Diary of an English vineyard

(by peter + Jonica Fox)

Weather-related paranoia and rot-watching are the order of the day as Jonica’s crop approaches harvest time in what has been a strangely up-and-down growing season in the UK.

But, as ever, there’s also time for some peace and balloon-gazing…not to mention judging our competition to find a name for English sparkling wine– which was jointly won in the end by Dominic in Hampshire (‘Albion’) and John from Sussex (‘Celebritain’). They will be toasting their success with a bottle of Jonica and Gerard’s debut vintage, Cuvée No 1 Sparkling Rosé.

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 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris, 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 7 – early October 2011 (text and photos by Jonica; editing by Peter)

I am never quite sure if September is the last month of summer or the first of autumn.

Whichever it is, the first of September marks a turning point. We go into countdown mode. Instead of looking forwards into the time ahead, as we do for the rest of the growing season, we switch and look backwards. Backwards from the future that is.

On the first of September we begin to plan harvest. A harvest that will be between 6 and 8 weeks away depending on the summer weather, the long-range forecast and our nerves. We have worked hard all year to get our grapes to the point at which they start to ripen. We have kept them totally disease free, fed and nurtured them. They have survived the eccentric weather, the dry spring and cool summer and are facing the grey days of early September. This is the point at which they become vulnerable to our worst nightmare: the grey fruit mould botrytis.

Last year we binned 77 kg of Pinot Noir grapes (out of a couple of tonnes) we wouldn’t allow into our wine. This year the goal is zero.

So we look at the forecasts, we look at the date on which the berries start to change colour and ripen (veraison) and we try to work out when we want to set the picking dates. They go in to the diary in pencil, subject to change once we start sampling the berries. But they do go in. They govern everything we do for the next few weeks.

Botrytis is the devil.

It likes the senescent tissues, the scars where the caps came off the flowers at the start of flowering, the join where the stem and berry meet, the dying leaves of season’s-end and damaged berries, the ones that split or wasps have bitten. It likes moisture and mild warmth – misty mornings and rainy days create perfect conditions unless we spray to protect the grapes. So we do.

And this is why we start to set our picking dates. We run a low-spray regime here with minimum use of chemicals but for botrytis we have no real choice, no chance to presume it won’t attack. The risk is too great. The potential damage is too great – the grapes may rot, the future wine could be ruined or not be made at all.

So we spray.  Carefully and with particular attention to the harvest intervals – the safe time from spraying to picking. We need to spray near enough to the pick-date to keep the grapes protected and far enough from the pick-date to make sure the grapes are clean and healthy and fit for consumption before they go to the winery.  A few days out can make a big difference which brings us back to countdown mode. Set the date and work backwards.

We can make adjustments by a few days but the principle of planning holds good. So from September onwards it’s a fierce disease watch, tramping the rows and looking for problems, dealing with them, preventing them, recording them – none found this year.

A picking date of 15th October means last spray at the end of September. Then the decision is how many times to spray in September: one, two, three? And what with – a natural biological control or a chemical? Out with the crystal ball. What will the weather do, what is the disease pressure this year (the potential), what level of risk are we comfortable with…

In the end we decide to spray twice and then get on with it. Come harvest time we’ll see if we got it right.

As they ripen, we sample the berries, check for sugar development, for pH and acidity changes, for colour, for seed size and colour (a key to phenolic ripeness – the flavour and aroma enhancers) and for tannin characteristics and taste. Vineyards can be data-intensive. My berry ripeness records show 3 to 4 samples per variety across three or four weeks, with date, average bunch weight, grape colour, seed colour, seed number, skin texture, flavour, sugar, total acidity, pH and disease presence all recorded.  It provides vital information for this year’s winemaking and for the future as well as letting us look back at the facts of past vintages when we finally open a bottle.

This year the Chardonnay is looking extraordinarily good: large well formed bunches, no blemishes or damage, no signs of rot of any type. We know it ripens slowly so we think the picking date will be in mid October. The Pinot Noir, Meunier and Pinot Gris all ripen faster – early October to pick. That means at least two passes of pickers and that leads to logistics planning and liaison with the winery and with our picking crews.

We need a lot of people. Hand picking takes time. A lot of people takes a lot of organisation. Time working backwards from October is time well spent.

It’s not all tense pre-planning, stomach knotting with the excitement of harvest nearing. There are odd moments of peace and serendipity: hot air balloons floating gracefully above us, within friendly waving range remind us the timeless world beyond the vineyard hedges. Red kites circling on the thermals and the pleasure of seeing the berries swell, change colour and develop delicious flavours.

We are haunted by weather forecasts and excited by sunshine. The leaves just start to turn and the promise of golden autumn colour is hinted at. We have done our best to work with the weather to help the grapes grow well. We have all put in long hours of manual work from pruning to canopy grooming and now the time has come to plan the final push to harvest.

So here we are in September looking over our shoulders from sometime in October, thinking not only of the crop to come but the other day-to-day tasks still to complete.

We must mow. We keep tucking up. We think about leaf stripping on the furthermost vines, the dozen or so at the end of each row that don’t quite get as much sun. We expose the fruit to help it ripen on these vines only. And only where the extra labour is worth it. We check for problems. We look at how the berries are ripening. We count picking crates, check barrows for flat tyres, check snips are clean and sharp, count pickers, check dates, check grapes, check budgets, check checklists and check and check and check.

Last-minute is expensive. We can’t afford that.