Diary of an English vineyard

(by peter + Jonica Fox)

Jonica comes over all bucolic in this, the final instalment of her Diary of An English Vineyard.

There are echoes of Keats in her finely wrought words – albeit a somewhat nervous version, given the understandable paranoia that afflicts winemakers at harvest time as they reach the culmination of a season’s hard labour.

This year – a tricky vintage, with droughts and storms but a fine autumn – has been a year for Chardonnay. ‘Stellar’, in Jonica’s words (so perhaps it’s worth keeping an eye out for Blanc de Blancs styles in particular from 2011).

It’s been a pleasure (not to mention an education) having Jonica write for us over this past year. We wish her and Gerard all the best as they prepare to launch their first wine – the Cuvee No 1.

Gerard and Jonica will be launching their own website soon, and we wish them well with this too. In the meantime, you can read all of Jonica’s blogs, sequentially as the growing season unfolds, by clicking on the following links:

Part 1 (February); Part 2 (March); Part 3 (April); Part 4 (May); Part 5 (June/July); Part 6 (August); Part 7 (September/October)

 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 8 – late October 2011 (text and photos by Jonica, editing by peter)

We started the last pick of harvest early, at first light on a mid-October Monday morning. The golden fingers of an autumn dawn were webbed with mist, brushing bronze and blush-rose tints across the vineyard.

‘It’s beautiful,’ breathed one well seasoned picker. And it was.

The mist lifted; sunshine filled the vineyard. The fruit gleamed where we had removed the leaves to let it ripen fully. No sound beyond birdsong, the gentle rustle of vine leaves and the grass-muffled trudge of pickers.

We had left the Chardonnay longer on the vine than the other grapes. This gave it time to turn from green to gold, to fill each berry with the flavours of sweet ripe fruit. Time to mature until the sugar and acid balance was as we wanted it.

Now came the moment of truth. Cupping a bunch with one hand, snipping with the other, bunch after bunch layered carefully into crates full of perfect fruit, bringing in the harvest with happy hearts.

We took random samples from the crates: whole bunches pressed and tested in our small lab to check the quality once again.

Perfect fruit. Clean and delicious, harvested by hand to ensure we only took the very best to the winery – picked fast by practised pickers working in the gentle warmth of a glorious day.

Picked fast to make sure we met our winery deadline – ours were not the only grapes due in the press that day and we didn’t want our grapes left standing overnight.

And then the mini-convoy left, winding through our narrow, sunken lanes of hilly Sussex. With the trailer loaded and balanced, my usual fear of oncoming white vans began to gnaw. Reversing in a sunken lane with a tonne of grapes behind me is the stuff of nightmares. But luck was with us: clear runs every time.

Unloaded and weighed-in – the transfer from vineyard to winery completed, crates reclaimed and taken home to wash immediately, fruit on the elevator and into the press: no time wasted – just six hours from the first bunch being picked to the press starting. Good grapes being treated with the respect they deserve.

Then the return home: elated. Home-made cakes and tea for all and a proper sit-down. Suddenly it was all over.

The Pinots Noir, Gris and Meunier had already finished fermentation and were carefully developing in tank and barrel. The Chardonnay would be whole-bunch pressed and left to stand, to settle out the juice before fermentation starts. The vineyard was tidy, mown, empty of fruit. Paperwork done, records up to date, equipment clean and winterised. The rituals of year completed and the tally made.

Those winding lanes to the winery become a regular feature for a few weeks whilst the fermentations start and finish.

We taste at every stage: as juice, after settling, when fermentation stops, after racking off the wine into clean tanks or barrels. And as we do so, we slowly build a picture in our heads of what this year’s wines should be: how we want them to develop to be the best they can be. They will be made with the greatest care.

It has been a challenging year. The Saharan spring, rainless days and young vines to water. The Armageddon storm and abrupt halt to vine growth. Disruption to fruit set and a testing cool grey June and July. A dull August and a brighter September. A final blaze of warmth and glory in October; just what we needed to boost fruit that had been ripening rather slowly.

We got good colour in the skins – better, black-bluer than last year. Acids falling faster than usual made us pick the red grapes earlier than the norm but not so early as to lose the sweetness and precious flavours.

We ended the year minus four percent (total crop) year on year. That felt like victory.

The Pinots Noir and Gris are well down on last year (so much so that I almost want to cry – it makes me think back to before fruit-set & that mis-timed storm….) But still good quality – full of blackberry and cherry flavours, acidity just right for sparkling wine.

The Chardonnay was stellar, the star of the season: crop weight up by 293% and crop quality just stunning; the best we have ever grown.

I love our Chardonnay this year. I could sing paeans to it – and would if only I could hold a tuneful note.

We’ve learned a lot along the way. The focus on nutrition seems worthwhile. Our minimum spray regime worked despite the random weather – we had no disease at all. Selective leaf-stripping to expose the fruit in the last ten days (all done by hand, a very therapeutic job!) kept fruit clean and helped with ripening. Splitting harvest over three days paid off and now we know for sure: dry weather over fruit-set is the key to vineyard happiness.

In our new vineyards, the vines have grown well – good thick stems to turn into trunks, and healthy leaves. The grass and native plants seeded in September have grown into a good sward – bare earth just under the vines and the rest restored to verdant hill side. The rawness of bare-earth, new planting and new trellis posts dimmed by greens of every hue. The vineyards have been mown, hedges cut and all looks kempt. There’s a little more to do this year, some weed control, some tying in before winter winds start to howl and a barn to sweep out once again. It’s two or three days’ work before the winter rest begins.

At home the vines are basking in the sunlight before the first hard frost robs them of their leaves and they drop into winter dormancy. The wood is ripe, the weather during floral initiation (bud formation this year is key to fruit formation next year) was good and all is set to start the cycle once again next year. Once more the trick will be to help the vines produce good grapes – in abundance would be nice.

So this year ends and with the harvest home, our blog ends too. Thank you for stepping month by month with us through our vineyard lives, for your generous comments and encouragement and your interest in what we do.

Ambition, energy and focus. Exhausted for this year, we will rise again with the sap and we will do our best to grow truly perfect fruit. We will scan for weather, explore better ways of doing things and throw ourselves heart and soul into the vineyards yet again. We will remember this year for its challenges, its highs and lows, take its lessons to our hearts and come back, revived, to strive again.

But next year will be different, come July and regardless of the weather, we will pop a cork and stand in the vineyards, glass in hand. We will toast our vines, our friends and each other. We will watch the effervescing bubbles gently rise and pop, we will taste the wine we made in 2009 and we will have the best reason ever to keep on working. The joy of the vineyards will be in the bottle – ready to share in celebration, our expression of pure joie de vivre: Cuvee No 1.  Our first wine; ready at last.

We’ll open the bottle and raise a glass, a toast to us, to you, to Peter and Susie and the vineyard years still to come.

Here’s to a sparkling 2012 – may it be a happy year for everyone.

Gerard and Jonica