Celebrations and Decisions


Hello! Long time no speak. Your correspondent has been celebrating the end of winter pruning in the Canaries. This missive was written before we left, but remained neglected because I was bundled bodily onto a plane before I could despatch it into the internet ether. No matter, the content remains current and will save you an exhaustive report on the Canary Island wine trade.

The view through the window from my current vantage point is an absolutely glorious sight. The sky is an endless expanse of blue, the vines have been modified from their previous twiggy and chaotic mess to something rather more organised. We may reasonably assume that the increasingly powerful sunshine is doing its work as the arable fields on the periphery of our view turn green and the occasional cow has emerged blinking onto the increasingly dry pasture. As the dog picks her way past a collection of newly redundant Arctic weight clothing on her way for another epic sunbathing session, we enjoy the fresh air from an open window. And best of all, the discerning vineyard owner may admire the view, safe in the knowledge that there are at least three weeks to go before those vines are going to be demanding his attention.

As we move into what is undoubtedly the best part of the year, Devon is an absolute picture. Just a little too bright this morning – it could be argued that we might have slightly over done the end of winter pruning celebrations last night. But then again, if you can’t properly celebrate the end of three months of grinding monotony* and the onset of spring, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate anything.

*I appreciate that I am laying the winter pruning whining on a bit thick this week and apologise for it. It was explained to me recently that staring at the same spreadsheet on a daily basis with no prospect of relief is infinitely worse than a few months stood around in the cold talking to vines, and I accept that. I am a horribly spoiled, self employed child.

As well as the improving meteorological situation and the prospect of spending time doing something other than winter pruning (sorry), we had another little nugget of awesomeness this week with the first proper tasting of last season’s vintage before we start bottling! Now when I say first tasting, first is a bit of a flexible term, but this is the first proper tasting. If you have been to an organised wine tasting before, you will no doubt have spent some time stood around in a winery or anodyne little room, clutching one of those miserable little ISO tasting glasses, while someone tells you why this is the best wine that you have ever tasted, with nary an olive, let alone a plate of food in prospect.

As far as possible, we try not to do that. I admit that I taste the wine on a regular basis to keep any emerging problems in check and to monitor its clarity and maturity – this is especially important when it is in contact with oak, so you don’t end up making something that tastes of little else. I generally don’t take dinner with me when I do this, but I make absolutely sure that I do it on a Friday afternoon so that I can channel the spirit of our customers as I, er, work.

I digress, we have always found it a little odd that you spend all year making wine for people to enjoy over dinner, but taste it yourself in an environment that couldn’t be more different. Admittedly most of the technical decisions about the wine that you are drinking have already been taken at this point, but tasting it is absolutely invaluable for helping us make decisions for future vintages, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Particularly as we took the decision to jettison the overtly scientific approach to wine making at a fairly early stage in favour of looking at, sniffing and tasting everything from vine to bottle. Our Australian colleagues appear to be well on the way to producing some hideously expensive equipment to tell you whether your wine is any good or not, but I reckon that the tongue in your head does the same job and is considerably more portable.

So this is the sequence of events that lead to us bidding farewell to the winter pruning and enthusiastically tasting the wine last weekend over dinner with some friends. It is our intention to start the bottling over the next few weeks or so, so this was likely to be our last opportunity to make any decisions about changes that we would like to make to it.

The tasting proved an invaluable exercise. On the literal table was dinner and on the metaphorical table were specific modifications that we might want to make to the wine. In the case of the Chardonnay and Rose this would be whether or not to sweeten the wine before we bottled it, in the case of the Pinot Noir, we were deciding whether to bottle it at all yet, or allow it some extra maturation in tank.

The rose was the easiest decision to make. The very first year that we made it, we sort of sleep walked into sweetening it and it wasn’t at all to its advantage as the finished wine didn’t have the acidity to carry the sweetness off. Which is weird as, if memory serves (and it’ll have to as I’m not digging out the records), the grapes weren’t as ripe. No matter, we stopped making that mistake immediately and this vintage – being the best of the lot in terms of ripeness – absolutely does not require any sugar at all.

The Chardonnay was rather more difficult. This is because my gut reaction is always to avoid sweetening it, as I very much enjoy steely Chardonnay from, um, am I allowed to say Chablis? Let’s pretend that I am. The problem with this is that lean whites aren’t exactly the order of play for the public at large, so we have previously taken the decision to sweeten it to produce a more approachable wine. This year is a little tricky as we worked particularly hard on the Chardonnay in the vineyard and produced a particularly ripe crop. The resulting honeyed mid palate gives the impression of sweetness, even though the sweetness isn’t actually there. When one adds this to the lower acidity and more prominent fruit flavour from our riper crop, it becomes clear that I am finally going to get my way and we can dispense with the rectified grape must (read: sugar) this year.

We decided that we are going to hang onto the Pinot Noir for a while. I’d guess that it is currently about as mature as the vast majority of commercially available wines at your local supermarket, which tend to be a little young. This is also a bit of a turn up, because in previous years we have had to manage the tannin uptake assiduously, as the grapes were nowhere near as ripe as last season’s (which puts undesirable herbaceous flavours into the wine). No such problems this time, I was battering the fermenting red’s floating skins with my rake and tossing in oak staves with wild abandon in an attempt to get the most out of both. The consequences of this additional flavour is that it takes time for them to marry and mature – there is a pleasing liquorish flavour from the oak that needs to settle down and a slightly out of kilter bitterness from grape tannin that needs to disappear.

So that means a bit of oxidative handling (exposure to the air) and probably months of Friday afternoon tastings. Which is obviously a great hardship…