be that the louse took it’s time with the Champagne vines, attacking at a much slower pace than elsewhere.  By 1897 only 13 acres of vines had been affected but this figure would quickly rise to 90 acres the following year and balloon to 237 acres by the close of the decade.  This meant that for all the usual struggles vignerons went through to get bottles of Champagne to the market, there was a constant backdrop of trying new pesticides, vineyard flooding and numerous other witches brews to drive the Phylloxera away.

1892 was one of the smallest vintages on record with only 12.7 million bottles produced.  To put this in to context the yearly average at this time was just over 24 million bottles, so it was virtually half of what they needed to survive.  Once again, this scarcity had an effect on bottle prices which steadily rose up as consumers continued celebrating the ‘good times’.

Quantity would be more than catered for with the harvest of 1893 which brought in a whopping 74 million bottles.  Both the 1892 and 1893 were of vintage quality yet each completely distinct in terms of profile.  Whilst the 1892 showed more under-ripe fruits and had a steely acidity, the 1893’s were well ripened and described as ‘luscious and delicious’.  Over time though the 1892’s softened down and went on to be considered the better of the pair, with the 1893’s gaining a beeriness and dark gold colouring.  It seemed as though their muscle had soon turned to fat.

The unwanted consequence of such a large volume of Champagne hitting the market at the same time meant that the price per bottle changed again – this time downwards.  The persistent warm weather that had well ripened the fruit of 1893 had caused a drought in many of the Champagne vineyards, with the wells in some smaller villages drying up completely.  With small farmers having little else to barter with it was said that if you were to deliver water supplies to these remote areas you would be paid with bottles of Champagne.

It may seem like a dream, but there truly was a time and a place where Champagne was cheaper than water.

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UK 2016 Vintage Report #3 – June

A quick check back on my vines now and, as is traditional for the British summertime, the month of June has seen a fair bit of rain with many heavy showers (one particular sudden one whilst I was BBQ-ing) and some isolated hail storms.  Having said that, I can count myself lucky that we haven’t been affected here in Newbury by the severe flooding seen by many parts of the south of the country which caused many areas to come to a complete standstill.

At the same time as the vines were being well watered, temperatures have remained at circa 18-20° and so it has been warm enough throughout.  The side effect of the heat alongside the constant damp has meant is has felt humid for much of the time.

Variety 3 June16

This free availability of water has had the effect of making my vines shoot up (pun intended!), and a quick look back at last month’s report makes them look like mere twigs.  My mystery variety number three (MVN3) has been shooting up all over the place (see picture above), along various walls and in to my neighbour’s garden.

Chard June16

Whilst I’ve been trimming to control the vigour on those vines, my Chardonnay (above) has been able to catch up with the others in terms of spread and leaf canopy, although it has yet to start flowering, which both my Ortega (below) and MVN3 have.

Ortega Buds June16.JPG

Hopefully July will bring more sun, less rain, and healthy clusters.

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UK 2016 Vintage Report #2 – May

Spring has well and truly sprung here in the UK, and the month of May has seen its fair share of good weather with most days seeing mid-teen temperatures.  In addition there has also been a handful of days where the weather has tripped in to the early twenties too, which has meant that my vines are all developing nicely and have come on well since the first flowers began to appear in April.

2016 UK vines M2

In addition to the warm weather mentioned above, there has still been a few cold spells and intermittent rain, as well as one patch of frost at the start of the month which has hit the later flowering Chardonnay vines badly.  The Chardonnay is now way behind the Ortega and my ‘mystery’ 3rd variety and so has a lot of catching up to do.

Struggling Chard 1

Struggling Chard 2

As is tradition for a UK Bank Holiday weekend there is rain forecast, but this should be needed by the vines as they continue to gather the resources to start flowering in the coming weeks.

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UK 2016 Vintage Report #1 – April

A short blog now just to kick-off a diary of my vines in the run up to the 2016 harvest.  Like last year, whilst this content may only be of limited interest to readers around the globe, it will enable me to look back in the future and compare progress year on year.  In the spirit of this limited accessibility, I will keep the notes accordingly brief.

TwitPic 2016 Harvest KO

It was a month ago today that I noted and photographed my Chardonnay vines awakening from their winter slumber and so, as the longer days set in and Spring begins to truly take hold, I thought it would be a suitable first checkpoint to note the progress.  The weather remains fairly cool with temperatures in the 10-16° range, some days of heavy rain, sporadic sun, and no frosts.

2016 UK vines M1

Both the Chardonnay and Ortega seem to be at the same stage with the topper most leaves beginning to appear, and buds forming all the way down the canes.

2016 UK vines M1 v2

My third variety is a little further behind and this could be because it is not from the Denbies winery nursery like the others are, but it could also be for another reason!  I purchased the rootstock believing it to be Catarratto but last year, as you can see from the picture below, it bore red grapes (and suffered with serious millerandage), which means it clearly isn’t the variety I expected it to be.

2016 UK vines M1 v3

I now have no idea what variety it is, and hope that, as it has been planted for three years now, I can make some wine with it this year and see what characteristics it gives off.

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