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.

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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.

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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.

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Chardonnay

Ortega June17

Ortega

MVN3 June17

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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.

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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.

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                                                                                      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.

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                                                                               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!

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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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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.

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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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Decanter & Majestic tasting guide – November 2015

The tasting circuit comes alive in November as producers vie for your festive custom.  Despite having tickets I was unable to attend the Tesco event, but did get along to the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter which is always a fabulous day out with over 120 producers showing 600 different wines.  As a regular visitor for a decade now it was nice to see a few new producers this year, and first amongst these was Champagne house Charles Heidsieck.  Browsing through the show catalogue I noticed they were showing their 1995 Blanc de Millénaires (RRP ~ £150).  This was a wine I simply had to try and I wasn’t disappointed with the creamy, toasty dried fruit signs of age merging with light vanilla spice and vibrant mousse to keep it perky.

Also attending were Amazon, promoting their new ‘Fine Wine’ platform which stocks top quality brands such as Ornellaia, Opus One and Trotanoy.  Sadly none of these were available to taste on the day, but they did show off some fine old Rioja Gran Reserva’s as well as some newer premium Australian and Italian wine.

UK vineyard Nyetimber usually attend to keep up the home side, but absent this year the mantle fell to Bride valley, which is the estate of Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier.  He and his wife Bella were on hand to pour and give us the background to their Dorset operation which boasts 25 acres of southeast facing slopes benefitting from having the chalky Kimmeridge soils.  Similar in terroir as northern France, they concentrate on the 3 Champagne varieties to produce a fine sparkling wine up there with the best that this country is offering.   I do hope that we see more UK producers being invited/accepting to take part as I’ve done a few vineyard visits this year and the quality is something to shout about.

Not shy in coming forward these last few years are the Prosecco producers who were out in force again, and I got chatting to the chaps from Carpené Malvoti who lay claim to being the first ever producer of Prosecco.  There’s been much talk in the UK of the rise in popularity of Prosecco and the subsequent shortage if demand keeps up to its current levels.  I was keen to understand whether this was truth or simply media hype to stimulate sales.  He assured me that, whilst true, it was currently only confined to the lower level (but still quality) DOC wines as opposed to the DOCG level.  It will be interesting to see if this demand creeps in to top level offerings or whether people are simply interested in Prosecco as a cheap fizz.

My standout wine of the show would have to go to Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009.  Having tasted their range before I gravitated towards them and this wine was pure velvet and silk, the 6 years of age having softened any tannic qualities away.  The fruit was as intense as you would expect with super ripe black cherry, blue plum, light spices and a fresh acid meaning that this was an absolute pleasure to drink.

Next up was the ‘Majestic Wines Winter Showcase’.  The rain may have been drizzling as I arrived, but I was set at ease with a ‘welcome’ glass of Laurent-Perrier’s superb NV Rosé.  It’s far from being the most expensive bottle of Champagne that I buy, but this is a lovely palate-pleasing Champagne I truly save for special occasions.

Also showing that night was the 2014 Cótes du Rhóne from Majestic’s new own-brand label ‘Definition’, which aims to capture the quintessential qualities of the world’s best wines.  This CdR was a powerful 15% wine, full of black cherry, wood, spice and light tannin, not unlike a Chateauneuf.  Also pouring alongside various reds and whites was a Tuscan Pinot Grigio from Banfi, an Amarone Classico from Masi, one sweet wine, and the multi-award winning Manzanilla Sherry from La Gitana.  My highlight of the evening came from a Brunello di Montalcino, again from Banfi, which had all the characteristics I love about old Bordeaux.  Dried red cherry and raspberry mixed with old wood and cedar, coffee, lightly grained tannin and a warming 14% alcohol carrying it through to a satisfying long finish.

I was a little disappointed that the regular tasting table wasn’t open that night (allowing you to try another 10 or so wines).  Previous tasting evenings have allowed this but apparently the volume of people expected would wipe out their entire weekly allocation of tasting wines.  A shame, so I’ll have to pop back.

Majestic recently dropped their 6 bottle minimum purchase, but with single bottle prices being raised slightly to reflect this, the discounts still kick in when you buy 6 or more bottles.  In addition to the 10% discount being offered on the tasting night, a Champagne promotion was running offering 33% off – a stunning 43% discount.  Being rude not to, I picked up the Laurent-Perrier Rosé and some Bollinger Grand Année 2005 in festive preparation.  At £35 and £53 respectively, this was certainly something to celebrate!

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