Harvest 2017: Inside the Winery

Now that the grapes have been picked, our tanned and exhausted vigneron may remove his boots and put his feet up until it is time to start the winter pruning. In a climate as cool as the one we are “blessed” with in Devon, this period of relative indolence lasts for about five weeks. Further south, where harvest is earlier, it might go on for as much as two and a half months – or longer if they have chosen to start pruning later, as tends to happen in vineyards that are blessed with staff. Given that your correspondent spends the entire month of November wandering around like a lost child, trying to work out what normal people do during the weekend, it’s probably as well that this is kept to a minimum so that he may keep himself out of too much trouble.

It is much the same story in the winery. Most of the really hard work happens concurrently with the harvest. The grapes appear from the fields and then the fun starts. Given that we have given up on still white and red wine production for the moment (more on this later), the crusher/de-stemmer – to the uninitiated, this is a large, and frankly terrifying, machine that smashes bunches of grapes into stemless, grapey porridge – is now, for the most part, surplus to requirements. The grapes are therefore loaded directly into the press – a rather less terrifying machine that squishes grapes gently, removing the juice only – in whole bunches.

While smashing grapes to bits sounds like an appalling indignity for something that you have spent the previous six months nurturing, it is absolutely essential if you wish to extract some colour (and certain flavour compounds) from your grapes. If one wishes to make soft, rosé wine, this porridge will sit around for a period of up to 2 days, where the juice will pick up some of the colour from the red skins. For reds, we will start the fermentation in the porridge, allowing the juice to pick up even more colour, but also tannin (body and pleasing bitterness) from the skins.

If one is attempting to produce quality sparkling white wine, using the crusher/de-stemmer is generally considered a bit of a wine making sin, as the rather industrial machine can also help to extract unwanted flavour, harshness and colour (in the case of red grapes used to make white fizz), so our top quality wine maker is obliged to shun it. This causes a bit of a space problem.

Remember when we discussed that looking after vines with almost no crop on is about as much effort as looking after vines with lots of crop (hurricanes smashing the trellising to bits excepted)? Well, it’s a bit like that with the harvest. If there are lots of grapes on all of the vines, you clip away with your snippers and the boxes are full just as quick as you say “Do we have enough of those boxes?”. In disappointing years – I’m looking at you, 2012 – there is a lot of walking around with a half empty box.

Given that last year was a really decent one, the grapes turned up, piled on the back of the knackered and complaining pickup, from the fields as our pickers removed record amounts of them in a relatively short time.

This isn’t a huge problem when the grapes are going straight into the – admittedly massively oversized for our purposes – crusher/de-stemmer, as it gobbles through them, merrily turning them into grape porridge by the tonne. If one is fortunate enough to be making red wine, that grape porridge is then pumped into a red wine tank and does fermenting and becomes wine. If one is unfortunate enough to be making white wine, that grape porridge has to be pressed immediately and that usually means a bottleneck. Well, it does in our winery anyway, as we can only manage to ram about a tonne of it into our press.

In practice, this means that everything grinds to a halt and everyone stands around looking for something to do, until some bright spark goes mining in the fridge for beer and the conversation improves as the work output goes off a cliff.

“But we are ignoring the preposterously enormous crusher/de-stemmer this year” I hear you cry, “what are the beer consuming ramifications when one doesn’t use it?”.

I’m afraid that the beer consuming ramifications are even worse. When one is obliged to shun the grape smasher, the grapes must go into the press looking very much like they did when they were removed from the vine, and that means that they take up quite a lot more space than grape porridge. Even with the most enthusiastic encouragement, our wine maker is hard pressed to ram half as many whole bunches or grapes into his press, so he is obliged to discuss buying a larger one with his increasingly inebriated volunteers. That said, the juice is appreciably more delicate and very much cleaner (although you do get a little less of it) so the effort is absolutely worth it.

Once this juice of tip top quality has been squished out of the grapes, it spends 24 hours sat in a cold tank, where any dirt and gunge that has made it through the tiny slits in the press collects at the bottom of the tank, before the clean juice is pumped off it and into another tank. It’s then time for a fermentation, where juice that is destined to become a bottle of sparkling wine is treated in pretty much the same way as wine that is destined to become still wine. Everything changes at bottling, and we are doing that soon, so you will no doubt know all about that presently.

I promised to discuss our decision to switch to an entirely fizz based model (for the moment at least), but I have probably already overstayed my welcome. Suffice to say that it’s pleasingly explosive and what the market appears to want. Oh, and one can only bear being asked “So, where is your fizz?” so many times.

Havest 2017

Having dealt with most of the growing season in 2017 last week, it is time to move on to the most important part of the year: harvest.

Harvest always, always, always brings a mixture of emotions for the vigneron – well, this vigneron anyway. It marks the end of a season of hard work and the vigneron knows that the grapes will be in the winery and become somebody else’s problem in no time. In the immediate short term however, he is going to be spending his time running around after pickers, fretting about the condition of his grapes and casting a suspicious eye over the surrounding area. It is important to wander around pointing at local woodland and cursing its owners for not cutting all their trees down, as the sort of birds that eat grapes don’t much care for people, and the sound of demented rambling generally helps to keep them on their toes.

Due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is run, our winemaker looks rather a lot like the chap who runs the vineyard. The winemaker has also been busy in the run up to harvest. The winery is the cleanest that it has been all year, the tanks have been boiled to within an inch of their lives, the equipment is looking shiny and lovely and there is a nice big space in front of the door for the pickers to drive in and drop the grapes off (and, if history is any guide, they will also be dropping off much of the soil and leaves from the vineyard along with those grapes). He has his winery sundries, he has analysed the grapes, he knows what he is going to be turning those grapes into, he is ready.

I mentioned last week that harvest in 2017 started about a week early. It had been such a strange year, we watched our anticipated harvest date going backwards week after week through an absolutely sodden summer, and genuinely thought that we might end up with another 2012* style write off. Salvation came in the form of lovely late summer, which got everything moving again and we were absolutely counting our blessings as we saw the sugar in the grapes rise, and the acid moving in the opposite direction.

*Those of you with long memories may remember that 2012 was the last time that English wine made it into the press in any meaningful way, as reporters zeroed in on depressed people tipping tonnes of bullet hard grapes into the bin. They really do thrive on misery.

It is usually a big relief to get the fruit off the German varieties and into somewhere safe, as they produce grapes that are thin skinned. (Does being smashed to bits in a large machine and drained count as being safe? I suppose that it’s a matter of perspective, but you get the idea.) Much like thin skinned people, they are at the greatest risk of damage. Disease is a problem – botrytis/grey mould at the end of the year – and the thin skins also make them a firm favourite with wasps, small birds and pheasants (along with any dog that isn’t being properly monitored).

Removing the crop from these vines in 2017 was extra good as there had been a bit of additional disease around, owing to the weather during the growing season. A cool and wet growing season is absolutely perfect for the production of downy mildew, which is a sort of kissing cousin of potato blight. In vineyards, this can cause the grapes to split as they ripen, and ultimately the leaves to fall off the vines. As the leaves are the primary sugar producing engine, this isn’t a big help for getting that sugar into the grapes. As an added bonus, those split grapes are an absolute magnet for wasps and even more disease.

As luck would have it, we learned our lesson in 2012 and our downy mildew game is now absolutely solid. In spite of some serious provocation, the vines were pretty well clear of downy mildew. Did you spot the “but” coming? Well, the people who make the decisions about what we are allowed to spray onto our vines removed one of the products that we used to control powdery mildew. Apparently that product was quite good, as, with it gone, we had some powdery mildew pop up in the vineyard for pretty much the first time since we planted and we had an absolute nightmare murdering it. I was fairly confident that we had it all dead by the time that we were picking, but it’s always nice to be absolutely sure.

I also mentioned last week that there was a lot of fruit on the vines. The Chardonnay in particular was absolutely laden with grapes – and since our Damascene conversion to sparkling wine this was undoubtedly a good thing – as far as the eye could see there were bunches and bunches of lovely, heavy grapes. The sort of heavy weight hanging from the bottom of the vines that would unquestionably add much needed ballast to the canopy in it’s never ending attempt to smash our trellising to bits.

The man from the government who figuratively looks over my shoulder in the winery is a nice man who wanted to know a little more about the practicalities of wine making. He obviously wanted to learn from the best, so he booked himself in to do a spot of literally looking over my shoulder in the winery. Along with some grape picking because, well, nobody gets away with standing still here for more than five minutes in October without being handed a basket and a pair of picking snips.

Now, it hasn’t escaped my attention that accepting the offer of work from the man who marks our homework was a potentially disastrous decision, but we thought that on balance that it was probably worth it; not least as we try to keep applications of Vimto and petrol additions to wine at an absolute minimum around harvest.

I think that we had made it into his second day of picking when the weather forecasters started advising people to start thinking about maybe not going out unless you have to and to panic buy every single loaf of bread and pint of milk in the shop. At this point, we had taken most of the crop in, which was a good thing as the vines in leaf make an effective enough sail for catching the wind, egged on by the ballast of a couple of hundred kilos of grapes, they make an exceedingly provocative proposition to a hurricane.

Nevertheless, our man from the government proved to be an absolute wizard at dodging smashed up bits of flying trellising and we had the last of the grapes onto the back of our pickup* and into the winery in no time, marking an end to probably the most idiosyncratic, but ultimately successful, year that we have had here.

*For the long term reader, the pickup is still going, but has started to vomit huge plumes of steam. Coupled with its knackered exhaust that makes it sound like a tank and its general terrorist-chic condition, it really adds to the air of professionalism around here.

If television has taught me anything it’s that you ruin the next episode at the end of the previous one, so, next time, we will be talking a bit about wine making, and I shall probably be whining about the winter a bit too.