Autumn may well and truly be upon us now: the horrors of Halloween are past and the final squib of Bonfire Night has squeaked its last. Before all that, though, Surrey’s vineyards were enjoying what may well be remembered as an almost perfect year.
What made it so good? It’s all about the weather. You might recall that we had an early and warm Spring this year, which coaxed the vines into budburst and there were no late snap frosts to damage this early growth. We did have quite a lot of rain too, but it came at about the right time to provide water during vine development. The early Summer was warm and sunny and, despite August being rather grey and cool, the sun came out again in the critical ripening period of September into October.
To quote Nick Wenman of Albury Vineyard “If you can’t make good wine this year, you never will.”
Chris White, General Manager at Denbies, Surrey’s best known vineyard and the largest single site vineyard in the country, has even been quoted as talking of 2014 as “one in a century”. I think that kind of speculative hyperbole is best left to the Bordelais, who seem to announce the “vintage of the century” about once a decade.
John Worontschak, Chief Winemaker at Litmus Wines, who actually make the wine at Denbies does, however, confirm that they have harvested a “massive crop”, their biggest ever, of high quality fruit. In fact, as I write, the harvest is not quite finished, as some botrytis-affected (that’s the right kind of rot) grapes will be picked next week to make a late harvest dessert wine. They will also be making some still red from Pinot Noir, the only noble black variety which tends to perform well in the UK – when conditions are right.
The picture is broadly similar across England, with many vineyards reporting record harvests of, crucially, ripe and healthy grapes. In our marginal climate, achieving full ripeness is rarely possible – hence our success with sparkling wines, which require lowish alcohol and high acid grapes. This year, however, could mark a new high point for still wines of all colours.
Mike Wagstaff, co-owner of Greyfriars Vineyard on the Hog’s Back southeast of Guildford, reports a harvest of over 90 tonnes, getting on for double last year’s total. This kind of increase is driven primarily by the nearly 45,000 new vines planted since Mike and his business partner took over ownership of the vineyard in 2010. As well as the volume of grapes picked, he’s particularly pleased to see much higher levels of ripeness than in 2013 and good grape health – ie little in the way of the various sorts of rot which can bedevil English growers.
From this year’s harvest, Greyfriars will be making a range of sparkling wines: rosé from Pinot Noir and a classic cuvée blend. There may also be some still wines, which we can look forward to tasting next year.
Nick Wenman at Albury Vineyard has the additional challenge of using organic methods, which limit, for example, the treatments available to treat vines against rot. Professional pickers were busy completing the harvest in the sunshine when I visited on 22nd October and the quality of the bunches looked good. Nick will be producing organic Silent Pool still rosé and a range of organic sparkling wines: a classic cuvée blend, a rosé and a blanc de blancs made from Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc.
But Nick is nothing if not adventurous and curious wine drinkers may get the chance to taste a biodynamic “Petillant naturel” wine from Albury next year. This style of wine, called “pet nat” for short, is made by allowing fermentation to start naturally and bottling the wine before it finishes. In theory the continuing fermentation will result in the production of carbon dioxide, which will dissolve in the wine as it cannot escape, thereby making the wine lightly sparkling. This is far from an exact science, however. Too much carbon dioxide and the bottles can explode; too little and the wine can be disappointingly flat.
The harvest at probably Surrey’s smallest commercial vineyard, High Clandon, is a blink and you’ll miss it affair. This year it began on the morning of 9th October and was all over by lunchtime. Bruce and Sibylla Tindale tend this tiny 1-acre vineyard with loving care and attention and this year harvested a total of 3.6 tonnes of grapes, which should produce around 2,600 bottles of sparkling wine. Patience is required for would be drinkers of the wine though – it won’t be available until sometime in 2019.
Denbies is a visitor-friendly vineyard, with tours and tastings running every day, plus a restaurant and shop. http://www.denbies.co.uk/
The other vineyards mentioned are open by appointment only:
Greyfriars vineyard: http://www.greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk/
Albury vineyard: http://www.alburyvineyard.com/
High Clandon: http://www.highclandon.co.uk/