Diary of an English vineyard

(by Jonica Fox)

Jonica veers from toiling in the vineyard to great excitement in the tasting room in this month’s guest blog about life on a newly established English vineyard.

Strange summer weather, including an ‘Armaggedon’ storm, threatens the Pinot Noir. The high point, meanwhile, is tasting their very first wine, the 2009 sparkling rosé, and putting it through the sternest challenge of all – the ‘mother-in-law’ test…

Incidentally, this wine is the one that the winner of our competition to find a name for English sparkling wine is due to receive. We will be making an announcement about this very shortly, so keep your eyes peeled. (Thanks in the meantime to everyone who entered, making it an inspiring and often hilarious contest to judge.)

A bit of background (by peter)

When Jonica Fox tired of working in media and public service she jacked it all in and retrained in wine.

With a BSc (Hons) from Plumpton in viticulture and winemaking firmly under her belt, she and her fizz-loving husband Gerard took the plunge and set up their own vineyard near their home in the stunning High Weald. They now run two vineyards either side of the village of Mayfield in East Sussex, planted to classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, from which they aim to make high-quality sparkling wine.

This is their story, told month-by-month through the changing landscapes of a vineyard in southern England.

Part 6 – Aug/Sept 2011 (text and photos by Jonica; editing by Peter)

If I had a least favourite month in the vineyard it would be August.

It’s the month of determined, repetitive work. Tucking the vines up, tucking them up again, trimming the tops, removing the side shoots and tucking up, trimming and round and round again.

We spend a lot of time on canopy management, pulling the long new canes back into manicured hedge-like shape. Each cane wants to grow sideways or out into the alleys; we want them perfectly vertical, leaves exposed to maximum sunlight, not too densely packed.

Canopy management matters enormously. Get it right and you maximize this year’s crop and next year’s too (because the buds for next year are forming within this year’s canes). Get it wrong and disease can start or spread more easily, fruit struggles to ripen and you risk acidic, green-tasting, vegetal wines.

We really don’t want that.

We’ve had temporary changes in the vineyard team. Ben is in Greece and Luke is in California, both doing their ‘vintage’, working in wineries and getting invaluable experience. Emma B has stepped in to help – she’s great at canopy management and makes the vines stay in position perfectly.

Now we can see the effects of the Armageddon storm in June, just as the fruit was setting. The temperature dropped ten degrees Celsius in 35 minutes and the heavens opened. Thunder, lightening, sheeting rain – the lot.

The Chardonnay was through fruit-set before the storm hit and is looking good. Well shaped bunches are developing, berries are growing uniformly and with a nice potential crop, well up on last year – full of promise at this stage.

The Pinot Noir, however, is not in such good shape. It’s showing signs of partial pollination, the distinctive ‘hens and chickens’. Some berries were pollinated and will swell to juice-filled ripeness (the hens). Others, which will remain tiny (the chicks), lost out as the pollen was drenched by the storm and just washed off.  This gives the bunches a ragged and uneven look, larger berries that will develop into good grapes and smaller ones that won’t.

At this stage all the grapes look just like frozen petit pois: small and green and just as hard as iced peas. It’s hard to think of them ever ripening. Especially when the tucking up just goes on and on.

Somehow the rows seem longer in August too.

But it’s not all gritted teeth. The sunny days are glorious; the groomed vines look beautiful; the weeds are under control and the alleyways mown. Plus there are other diversions to fill our hearts with hope and endurance.

In August we did the first dosage trials for our 2009 Sparkling Rosé – our first vintage and the wine we have promised to the winners of our competition to find a name for English fizz. (As per the blurb, we are going to announce the lucky winners very shortly.)

Will, Gerard and I sat down with five bottles of our wine, all taken off lees, riddled and disgorged: clear and gleaming. Each bottle had a different level of dosage (wine and sugar) added to adjust the final dryness/sweetness balance of the wine, staying within the Brut (dry) range.

I cannot begin to tell you how excited we were. This is our first wine, the first expression of all the work we have done since planting the vines, the first indication of how good (or bad) our vision and execution have been.

The corks popped, wine fizzed and sparkled, foamed and settled into perfect collars around the glass. Bubble trains moved up the glass, the bubbles small, as they should be. The aromas were good.

We tasted with the wines at room temperature, all of us using matching champagne flutes and comparing notes and debating the results. My nerves evaporated after a few exploratory sips and then, after a tsunami of relief, I settled into dispassionate consideration.

The first tasting was fascinating, a gram of sugar per litre more or less makes a revelatory difference: two grams of sugar (per litre) either way can mask the fruit flavours of the wine, or somehow change the mouth-feel and texture.

We did four rounds of tasting each wine and then called a halt. Results were very consistent between us. A good place to stop.

The wines were then chilled overnight to fridge temperature – the way they might be served normally. We tasted again, made notes and then tried each wine in champagne flutes of differing designs, sniffing and tasting for changes in flavour or aroma. More notes made; more results evaluated. A philosophical debate about style and a more practical one about taste preferences and we felt we had a good idea of the way forward.

Then we did the ‘mother-in-law’ test.

My mother-in-law doesn’t drink fizz that often but she does have good taste buds and does appreciate a nice glass of wine. And she’s a good sport! Thrust under the spotlight of our intent gazes, she seriously sipped and commented and gave her views. Our first consumer – strict but fair and precisely considered in her judgment. A good review is always welcome. Phew!

Now the remainder of the 2009 will stay on its lees until early next year, when we will taste again, repeat the dosage trials and finally commit. All I can say at this point is that Gerard and I are happy.

Happy enough to keep tucking up.