After a year and a half discovering and exploring English Wine, this year I decided it was crucial for me to get involved in grape harvest. Come October, vineyards across the country see their busiest period, with a years hard graft being rewarded with a strong yield of lovely ripe fruit - weather permitting, this is England after all! The great thing about our home grown industry is the ability to get involved and hands on with grape harvest. Many small vineyards rely on volunteers to pick their entire crop, usually rewarded with a warming meal and a generous serving of wine. Other larger vineyards often host friends and family picking days, which are a great opportunity to get involved in an informal way and to share an enjoyable day with many. This October I travelled across Hampshire, Surrey and Kent to visit a number of English Wine producers I have worked with throughout the year to find out exactly what happens during harvest, and get stuck in picking grapes whoever I could!
FIRST STOP, EXTON PARK IN HAMPSHIRE
Harvest 2016 first took me back to Exton Park in Hampshire. With 55 acres of vines set over stunning Hampshire landscape, Exton is one of the most picturesque vineyards that I’ve visited this year. It was an absolute delight to be back with all of this activity taking place! Upon arrival we are greeted by vineyard manager Fred Langdale – a particular busy guy this time of the year as he overseas a team of expert Romanian pickers working through the vineyard. With reduced yields due to the changeable weather throughout the year, Fred is still incredibly positive about the quality of the fruit:
"While overall yields were down – in keeping with many vineyards over the South and South East – the quality of both the Pinot and Chardonnay fruit was excellent. In fact, some of the best Pinots I have seen at Exton.
However, this reduction in quantity, due to cold weather at bud burst and wet weather at flowering, increased the quality dramatically – with concentrated sugars and acid balance. And the rest of the summer gave us perfect conditions for ripening the grapes – high temperatures in August and dry winds and warm weather through September.
We were able to begin the harvest early, on 11th October, and found all the fruit completely clean, ripe, easy to pick. A year’s work in the vineyard was harvested smoothly, and is now safely in tanks – ready for the skill of the blender. - Fred Langdale, Vineyard Manager
After seeing the frantic pace at which the grapes are harvested, we jump back in Fred’s car to head back to the winery. Here, crates were being loaded into an elevator, being sorted and remaining whole bunched before being loaded into the smaller of Exton Park’s two inert nitrogen gas presses. Winemaker Corinne Seely is supervising whilst all this is taking place, and explains how the inert press is crucial to her expressive winemaking style. The grapes are gently squeezed over several hours in a protective atmosphere, starved of oxygen to prevent any unwanted oxidation. Outside the press, a large balloon contracts and expands as nitrogen is passed in and out of the press. It’s the first time I’ve witness this kind of grape press in operation, but it was rather fascinating to see it in action, and to see the vibrant pink juice coming out from the just pressed Pinot Noir grapes.
It's been a busy time at Exton Park, with excavation into the pure chalk for a new tasting room and cellar, as well as investment into segmented fermentation tanks to continue the Corinne's philosophy of building reserve wines. Before I set off from the vineyard, I had a chance to sit down with Corinne and have a chat over a glass of Exon Park's wonderful Blanc de Noir's NV. She told me about the late nights that harvest time inevitably brings, often working in to the early hours of the morning - but it never felt like a complaint! Corinne's passion and excitement for what she does shines through in the way in which she excitedly describes each stage of winemaking. I leave Exton Park with a big smile on my face, confident that the wines made from this year's crop, be they Vintage releases or blends, will be well worth looking forward to!
BACK HOME TO SURREY & THE WONDERFUL GREYFRIARS VINEYARD
A few days later, I’m in my home county of Surrey visiting Greyfriars Vineyard for their friends and family harvest day. This year the weather has been very kind to Surrey, as the region has reported not only a bumper crop with high yields, but also superb fruit quality. Arriving at their Monkshatch site on a damp Sunday morning, we begin with a briefing from vineyard manager David, before heading off to the Pinot Noir vines, armed with a pair of secateurs and a Star Wars themed Greyfriars harvest t-shirt.
With the sun breaking through the clouds, and the rain drawing to a halt, the conditions were just about perfect for a few hours of peaceful, perhaps even therapeutic picking. After a short time spent up close with the vines it was clear that this is indeed a fantastic harvest for Greyfriars. The vines populated with grapes aplenty; huge bunches of radiant dark fruit, not too tightly packed and sweet to taste. With a harvest of well over 100 tonnes of grapes, it’s clearly going to be a very busy autumn for the team in the winery!
With a good few tonnes picked (the group managed 8 tonnes in total), we watched as the Pinot Noir grapes were de-stemmed before being loaded into the grape press. Ultimately the grapes we picked on the day will go on to be part of the 2016 Rosé Brut. It felt hugely rewarding to play a small part in the production of what many are predicting will be one of the best ever vintages of English Sparkling Wine. After a productive few hours of picking, it was time to sit back with a glass (or two) of sparkling wine and some meaty, hearty BBQ fare. Starting with the current vintage of the Rosé, the 2013 – made from 100% Pinot Noir and a really rounded crowd pleaser of a wine. We also had the chance to sample the 2014 Rosé, adding 10% Pinot Meunier to the blend, resulting in a delightfully textured, fresh and elegant rosé. A fitting end to a wonderful picking experience!
BACK TO HAMPSHIRE FOR HARVEST AT DANEBURY
The following weekend I headed back to Hampshire, this time to the small but perfectly formed Danebury Vineyards in Stockbridge. Danebury is different to all the other vineyards I visited in my Harvest 2016 tour, as they focus on the more traditional grape varieties including Schönburger, Madeleine Angevine & Auxerrois Blanc. Work began with the harvest of the old vine Schönburger – a wonderfully aromatic grape, exhibiting a delightful pink colour that sits beautifully alongside the autumnal leaves.
The sense of community throughout the day was heart-warming – Danebury rely on volunteers for the entire picking of their crop. With the relatively small scale of the vineyard it was hugely rewarding as we worked together to harvest the wonderfully ripe fruit row by row. I met one fellow picker, coincidentally also named John, who had been picking at Danebury for nearly 20 years. The morning flew by, and after a short coffee break, the sun soon broke through the morning mist and clouds and we were treated to ideal picking conditions as we moved onto picking the Auxerrois.
By early afternoon our work was done – over 5 tonnes had been harvested and our combined efforts were rewarded with a hearty lunch of beef and ale pie, ushered in with ‘a glass of Hampshire’ in the form of Cossack Sparkling. Live music accompanied this jolly afternoon, as the wonderfully light and aromatic Madeleine Angevine still white wine flowed freely. We also had a chance to sample a pressing of Schonburger grape juice – richly flavoured and intensely sweet. A slice of salted caramel tart, and another glass of that delightful Medeleine and we were on our way after a thoroughly productive morning!
AND FINALLY PICKING PINOT MEUNIER AT SQUERRYES IN KENT
It was now time to make my way down to Kent for the final leg of my epic English Wine harvest tour. This time I’m visiting Squerryes on a Sunday afternoon with the promise of an informal picking of grapes, something delicious from the barbecue and a glass of Squerryes award winning fizz. How could I not be jump at the chance to be there?
Upon arrival I meet with fellow English Wine enthusiast Simon Stockton, who is working with the Kent producer for business development and marketing. Rather greedily, I head straight to the incredibly inviting looking DD’s Deli Truck that was pulled up alongside the vines. I soon found in my hands a delicious locally smoked Pulled Pork bun and a glass of delicious Squerryes Sparkling Rosé. We sit overlooking a small 3 acre vineyard (the estate currently has just over 35 acres of land under vine in total), where visitors in the form of friends, family and membership subscribers are invited to join in the harvest activities. This time, it was the turn of the Pinot Meunier to be picked, and so with my recently gained harvest expertise I take to the vines to collect a few baskets of grapes. During picking I had a quick chat to Simon whilst enjoying a glass of the wonderfully rounded Squerryes Brut and learnt about the producer's ambitious plans following a string of awards for its stunning sparkling wines.
Grape harvest is not the only activating taking place on site, with construction of a new visitor facility and tasting room nearing completion. An impressive building, partially oak clad, which will house a glass fronted tasting room, private wine cellars and a bar serving wines by the glass and beer on tap from Westerham Brewery, who will neighbour the Squerryes visitor centre. This ambitious project is to build the ultimate English Wine tourism destination within reach of London. A venue making the most of the wonderful landscape, the history of the estate, and to embrace local produce with the ultimate plan to have a fine dining restaurant and farm shop on site too.
Squerryes is certainly a producer to watch over the coming years, and I can't wait to return in the new year to see this impressive facility after completion.