I can still see the 1970s TV advert in my mind’s eye: dew spotted apples being harvested while the voiceover intoned “Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. The advert was promoting the “exceedingly good cakes” of Mr Kipling, so my adolescent brain made a connection between the line of verse and writer, poet and patriot Rudyard Kipling. Did I also think he made cakes in his spare time?
Of course you all knew that the poem is by Keats, the opening line of his ode “To Autumn” and makes no mention of apple slices, fondant fancies or any other favourite of the cake magnate.
This year Autumn may live up to Keats’ breathless description as we are experiencing what naturalists call a “mast year”, where trees and other plants produce a bumper crop of fruit and seeds. What exactly causes a mast year is not fully understood, but I can certainly vouch for the utterly ridiculous amount of acorns being deposited by the oak trees in our back garden; and I have already made a batch of bramble jelly and look forward to a good few blackberry and apple crumbles before the season is out. Why, even our useless Egremont russet and pathetic pear have produced a crop this year. Clearly something is afoot out in nature.
If you spent any time in this country in the summers of 2012 and 2011, you will appreciate that winemakers in England and Wales had a thin time of it in the past couple of years. Cool, damp, grey summers do not make for large crops of healthy grapes. Indeed last year Nyetimber, one of the foremost makers of English sparkling wine, decided to give up on a bad job and made no wine at all in 2012. Growers desperately need a good year: with the abundance of Mother Nature apparent all around us, will they get one?
Signs are good, so far. Growers are reporting a potentially large harvest of healthy, ripe grapes. Nick Wenman of Albury Organic Vineyard was able to show me Seyval Blanc, Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay all looking healthy and plentiful this week. At the other end of the country, Bob Lindo of Camel Valley in Cornwall, one of the country’s largest commercial vineyards, reports a large crop of clean healthy grapes. Sybilla Tindale of High Clandon Estate confirmed that her vineyard is full of healthy fat bunches of grapes. All looks set for success.
Yet, at latitudes this far north, grapes are nowhere near fully ripe now. We really need more warmth and sun in order to ripen the grapes and turn a potential harvest into vats of fermenting must in the winery. Grape harvests here are likely to be towards the end of October – despite that lovely summer weather, which allowed the grapes to catch up a week or so after the setbacks of the long, cold spring and early summer, ripening is still 1-2 weeks behind schedule. So now, as Sybilla Tindale says, the challenge will be to ripen those bunches.
|"Bougies" - heaters ready in the vineyard just in case|
Here are some wines to enjoy, while we wait:
Theale Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2007 – made by Laithwaite’s, sadly not commercially available
I know, what a wind up – sorry! However, in case you should come across a bottle of this or another vintage, let nothing come between it and you. This is a classy glass of fizz in anyone’s book. Made from 100% Chardonnay and with plenty of textbook bottle aged character: the nose is pure McVitie’s Digestive biscuit, with a hint of strawberry shortcake. This leads onto a many-layered palate of appley fruit, fine and complex. If someone gave me this and told me it was vintage Champagne, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
And what of Nick Wenman’s Albury Organic Vineyard? The first commercial release of the estate’s sparkling wine is planned in time for Christmas 2014, so we have a while to wait to taste the fruits of his labour. However, there should be (barring disaster in the next couple of weeks) some of his still wine, Silent Pool Rosé 2013 available from May 2014. The entire vineyard is run organically, but Nick is also hoping to be able to produce a small proportion of biodynamic still rosé, an experiment that I would love to taste the results of.
High Clandon Queen’s Jubliee Cuvée 2008 - £29 from http://www.highclandon.co.uk
If you are big on sourcing locally then the sparkling wine from this tiny property with just an acre of vines on a site facing north (and with fantastic views towards London), will be just up your street. Owners Bruce and Sybilla Tindale are originally from South Africa and seemingly thought nothing of planting a vineyard in their grounds. Their vineyard may be tiny but they’ve done things properly, studying wine-making at Plumpton College – and getting award-winning English winemaker Sam Linter (of Bolney Estate in Sussex) to make their wine.
The wine is a blend of the traditional three varieties used in Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The 2008, their first commercial release, spent nearly four years on the lees (ie ageing in the cellar post-fermentation), which is a key quality element for any traditional method sparkling wine. The north-east facing site ensures marked citrus acidity in the wine, along with great length and persistence of flavour.
Sybilla is not a fan of the moniker “English sparkling wine” and favours Quintessence as a more evocative term which could be used instead. Attempts have been made in the past to get winemakers to unite around names like Britagne (a non-starter if you ask me), but now that the Duchess of Cornwall herself has derided the term “English sparkling wine”, perhaps the time is ripe to make a change.
If you would like to suggest a new, more snappy name for English sparkling wine, please get in touch with me, firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be the start of something big.
In the meantime, it’s fingers crossed for fine, warm and dry weather for the next few weeks, so that in due course we can taste the sweet rewards of our mast year.