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.