Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Grape fun: wine harvest festival

Harvest, from the old English “Haerfest”, translates to Autumn, and the Harvest moon is the full moon within a fortnight of the autumnal equinox of 21st September.

Determining the best time to harvest grapes is a critical decision for any winemaker and is governed by the ripeness of the grape, measured by sugar content and acidity levels, depending on the style of wine they wish to produce. The weather of course is a crucial factor, as too much heat (some chance in this country) can make it hard to gather in all the grapes before they become flabby and overripe; rain on ripe grapes creates a wonderful breeding ground for rot; hailstorms can practically wipe out an entire harvest. So, as in most things in life, timing is crucial.
Denbies, near Dorking, is England’s largest single vineyard with 265 acres under vine. It produces an astonishing 400,000 bottles of wine a year and is cleverly commercial in that it encourages the general public to help harvest its grapes, a pleasure for which you have to pay! We are all for this idea of getting the public in on the act, however, as it not only educates but makes an enjoyable foray into the fresh air as you partake in the picking, which is an integral part of our farming tradition. 
Hand-picking has great advantages over mechanized harvesting as it is, of course, a more gentle and selective way of handling the delicate fruit of the vine. In areas where grapes are grown on steep hillside terraces it is impossible to harvest any other way than by hand. Those highly-prized sweet wines such as Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese require that individual berries from the grape cluster have to be selected – one of the reasons these wines are so highly priced, as well as prized. 
Mechanized harvesters are widely used as a machine is cheaper to run than human labour, and can work through the night if necessary. The action of these machines can be compared to that of a playground school bully, as they go around beating and shaking the vines 'till they drop their goodies: the grapes. However, amongst the treasures collected on the conveyor belt along with the grapes is a percentage of bad grapes, leaves, twigs, insects and so on – collectively known as MOG (or Material Other than Grapes) and at some stage this will have to be scanned and sorted....or not, as the case may be. Another good reason to be selective about the producer of the wines you buy. 
Talking of beating, reaping, scything, let alone wilful drowning, all these acts of some savagery have been employed for centuries in the service of mankind and feature in the famous harvesting song “John Barleycorn”.
This is an ancient folksong stemming from Anglo Saxon paganism (read Frasers Golden Bough). Barleycorn is the personification of barley, who encounters great trials and suffering before succumbing to an unpleasant death. However, as a result of this death, bread is produced: John Barleycorn dies so that others may live. The tune for this ancient folksong is the same now used in churches for the not too dissimilar hymn “We Plough the Seed and Scatter”, a favourite at Harvest Festival time. 
Poet, balladeer and Scottish icon, Robert Burns penned the most famous John Barleycorn Ballad in 1782 and subsequently there has been many a version by the likes of Steeleye Span, Stevie Winwood’s Traffic and Jethro Tull (naturally) to name but a few. But why, you ask, does the song enjoy such continuing popularity? Perhaps the answer lies in the line: “the reviving effects of drinking his blood”, which of course refers to barley being the main ingredient of beer and whisky!
Rupert Pritchett of Taurus Wines at Whipley Manor Farm gave us a taster of some rather unusual, but nevertheless popular (particularly amongst the” huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’” set), winter warmers, pre- the turning on of the central heating.
Berry’s The King’s Ginger Liqueur (KGL to its many aficionados) – £17.99 from Taurus Wines. As Rupert says “possibly one of the most politically incorrect drinks available”. It became famous when King Edward VII was prescribed it by his doctor as a warm up before venturing out in his “horseless carriage”. We think it delicious for when you return home.
Other seasonal hedgerow tipples from Taurus wines are Sloe Gin, especially the Bramley-based Juniper Green Organic version at £19.99. Or Roxtons Damson Vodka at £16.99.  
If you're looking for something unusual, then for the non-kingly price of £5.99 you can walk away with a plastic flask-like container of Buck Shot’s Bullshot Mixer. Recommended as a winter warmer whilst pursuing field sports, (we think you probably add it to whisky), it's apparently one of Rupert’s top sellers. Heather A was brave enough to try it despite the ingredients including game paste and chillies. The verdict was delivered quickly and emphatically and is not repeatable here, but we later decided it tasted like Bovril. Your choice! 
With relief, it's back to wine, and to suit the Autumn we need something less than the big bodied reds, but still soft, warm, and fruity. Try Urban Tempranillo 2008 from Mendoza Argentina £8. 99 from Ben Watkins of The Guildford Wine Company in Shalford. The ripe fruit has a vanilla overtone and its medium body is enough to give you a seasonal cuddle.                                                                               

Robert Burns was renowned for many things, not all of a literary nature. His love encompassed more than just a “red, red rose” and here is his ode to one of them.  

Here's a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o'care man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye outght, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.

Watch out for our next Walk and Wine event on 9th October, from the Parrot in Shalford.  Details are on www.redwhiteandrose.co.uk/Our_events.

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