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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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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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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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).

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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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UK 2016 Vintage Report #4 – July

A quick glance back at last month’s report on the progress of my vines shows that I requested less rain and lots more sun to help the vines along.  I couldn’t have been more rewarded and, as I write, we are seeing some of the hottest July weather on record with the mercury hitting the low thirties.

The preceding weeks of this mini-heatwave have been firmly nestled in the range of 20-23°C, making it a largely warm month, punctuated by the odd shower here and there to clear the heat.

Chard July 16

In the above picture we can see that flowering has finally started on my Chardonnay but is still in it’s early days.  What it lacked in vigour these past 8 weeks has finally become a thing of the past and, along with my MVN3 (mystery variety number 3), has required careful trimming to curb its growth.

Ortega July 16

The Ortega has found (as I seem to recall it did last year too) a certain decent height that mirrors the top of my trellising and remains at that level.  In a similar fashion to last year it is also the vine to suffer the most obvious signs of infection, requiring careful removal of leaves with lumps full of a white powder (caused by blister mites, and can be seen in the picture above if you look really closely).

MVN3 July 16

Finally, my MVN3 continues to lead in the growth stakes and has some pretty sizeable clusters forming.  It’s a shame that I still don’t know what it is!

The forecast for the next two weeks continues to be warm, although back to the much more acceptable levels of 20-23°C, which will be nice.

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