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 #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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Wyfold English Sparkling: 2006 – 2009 Vertical Tasting

The multi-award winning English Sparkler Wyfold has just released its 2013 Vintage, and when the chance came up to taste the original trilogy of Vintages, including two never commercially released, I jumped at it.

Wyfold trilogy

Following the death of Formula One engineer Harvey Postlethwaite, his widow Cherry was keen to fulfil his vineyard-owning ambitions, and in 2003 she purchased land in the Chiltern Hills and planted 14 rows of vines.  Teaming up with best friend Barbara Laithwaite (Director of the eponymous wine mail order giant), both passed their viticultural qualifications at Plumpton College, and a new venture was born.

As a start-up winery with no onsite production facilities, this was given over to famed English producer Ridgeview who, in return for a sizeable portion of the crop, would turn the grapes in to a fully realised sparkling wine.  Both the 2006 and 2008 Vintages fell under this agreement and, as such, the final production numbers were too small to justify a release.

Wyfold is made in the traditional Champagne method using the classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Of interest is the solid reliance on Pinot Meunier, sometimes considered the lesser Champagne variety.  Even though it forms just 16.5% of plantings, with the variable UK weather it can sometimes fare better than the Pinot Noir (33.5% of plantings).

In 2006 the number of vines was upped to 4,000, and increased once again in 2014, with 9,000 vines now spread over 2 hectares.

Vines3Wyfold (June 2017)

Following the two successful production runs (2007 was a write-off due to poor weather), fully contracted wine-making was put in place from the 2009 Vintage to ensure that all of the bottles produced would be labelled under the Wyfold name.

The resulting wine was quick to receive critical acclaim and won the prestigious Judgement of Parsons Green.  The subsequent releases of the 2010 / 2011 vintages have fared just as well, winning a succession of medals, trophies and high scores by esteemed wine magazine Decanter.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2006 (52% CH/32% PN/16% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12%, £N/A

Even though 2006 was a generously yielding year, due to the SWAP agreement the final number of bottles produced under the Wyfold name was just 576!  This first vintage is also unique in having a label that was thereafter discarded as being ‘too rustic’ to compare to other quality Sparkling/Champagne wines.

Wyfold 06 Label

Medium golden yellow in colour with rusty bronze tints and an extremely fine beading from the traditional production method.  On the nose there was mature, woody, bruised/baked golden delicious apple, a touch of dried lemon curd, cinnamon and biscuit.  This smelt just like an apple orchard in autumn.

The palate delivered upfront mousse that immediately frothed up, and a clean striking acidity laced with light refreshing lemon citrus and green apple.  The aged fruit complexity was there but it still managed to deliver youthful character and vibrancy.  Light as a feather but carries a huge creamy weight that fills the mouth. The syrupy bruised fruit finish was medium plus.  I’m a big fan of this ‘very-English’ tasting sparkling.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2008 (76% CH/9% PN/15% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £Unreleased

Under the SWAP agreement, a mere 296 bottles of the 2008 were crafted.  Due to the minuscule production, bottles were adorned with standard labels as opposed to vintage specific ones, and the Vintage, although bottled, went undeclared and unreleased.

Wyfold 08 label

Medium straw yellow with golden hints and a fine bead, this is noticeably more youthful than the 2006.  The nose has bread, butter, honeyed citrus, yellow tropical fruit, and is much more in line with a traditional Champagne as opposed to English Sparkling.  The aromas are there but needed teasing out, and this still feels a little closed/restrained.

The palate once again had a vibrant fresh mousse and a good splash of fresh lemon juice.  This time around the apple played much less of a part.  The lighter mid-palate of the 2006 has really been filled out here, but overall, this is probably more singular in tone.

I asked Barbara Laithwaite as to where Wyfold was stylistically sitting in terms of England vs. Champagne and she said she is looking to balance the two.  The south facing gravel/limestone site is perfect for the Champagne style but, being fairly high at 120m altitude, you also get the late start/long season which encourages the hedgerow/apple orchard fruitiness.

The medium finish added a touch of syrup and the pleasant bitterness of grapefruit.  This one is only just starting to come in to its own and has a life ahead of it sadly only limited by the small number of bottles available.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2009 (63% CH/17% PN/20% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £33

Now free of the SWAP agreement, the full run of 2,449 bottles were produced which, in the time between tasting the wine and writing up these notes, have now completely sold through.

Wyfold 09 label

Medium straw yellow in colour with golden tints, the nose was full of fresh zesty lemon citrus.

The lemon carries through to the palate which adds a bready richness, light white pepper spice, and the customary syrup to the end palate.  The overall sensation is rich and dairy, and the cream is just starting to settle in against the acidity which still characterises the palate.  As before this is a very even blend that fills the mouth.

Very quaffable and easy drinking, the medium length finish is all about the lemon, with just a touch of grapefruit bitterness at the end.  I have no doubt that this will settle further with time.  Overall this was a wonderful and rare tasting of the initial 3 productions from Wyfold showcasing a crystal clear evolution of labelling and style.

With the new plantings bedded down and a good sized 2014 harvest, a Rosé has now been added to the range.  Check out the latest news at the Wyfold website, or click here to buy the 2013 release (whilst stocks last).

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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 #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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