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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Laithwaites Gloucester Distribution Centre – June 17 Visit

The distribution facilities of the UK’s leading mail-order wine merchant Laithwaites are in Gloucester (UK) and I popped along to see how they’ve evolved in the decade since the custom-built facility opened for business in 2007.

Gantry v4

Replacing the older Theale based warehouse the new site clocks in at 178,000 square foot – just larger than two football pitches.  Once there in person it certainly felt larger with the hangar-like facilities easily feeling they could house several full sized aircraft.

Full production runs to over 40,000 cases a week, increasing to over 60,000 at peak performance (October-December).  As I visited there was £15m of wine spread out before me (rising to £70m including the customer storage deposits in their climate cooled facilities).

Being ahead of the game in logistics can sometimes automatically equate to being ‘state-of-the-art’ but, as I was to learn, that is only 50% of the situation.  What initially appeared as a fairly manual enterprise was actually a well-honed machine and, impressively, part-designed by the staff.

I donned my high visibility jacket and headed out to the recurring hum of machinery.

The full roster of warehouse staff runs to 120 but a core staff of 22 ‘pickers’ collect each bottle of wine ordered.  In peak season when the business does a good slice of the year’s trade there will be over 40 of them, half provided by an agency, half being directly employed.  Having lunch in their canteen was a truly multi-cultural experience with various different languages on display.

Working a 12 hour shift of four days on-four days off, the team are responsible for picking up to 30 cases of wine per hour from a total list of some 2,500 products.  After some detailed research it’s no wonder the management team felt it was impossible for mechanics to replace the talent.

Trolley

Their ‘assistant’ for the trip is a metal trolley capable of holding 10 cases of wine at any one time, but it still requires a human hand to pick up each individual bottle and build each wine box and the cardboard separators from scratch (proudly, almost all from recycled card).

Each picker is equipped with a headset capable of responding to their direct commands.  A full suite of training housed in a bespoke training area allows potential crew members to re-enact the 10-case trolley packing conditions experienced on the floor to see if they can handle the bottle juggling to come.  They also get to record the 23 prompts which the central headset system will understand, interact with, and update from.

As they spend more and more time picking the wines the picker can customise the system, speeding up the delivery, pitch and even the sex of their picking partner.  Being new to the system I literally couldn’t understand a single word of the prompts a seasoned picker chose until it was slowed down to (what I considered) a reasonable speed.  It became clear that these are very well trained and attentive people.

Wall of Boxes v1

With the constant pressure of new orders and the fact that they are picking 10 different cases of wine at any one time, it’s inevitable that errors might creep in.  Placing popular and regularly purchased bottles close together for speed aids in aiming for a fail rate of just 1 in 1000 bottles but the warehouse has led the way in letting staff be the keeper of their own destiny and they run a well-publicised and incentivised suggestions scheme.

Two examples highlighted to me were very simple processes for the company to install and showed that the very best suggestions can often come from the front line.  The first contained a simple mesh that split the front 5 packing cases from the back 5 which stopped hands slipping through and giving the first layer of the wrong case the wrong bottle.

The second innovation was the addition of numbered tags above each pallet of wine, crucially only visible when in front of the pallet itself.  If the picker quoted the wrong confirmation number their interactive headset received an error message letting them know that they were not in the right place.

Once full peak-time requirements begin to bite, the warehouse will be a 24 hour a day operation and accuracy will need to be a fundamental, almost automatic reaction.

Staff are augmented by a brand new fleet of 8 forklift trucks that can access the 16,500 pallets stored 14 metres high in the narrow aisle racking.  Subconsciously guided by aligning magnets buried in the warehouse floor to stop them veering in to the wine laden racks, they even have blue lights projected in front to avoid potential aisle collisions.

Forklift

For every part of the process that seems manually driven, robots appear at the end building the pallets delivered to the 3rd party couriers for distribution.  Capable of handling 1,100 cases at any one time, one final puff of lasering smoke brands the cardboard boxes with their wine club identity (the facility handles both Laithwaites and Sunday Times Wine Club customers), and they are efficiently shrink-wrapped ready for delivery.

Shrinkwrapped Cases

Even though everything is centrally pulled together by a simple barcode, it was a truly wonderful experience to see wines picked from one side of the warehouse being married with the right remittance slip and address label on the other side.  I will never look at buying online wine in the same way again.

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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 #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 #6 – September

A quick check in on my vines in what has proven to be an interesting month weather-wise.  The beginning of September saw continued sunshine and temperatures hovering around the early twenties (Celsius), and the heat culminated mid-month with the hottest UK September day since 1911!

This proved to be a peak though and temperatures lost ten degrees virtually overnight.  My base of Newbury was at the epi-centre of a spectacular storm which included some of the loudest thunder I have ever heard.  Such was the intensity and proximity, lightning actually obliterated a portion of the road in the street behind my house leaving something of a pot-hole.

The rainfall for the 12 hours of the storm actually exceeded the average full month total such was the intensity, and flooding caused disruption to the local area.

As I write this note towards the end of the month, we’ve passed the autumnal equinox (on the 22nd) and the weather has followed suit meaning that you can already sense the difference, and the wind and cold are starting to be more keenly felt.

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My vines continue much as they did last month, with the later maturing Chardonnay probably about to come in to its own and the Ortega doing thoroughly well with numerous bunches of well-formed grapes of decent sizes.

ortega-sept-16

My MVN3 still shows substantial difference in the berry sizes, but we have a decent number of clusters and are just starting to see some of the berries developing their true colour.  You may recall from previous blogs that this is the reason I can conclude that it isn’t the Cataratto variety I was intending to purchase, in that it is the wrong colour.

mvn3-sept-16

Speaking of colour change, a few of the lower leaves are now starting to show their autumnal hues.  Pests are also increasingly to be found buried within the knotted vines and I notice that I’ve lost a fair few grapes to them since I last looked.

Hopefully they won’t attack too many more as the overall yield is a bit less than expectations.

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UK 2016 Vintage Report #5 – August

A quick catch up now on how my vines are doing in the summer month of August.

There has been continued good weather throughout the month with just enough rain here and there to keep the vines watered.  The temperatures have peaked on a handful of days at 26-28 degrees Celsius (usually during the week when I have to be at work!), but are maintaining a good run in the early twenties.

UK Ortega Aug16

There are two main points of interest since the last update.  The first relates to the vigour of the vines which have basically (and would have done if they could’ve) gone through the roof.  Due to a recent leg injury I wasn’t able to tend them as closely as I should have for several weeks and so it has been increasingly obvious.

When I was able to get back out I needed to seriously prune something like 50% off of the height, and I have even done one further pruning session since then to keep them tidy.  All varieties are seeing this growth, even my Ortega, which last year was noticeably less vigorous than the Chardonnay and the MVN3.

This growth (especially when I was unable to tend them) has had one bad consequence.  When twinned with the high winds that we have seen on several days, my trellising has become loosened and has pulled my vines forward by 2-3 inches. At only 3 years in the ground they are still fairly fragile and, fearing they could snap at the bases, I quickly corrected this.

When winter comes I shall have to look in to installing a new trellising system, more robust than before, that can take the weight of the vigour I am now used to seeing.

UK MVN3 Aug16

The second point of interest is the grape growth, which is coming along nicely, albeit still showing elements of uneven bunch growth (millerandage) on my MVN3.  This is odd as this variety was planted a full year before the Chardonnay and Ortega vines and I would therefore have thought would be more established.

uk-chard-aug16

The Ortega and Chardonnay are coming along nicely with the later maturing Chardonnay progressing just behind the Ortega, but both have good volumes of healthy bunches.  In terms of disease, the mites still seem to be attacking the extremities of the Ortega, but this was cleaned off during pruning so shouldn’t be a problem.

As August comes to an end we approach the final bank holiday weekend of the year.  Traditionally these are wet and miserable affairs in the UK, but the forecasts currently show decent weather akin to that which we have seen recently.  This is hopefully a good sign that we will have a settled and warm September, maturing the grapes in their final 8 weeks on the vine.

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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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