Three Months of Twigs

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So I’m sat pulling on my third pair of socks and looking around for something other to do than go outside and get cracking. The dog has already taken her grand tour of the Teign Valley at the crack of dawn and is curled up, looking impossibly cosy in her fluffy winter coat next to a radiator. There is nothing left in the coffee pot and I have run out out of excuses – not that this stops me from frantically trying to dream up several excuses at exactly this point every year – it is time to embark on our annual three month long winter pruning journey; and I’m as keen as ever.

I mentioned the last time that we met that we were enduring an unseasonably cold snap at the time that had knocked all of the leaves off everything in sight and had moved the vines into dormancy nicely. By the time that we had taken our cue and frantically finished off the last of the last of the post-harvest/pre-pruning projects around the place, it was precisely December 1st and we were ready to start pruning at pretty much the same time as we do every year.

When I say ‘an unseasonably cold snap’, it was the end of November and the weather was exactly like it is supposed to be at the end of November. But while I distinctly remember mother threading a pair of mittens on a string through the sleeves of my parka before ushering me out of the door to take on the frigid tundra of, er, south Manchester on my way to school, it is not the sort of thing that we have come to expect in south Devon this side of Christmas. It is cold, but on the plus side, recalling the cold weather of the past has reminded me to place an order with my knit-meister mother for a couple of pairs of those natty mittens on a string for kids. So they will immediately stop losing them at the current rate of one pair per day.

Ploughing through the pruning promises to be an an extra challenge this year as there is considerably more of it to do. You may recall from a number of previous missives that, on account of finally nailing the nutrition for the vines this year, that we had our best harvest to date. Well, those grapes have grown on some fairly whopping vines and the time has come to pay the piper.

We take an excellent monthly journal from the Antipodes that is chock full of adverts for machines that do the first part of your pruning for you and we have both considered this a largish waste of time and money. For clarity, the machine is like a large hedge trimmer that attaches to the back of your tractor and cuts the canes of the vine to a manageable length, allowing you to fairly whiz along with your secateurs to finish the job off. You would also buy a rake for the tractor to collect the prunings from the floor or make some incredibly short/understanding friends. I had pruned my way through precisely one vine’s worth of broom handle gauge canes before completely changing my views on the subject, before having them changed back by our financial controller and voice of reason.

In fairness, I’m absolutely delighted with the change in workload. And when we are really busy in the middle of summer, the workload is almost exactly the same whether the vines are replete with grapes or not, so I reckon that this a small price to pay in return for well stocked wine tanks. We will therefore be focusing on the contents of the winery as I attempt to navigate the slippery winter hills with my brimming and twiggy wheelbarrow.

After an entertaining afternoon hammering away at clay pigeons (the genuine, grape munching article thankfully remains relatively elusive), we had our first batch of friends over since all of the wine fell clear last weekend. We never miss an opportunity to march passing visitors up to the winery for a taste and a lecture and are especially keen to do so at the moment, after such a cracking year in the vineyard.

In terms of evaluating the wine, this was of limited use as we have been encouraging the environment to cold stabilise the wine for us by opening the winery doors at every available opportunity. If you are wondering, cold stabilising is required for wine as, if it isn’t carried out, it has this nasty little habit of dropping clear crystals that look a lot like glass into your wine when your customer pops it into the fridge. The crystals have no effect on the overall quality of your wine, but apparent lumps of glass make absolutely sure that your customers don’t become repeat customers. The cold ambient temperature in the winery causes the crystals to weld themselves to the sides of the tank before bottling. However, cold temperatures mask a little of the flavour.

We therefore had our thermally challenged tasters stood around in an ice cold winery, warming their glasses in their hands to get the most out of the experience. In retrospect, we should probably have taken the wine into the house and placed it and them somewhere near a radiator, but it always seems to taste better in the winery. And I can point to bits of equipment and tell amusing anecdotes about how I had tripped over or fallen in them over the years.

Bear with me, but I thought that it might be of interest to discuss each of the wines in some detail in separate entries, as it is essentially what we are here for. This week is Chardonnay.

The Chardonnay has been in contact with some oak staves* since we removed it from its fermenting tank (and yeast lees). As with pretty much everything to do with wine, there are lots of thoughts about when you should introduce contact with oak. The theory is that if you ferment your wine with oak, the flavour is more integrated, if you age it in oak, it is more distinct.

*If you don’t require the extreme oakiness provided by a whole barrel for your wine, you can buy the constituent parts of the barrel and add them one at a time to the tank that it lives in to get the exact amount of oak that you require. They are easy to use, portable and, if you allow your wine to see a limited amount of oxygen throughout its period of ageing, indistinguishable from the genuine article.

We have historically fermented the Chardonnay with oak in an attempt to ensure that the flavour is as subtle as possible – some may love extremely oaky Australian Chardonnay but we don’t. The problem we found in doing this was that, if anything, it was too subtle. The logical remedy for this would be to toss even more oak in during the fermentation. I put it to you that it is a brave winemaker who tastes fermenting wine (smelling is a good idea) – it’s an excellent laxative – to determine its oakiness and whether or not to fish out the staves from the bubbling brew. Much better to taste the non-laxative and delicious finished wine at regular intervals and adjust as necessary.

The oak goes well with the buttery flavours from the malo-lactic fermentation that we carried out at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation. Malo-lactic fermentations convert astringent malic acid (most notably found in green apples) into smoother lactic acid (found in milk, etc.). The bacteria that perform this task – which come in a packet – like warm wine to do it in, so we do it at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation as the wine is already nicely warmed by the action of the yeast. As oak marries well with these flavours, it is better to have them apparent in the wine at the requisite levels, therefore we are ageing it in oak this year.

Then all that remains is for us to drag another team of tasting types out before bottling it (we are tentatively aiming at the start of March) to decide how much we should sweeten it, if at all. Assuming that there is any left by then; having a stocked winery parked that close to the house is horribly tempting…