À Bientôt, Winter! You won’t be missed…

The nadir of the season is now in my rear view mirror and it feels wonderful.

We are occasionally asked – usually by friends and/or family in the middle of summer in the process of assaulting a bottle of our own wine in the garden – whether it is ever not absolutely awesome to own and operate a vineyard. If this happens towards the end of the evening, one tends to reply in the negative, look a little misty eyed and scurry off to the winery for another bottle. At the start of the evening, one is more likely to answer honestly that it is occasionally less than awesome in the middle of winter. This year is different as I’m able to pin down the very moment of ultimate winter misery. It was distinctly non-awesome to own and operate a vineyard on the 29th January at precisely 2PM.

The absolute best thing about having a go at everything on a wine estate* is variety. There are any number of things to have a bash at, one moment you will be climbing into the tractor for a whiz around the vineyard and the next you are attempting to weave a little magic in the winery. This time of year is all about pruning. And after our agronomist worked his own bit of magic on the vines last year and has very nearly all of them performing as they should, there is a lot more of it to do. That and do battle with the plus sized prunings that have become inextricably tangled in the trellising and have developed the nasty habit of vindictively whipping me when I attempt to evict them.

So I was stood in the middle of our larger field, mind wandering and admiring the snow covered and mighty Dartmoor, er, hills? Junior mountains? Whatever, wondering if there was much chance of me talking Lucy into letting me have a day off to go and buy a sledge and attempt to kill myself on it, when I noticed a particularly filthy cabal of clouds sneaking up behind me. The outrageous turncoat of a dog took one look at them, bolted for home and moments later I was pruning in a charming little blizzard that had helpfully arrived hours before clocking off time.

A few more vines and I had started the next row and noticed something wonderful: salvation! Salvation may come in many forms, but I’ll wager that it hasn’t often come in the form of a cut priced speaker that is attached to a wooden post.

The speaker is the ruin of a bird scaring invention from our conceptual period (read: tight fisted) that proved absolutely no use in terms of scaring birds, but is placed about three fifths of the way across the field and indicates that the vineyard worker is on the leeward side of his travails. We still spray the old way here (with a knapsack), so the speaker usually serves as a pick me up to keep the vineyard operative charging up and down the hills. It happens that it is also just the stuff to keep him chopping away and being brutalised by twigs in the eye of the storm. And a timely reminder to call Lucy and get her to stick a bottle of something delicious and alcoholic in the fridge to go with dinner. For the record, my call records indicate that owning and operating a vineyard stopped being non-awesome at precisely 2.33PM.

Three weeks later and the outlook in all senses has improved dramatically. The opportunity to do something other than pruning is so close that one can almost touch it (doubtless I’ll have something else to talk about the next time that we meet), so I’m happy. In both fields, the vast majority of the vines have been beaten into submission, the prunings are piled up at the end of the rows and the vines themselves are looking neat and tidy. And, blessed relief, the days are getting longer, when the sun deigns to show its face, we notice that he is gradually returning to the height of his power and the sap is beginning to rise in the vines (and out of the pruning wounds). And every now and again, just once in a while, I’m strolling out into the fields wearing fewer than three pairs of socks; bless you spring time.

Potentially Perfect Pinot

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When we last met and I was whining on about a broken wind turbine, I promised you Pinot Noir this week. And Pinot Noir you shall have…

Red wine in England was always going to be a bit of a challenge, particularly as we don’t have anything German and red to help us cut corners. There are a couple of red German varieties that are quite popular in England. One is called Rondo and is a big cropping, dark red coloured hybrid (it was crossed with some sort of American vine by a German person) and the other is a reworked version of Pinot Noir. They both ripen earlier than the French Pinot Noir that we have cleverly planted, and the Rondo also has a cracking, deep purple colour which is handy for blending in cooler years when there isn’t much colour about. Unfortunately, we don’t much like either of them.

This isn’t the end of the world, but does necessitate a certain amount of additional work. We have historically spent much of September (which is a relatively slack time of year, save for scaring birds and murdering wasps) removing the leaves from around the bunches of grapes to ensure that as much sunshine as possible can get at them. The sun in turn heats the berries up, which softens the acidity in the berries, improves the colour and moves the flavour from austerity to ripeness. When the grapes are out in the sunshine in a year like 2014, they end up very ripe indeed and you may pick them whenever you want. As opposed to leaving it as late as possible and playing chicken with winter.

We picked a bumper crop of utterly ripe Pinot Noir a whole week early and were very excited at what we might turn it into. I think that I mentioned during our rosé sermon that all of our red was crushed and added to a red wine tank in one go and that we removed the pink from the tank as free run juice. Everything else remained in the tank. This is good news for colour and body, both of which tend to be lacking in wine from cooler climates. This in turn can cause you problems when pouring it into the less discerning drinker who has been raised on the opaque bilge produced by the larger Australian wineries.

The colour and body are both gifts to the wine from the skins of the berries. In this case, the juice that we have removed has left behind much of the potential colour from its berries and all of the potential body. If you are wondering, this is because the colour is soluble in water and the tannin (read: body) only starts coming out of the skins out when the alcohol is present, and since we hadn’t added any yeast yet, none of that has disappeared with the rosé juice. And as there are a disproportionately large number of skins in the tank, one may reasonably expect there to be more of both in the end product.

For the most part, the colour had been removed from the skins within the first week. At this point, we had already added yeast and malo-lactic bacteria (that softens the acidity and gives the wine a nice buttery aroma, remember?) and the fermentation was proceeding nicely. We know this, because there is an idiot balancing atop a pair of rickety stepladders, assaulting the wine with a stainless steel rake and marvelling at the exciting bubbliness occurring below. It’s also possible to tell that something is happening in the tank by touching the side of it and noticing that it’s warm* as yeast’s action is exothermic. The bubbles occur as it also produces masses of carbon dioxide. Those carbon dioxide bubbles are pushing the skins to the surface of the wine, where they are drying out, and perhaps more importantly, not putting any goodness into the wine, hence the rake wielding idiot.

*Warm fermentations are helpful with all wines as it encourages the yeast to do its job efficiently and make absolutely sure that all of the sugar in the juice is turned into alcohol. It is particularly useful in the red wine fermentations as it helps to extract more colour and body from the skins (along with producing the right sort of complex aromas as a by-product of the fermentation process, more on this, er, never). Interestingly, a fermentation that is too cool causes the yeast to produce firstly unpleasant aromas in the wine and then stop working altogether. Temperatures that are too warm can cause some absolutely frightful stinks in the wine and ultimately kill the yeast outright. Which will give you some idea of the sort of stroppy little Goldilocks character that yeast is.

You might remember from our chat about the Chardonnay that we added our oak staves to the wine after the fermentation was complete. This was because adding oak during the fermentation resulted in a wine in which it was too well integrated and eventually disappeared entirely. The Pinot is the polar opposite. When it was aged with oak, it stuck out like a sort thumb and was not at all well integrated with the other flavours in the wine, no matter how long the wine was in the bottle. Adding the staves during the fermentation has added the oak flavour that we desired, and that flavour is currently coexisting with the other flavours in the wine nicely.

After a week or so, as the alcohol starts to accumulate in the wine, it is now absolutely essential to taste it on a regular basis. Aside from the obvious reasons, we do this because, left unattended, the skins now have the ability to make a mess of the finished wine. We have already extracted just about all of the colour that they have to offer (after pressing they are very pale indeed), but they have more tannin than we will ever need, and that tannin is being extracted from the skins at an ever increasing rate.

After a period of time – in this case three weeks – the winemaker will decide that there is enough tannin in the wine, give his liver a well earned break and move the juice into a tank and the skins into the press. If you have pulled the trigger at the right time, the juice will be slightly lightweight and when the skins are pressed, wine that is tannic and somewhat harsh is wrung out of them. Magically, combining the two should result in a wine that is neither too harsh, nor too lightweight.

Having already produced one red that was a mite lightweight and one that was perhaps a little too harsh, I’m fairly confident that we nailed this one and we are very happy with the results and hoping to commence bottling at the start of next month. Just as soon as we have finished the winter pruning. If that ever happens. More on this next week.