Elisabeth Else and Ian Hardwick share their visits and musings on English and Welsh Wines. We would like this blog to provide interesting information and share our enthusiasm for English wine to those with a general interest in the English countryside or local food & drink to experienced wine lovers and anyone in between.
There are more great gifts from UK vineyards than ever before this year. Hopefully we’ve given you the information to get to know your local wine producer and you may already have checked out their offerings. Here are some more great ideas for you.
Wine & More
Who doesn’t love a beautifully packaged gift of local wine? We’ve searched through the online shops of our producers for some presents that are particularly special.
Albourne Estate are one of the best producers of still wines out there and they are offering a Wine Gift Box of any 3 of their still wines for £45 (plus £9.99 delivery or free collection from the vineyard).
A couple of vineyards have started producing other interesting drinks, notably vermouth and gin. One of these is Bolney Wine Estate, who have a rather splendid Rosso Bundle at £30 (plus £4.99 delivery or free collection from the shop) featuring a full bottle and a miniuture of their red vermouth, a balloon glass, tonic and a cocktail book.
Over at Bluebell Vineyards, who are also in Sussex, they have a wide selection of gifts including a Savoury Hamper £55 (for collection only) and a Sparkling Trio for £85 (free shipping), comprising one each Blanc de Blancs 2013, a Rosé 2013 and a Classic Cuvée 2014.
A very special present idea from Fox & Fox is their Gold Medal Gift Box – three bottles of sparkling wine, a Blanc de Blancs 2013, a Blanc de Noirs 2014 and Mosaic Brut 2014 (a 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay cépage). Each of these has won gold medal in an international competition and the 3 bottles are presented in a wooden gift box, the price is £125 and there is no delivery charge.
Down in Cornwall, our friends at Polgoon have been working hard on gift ideas and we particularly like their Art Bacchus Gift, which includes a print of Paul Lewin’s ‘Veor Cove’ with a bottle of limited edition 2016 Bacchus £108 (plus £9 delivery or free collection).
You may have read about some of the exciting things happening in East Anglia, one of the vineyards up that way, Giffords Hall, is one of the few English Producers to make a magnum, their Rosé Magnum is £27, or £36.80 with wooden presentation box (£7.95 next day courier or free collection on one of their festive shopping days).
A great way to get involved in what’s happening at your local vineyard is a membership scheme. Benefits vary, but usually include private access to the vineyard and winemaker as well as early access to new wine releases. These make a great gift for a friend, or even for yourself!
Albury is an organic vineyard in Surrey, located between Guildford and Dorking. Their wine club has been going a good few years now and costs £80 for single membership or £95 for a couple (with free delivery). Each membership type includes a bottle of Rosé and a bottle of Sparkling wine, invitations to members events, discounts on further wine purchases, the opportunity to get involved in harvest and more.
Along the Jurassic Coast sits Furleigh Wine Estate, where £150 will get you membership of their wine club and lots of benefits including a welcome bottle of sparkling wine, a case of 6 bottles of still wine, plus another bottle on your birthday (or other chosen date), invitation to a “Get Your Hands Dirty” lunch, discounts on further purchases and more.
One of the exciting new openings this year has been the new winery, cellar door and visitor centre at Hush Heath Estate. A great way to enjoy everything that’s on offer there, including behind-the-scenes access is membership of the Hush Heath Wine Club.
Oxney is another organic vineyard, this one based near Rye. The recently launched Oxney Wine Club includes 3 bottles of wine per quarter, to include their top sparkling wines, as well as discounts on further purchases, tasting invitations as well as discount on hire of their tasting room. Membership is £302 with wines to be collected or £335 shipped.
Some wine producers continue doing tours all year round, while of course there is less to see in the vineyard, the visit to the tasting room is even more welcome! For many of those vineyards, and for the ones only open in the summer, you can often purchase tour vouchers. Here are a few we can recommend.
Just to the west of London, near Marlow, Harrow & Hope have recently launched tour vouchers at £20 per person (free delivery) which come with a beautifully embossed card and hand written note.
Rathfinny in Sussex offer some enticing tour voucher options including a tour, tasting and lunch £55 or an afternoon tour for £20. Tours can be taken on selected dates between May and September.
Over in Dorset, Langham Estate offer a guided tour voucher for 2 people at £30, which is nicely presented and can include a personal message. They have a café on site, so you, or your giftee can enjoy a bite to eat before or after their tour as well.
If you’d like to be shown around Stopham Estate in Sussex by one of the winemakers, you have two tour options, a tour with tasting at £25, or the same tour to be followed by lunch at the local pub for £42.
Another rather special option is the Discovery Tasting at Gusbourne Estate, this is the ideal way to experience an extended range of Gusbourne wines, paired with a delicious lunch. A full tour of the vineyards and winery is followed by a tutored tasting including some special wines that don’t feature in their standard hosted tour. this tour is £65 per person and can be booked as a gift; the lucky recipient will receive a gift card in the post.
Love wine and vineyards, but don’t fancy owning a whole one? How about a vine rental or leasing scheme? Benefits are generally fairly similar to those of membership schemes, but you can usually do and visit your very own vines too!
If you’re in the Wiltshire area, A’Beckett’s vineyard, you can rent 10, 25 or 50 vines for £50, £150 or £300. You get to choose whether to have Pinot Noir or Chardonnay vine and you can visit them at any time during opening hours during the year of the lease.
Chet & Waveney are a fairly new vineyard in Norfolk, their vine leasing scheme has a number of options ranging from £550 upwards, including maintenance of your vines, with the opportunity for you to visit your vines, take part in harvest and receive discounts on other wine purchases.
It’s simply not practical for all vineyards to offer food, but if you’re heading a distance to collect your vineyard treasure or just fancy a nice day out, we thought the inside track on a good pub might help, so we’ve had a chat with a few vineyards to get their recommendations for a proper English pub.
Not far from Alresford in Hampshire is Hattingley Valley vineyard. They recommend the Yew Tree and since it’s between the vineyard and their winery, I think it’s safe to say that it’s undergone pretty rigorous testing! In fact we’ve been there too, and the home cooked food is excellent. Hattingley don’t have a shop, as such, but tours run all winter at weekends and you can always call with an order during weekday working hours and collect from the office.
Over in the Cotswolds, you’ll find Poulton Hill Estate, who have recently opened their cellar door on weekdays, and by appointment on Saturdays. The Village Pub (great name!) at Barnsley is just 15 minutes away by car and serves Poulton Hill’s wines by the glass and the bottle. Don’t think you can make it that far? Just find 4 or 5 friends and you can hire the whole North Wing and stay over at the vineyard!
Astley Vineyard is in Worcestershire and open Friday to Sunday for tastings and purchases from the cellar door. They recommend the Hampstall Inn, a recently renovated riverside pub just a mile from the vineyard. The pub doesn’t seem to have embraced the world of the internet and social media, so we suggest going to the vineyard first and they’ll happily point you in the right direction.
If you’re looking for wine and food in Wiltshire, pop into a’Beckett’s Vineyard on the edge of Salisbury Plain to try their wide selection of wines and apple juices. Owner Paul will be happy to tell you all about the wines and the heritage orchard. Once you’ve done your shopping, head over to the Green Dragon in Market Lavington, just a few minutes’ drive away.
Stopham Estate in Sussex pride themselves on producing wines with “precision and passion”; with a background as a Formula 1 engineer, that’s something owner & winemaker Simon knows all about. Tours of the vineyard run March to October and lunch at the nearby White Hart on the river at nearby Stopham Bridge (pictured above) can be included. Out of season, you’ll have to contact the vineyard to arrange to collect your order.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s been the biggest ever wine grape harvest in this country. There are two factors at play here, the number of grapes per vine has been unprecedented, with numerous photos of massive bunches of grapes shared. The number of vineyards being planted is also increasing and some of those will be lucky enough to have had their first commercial harvest (typically 2 or 3 years after planting) in this exceptional year.
The Best Quality?
While much has been made of the great quality, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s conditions have presented the opportunity for exceptional quality, which some will have taken advantage of. Those big bunches I mentioned earlier? They are pretty hard to get ripe in our climate – the producers with the knowledge and deep enough pockets, will have done some pretty brutal “green harvesting” to reduce the number of grapes growing to maturity, thereby giving the remaining fruit a better chance to ripen to a greater degree than is usual here. Where that hasn’t been done, the quality will probably be consistent with a normal year here, so still pretty good!
What does this mean for Sparkling Wines?
Sparkling wine can be made with grapes that are much less ripe than still wine. The additional quantities this year will obviously enable more fizz to be produced, but it will also help canny winemakers build up their reserves. This is both in terms of quantity (to balance out years when little or no wine is produced, like 2012) but also to have additional components or flavour profiles to use in the blending of future wines. This is actually called a “library” and is seen by many as essential to building up a quality non-vintage (NV) or multi-vintage (MV) house style.
What about Still Wines?
Still wines are much more dependent on ripe grapes, so there could be some really exciting wines coming along. Expect some beautiful Chardonnay, exceptional Bacchus as well as more rosé and red wines from 2018. We’re also noticing a resurgence in some of the less popular varieties – while Rondo and Ortega fell out of favour to the more “classic” varieties for a few years, some producers are now realising that the reason they were planted in the first place is because they grow well and are disease-resistant in our climate and are starting to use them again in good quality wines again, either in blends or on their own.
When do I get to Taste these Wines?
This is where you need patience, I’m afraid! Some of the still wines from 2018 will be released in 2019, but many producers will hold them back until 2020 if they can. For the sparkling wines, a second fermentation in bottle means that it won’t be until another 2 or 3 years after that they will start to appear.
So Will there be Bargains?
We’re not expecting massive bargains – it’s an expensive business producing wines in this country and producers will want to make the most of a year that helps to pay them back, and to future-proof their budget from leaner years. That said, we’re already hearing of tanks full and barrels full, which is likely to mean that storage for full bottles will also run out. I think it would be reasonable to expect modest offers on wines already made to help clear out space for the new ones. Such offers will be online, at the cellar door, and no doubt some supermarkets will spot a good opportunity, too; remember that the first two of these options will benefit the winery most.
What about Visiting Vineyards?
There is more wine to sell and a spirit of optimism in the air – at least there will be once the exhausted harvesters and winemakers have had a chance to recover from their exertions! While some producers have good reasons not to open their doors, the number welcoming visitors is increasing all the time (our website lists over 200) and the quality of facilities is improving, too. This year alone, we’ve seen a huge opening from Hush Heath, a new winery and tasting room at Hidden Spring and we know of a good number more in plan. We’ll be out there visiting them and reporting back so you can find them easily and know what to expect when you get there.
Not sure which are your favourites? Download our App (FREE on Apple and Android) – when you get to vineyards, you’ll even be able to record your own tasting notes.
Seen the excitement of harvest on social media and want to be a part of it? Check out both the short courses and degree courses at Plumpton College. If you haven’t been involved before, volunteering is a great way to find out if it’s for you – while getting out in the fresh air and meeting new people as well!
Of course, join our mailing list if you haven’t already and follow us on social media, too. We’re now on Instagram as well as Facebook and Twitter.
With record harvests predicted this year and at least 80 UK vineyards welcoming volunteer help, isn’t it time you got involved? If you’ve never done it before, you might be a bit hesitant, so here’s our guide to helping you find the best experience and enjoying your day.
Hold on a Minute, can’t Machines do that Job?
Well actually, no. Grapes for English Sparkling Wine are always picked by hand and even where it would be fine for the wines to have machine picked grapes, the size of most English vineyards wouldn’t justify it. In fact, we’re only aware of two harvesting machines in the UK, one at Denbies and one at Buzzard Valley.
But Surely there’s Someone more Qualified than Me?
It’s true that many of the top vineyards will use professional pickers, largely from Eastern Europe, but with a few (and gradually increasing number) from the UK. It’s also true that these pickers will know how to deal with all sorts of different conditions of grapes. However in one field on one day, there will either be what we call “clean” grapes, or a small amount with a particular type of mildew, perhaps. You can easily be briefed on on the things you need to know about for that particular grape variety on that particular day.
The main advantage professional pickers have over the rest of us is speed and the fact that they will turn up and work hard regardless of the conditions – more on both of those later!
I’ve Never Done It Before, What’s a Good Way to Start?
Picking grapes is a serious business and obviously a major contribution to the producer’s income for that year. If you’ve an inclination to try, but don’t feel up to giving it a full day, why not try out a harvest experience?
Several vineyards offer these experience days – you have to pay to go along, but you get the chance to learn a little about how it all works and pick a crate or two, then you enjoy a hearty lunch and maybe a taste of delicious fresh juice from the very grapes you have picked.
One of those on offer this year is at Bluebell Vineyard. It’s £45 for a great day out and is on Sunday 7th October this year. Why not go along and try it out?
How Does it Actually Work?
Normally you will be given “snips”, a particular kind of light secateurs, although some of the smaller vineyards may ask you to bring your own if you have them. Some also offer gloves – I quite like latex gloves to avoid getting covered in ripe sticky grape juice and they can also help avoid blisters, but you are unlikely to be working hard enough on your first day for that to be an issue.
You will normally pick directly into your own bucket, which you will empty periodically into crates which have been left spaced up the rows of vines. These crates will then be collected by people who just focus on that task, leaving you to focus on the picking.
Most vineyards will get you picking the same row on the opposite side as someone else – this may be a friend you’ve come with or a complete stranger. Either way, you soon develop a camaraderie, pointing out bunches that are easier for your partner to pick and, on volunteer days at least, there’s usually time for a nice chat too.
Just turn up (on time, please!) for your briefing, a cup of coffee and maybe even a bacon sandwich if you’re lucky. Then get your snips and head out to the row instructed.
What About a Day Out for The Family?
Grape harvest can be an excellent day out for the family and a good number of vineyards offer a “friends and family day” where you can join in on that basis. Pebblebed near Exeter, Greyfriars near Guildford and Beacon Down north of Eastbourne are just a few perfect examples.
How Do I Learn to Harvest Properly?
If you’re at least averagely fit and healthy, you’ll be fine going somewhere that takes their volunteer harvest days in a more business-like manner.
I would definitely recommend Albury Vineyard where Vineyard Manager Alex Valsecchi (she’s the one in the middle of the front row on the picture above) will have everyone working in a disciplined manner. She has 4 people working a row – one pair at the bottom, the next pair starting a post up. You then stay in your pair and periodically leap-frog the other pair. I’m convinced that this variety of movement is better for your posture and helps keep you going, ensuring that the grapes are all brought in.
Chafor Vineyard welcome volunteers, too. I have picked for them a couple of times, one memorable occasion involving completing picking by the light of head torch, but that’s a story for another day. Dropmore Vineyard are very friendly and offer a delicious lunch, too.
How Many Grapes Should I be Picking?
As a volunteer, no-one is going to be counting how many grapes you pick. The best we’ve heard for professionals is from Giffords Hall in Suffolk, who say that their guys can pick a tonne a day each and owner Linda claims to be able to keep up with them! That’s about 65 of the crates that are normally used to collect grapes from your bucket.
Squerryes kindly (!) sent me out with their Hungarian pickers and I reckon I kept up for an hour, which I was rather proud of. That’s after a couple of harvest days a year for a several years, so you definitely do get better with practice!
Do I need to Bring Anything?
The main thing is to have good footwear, as always in a vineyard – that means practicality and comfort. I’m still looking for a great pair of boots from this country; meanwhile I love my Spanish Panama Jacks. Others will have Wellies (but be careful of getting cold feet in them, maybe up your sock quality!) or if you’re going to be in a vineyard a lot, maybe some Dubarry Country Boots (available for men or women). Definitely worth putting a good pair of boots on your birthday or Christmas list if you’re seriously getting into this lark.
Apart from that, just layers of clothing, with the top layer waterproof – this is the UK, after all! On the subject of rain, it’s not ideal to harvest in the rain, but if you’ve said you’ll go and the producer says the day is going to go ahead, I’m afraid you are honour bound to turn up.
Can I get paid for all this effort?
There are very few vineyards that pay local workers, because of the relatively low wages and need for commitment throughout rain or shine. Two that we are aware of are Rathfinny Estate in Sussex and Sharpham Estate in Devon; you’ll need to commit for at least a few days, if not the whole season, if you want to be paid.
What about Food?
Every vineyard I have picked at has provided a coffee and cake interlude (ideally brought out to the vineyard so you’re only away from picking for a short while) and then either a lunch break or a late lunch when you stop. Producers will know from previous experience how long it will take to get that day’s varieties in and will schedule accordingly.
One particularly memorable lunch was during a very cold & rainy pick at Danebury Vineyard (who don’t normally have visitors) – never has a fish & chip van been a more welcome sight.
Some producers also invite you to a harvest supper later in the year, or might offer you a bottle to take away on the day.
Come on then, what’s your Top Tip?
My best tip would be to make friends with a couple of vineyards in your area, You’ll probably be starting fairly early and you’ll certainly feel a few muscles at the end of the day, so a long journey isn’t ideal. Your starting point is taking a look at our list of vineyards looking for volunteers and then click the MAP VIEW link at the top to show them postioned around the country. Then pick a couple of local ones and join their mailing list and / or follow them on social media.
Once you get to know a few vineyards, you’ll find the one that best suits you and vice-versa. Note that some vineyards like Albury and Squerryes have membership schemes and harvest volunteers are drawn from their members; others like Oatley Vineyard and Danebury Vineyards have a small group who come back year after year and the fact that you can fit in is as important as anything else.
So go on then, what are you waiting for? We’d love to hear how you get on.
Not quite as visually exciting as a big bunch of lilies or tulips, perhaps, but the flowers on the grapevines of England & Wales are safely out and basking in the sunshine. The pleasure among growers (or was that just relief?) is also at least as high as the recipient of a big bunch of conventional blooms.
That Sounds Early
But hold on, I hear you say, I’ve learned that flowering happens at the same time as Wimbledon and it’s still the World Cup. You’re absolutely right, the talk this year is of flowering 2 weeks early. Stephen Skelton, expert in local wines recently said “With fantastic flowering weather & vines two weeks early, the outlook for harvest 2018 is very good.”
So Why is it so Good?
There are two aspects to this positivity, successful flowering and it being early.
Successful flowering is all about the weather being dry. You can imagine what happens to a tiny pollen grain in torrential rain – it would simply be washed off the vine. Although vines are self-pollinating, the pollen still needs to be transferred to the right place (via wind or insects) in order for the vine to go onto the next stage and produce grapes. So we have potential now for a good crop; going back to Stephen Skelton again “If the UK crops at 35 hectolitres per hectare (’06 was 33.5) then we are looking at 8.5 million 75 cl bottles off the 1,800-ha cropping. It might even be higher and 9.5 m bottles is not impossible.”
The fact that flowering (and therefore pollination) has occurred early means that there is also a potentially longer season for grapes to ripen.
Is it Equally Good for Still & Sparkling Wines?
One of the reasons this country, with its marginal wine-growing climate, is so good for producing sparkling wines is that sparkling wines don’t need grapes to be so ripe, as high acidity is good for the base wines that go into fizz. So as long as we have good flowering (tick!) and the weather is reasonable for the rest of the summer (fingers crossed!) we’re sorted.
For still wines, however, the harvest is timed on a careful balance of reducing acidity to increasing sugar. This isn’t an infinite scale however, as harvest has to be called before the temperatures drop and the risk of mildew rises. If we have early flowering, early pollination and earlier fruit set, but harvest dates stay around the same, the grapes would have more time to ripen.
If we assume that the cycle is currently 2 weeks early, but harvest stays about the same as usual, that would give the possibility of 2 more weeks for the grapes to ripen. For some grapes destined for still wines, that would give a greater crop, for others that the grapes could be picked at a greater level of ripeness, giving deeper rounder flavours and higher alcohol.
Any Downside to a Big Crop?
If an individual vine fruits too heavily, then there is a risk of grapes not ripening, so some Vineyard Managers are already talking about “green harvest” or removal of some of the early grapes. So yet again, more hard work in the vineyard.
So What is Next?
The next key thing we’ll be looking out for is “fruit set” when the grapes start to form. We’ll talk about that some more in due course.
Well, as we always say, despite the forecasts of a huge harvest, “it’s only potential until the grapes are safely in the winery.” However, at the risk of things all going wrong later, right here, right now, I’m thinking it could be looking like a good year for red wine. You heard it here first!
Image of grape vine flowers from Laurel Vineyard in Yorkshire.
In the last few days, the social media channels have become full of pictures of tiny fluffy leaves unfurling on English vineyards – they call it budburst. It’s very pretty, but why does it matter?
Budburst as forecasting tool
Budburst is an important part of the annual cycle of the vines. Producers will have kept records of key dates, including budburst, over the preceding years and noting whether it’s earlier or later than previous years will help them to forecast critical dates, like flowering and harvest.
Last year, 2017, was one of the earliest budbursts that most people can remember, with “many vineyards, and especially those with early varieties, beyond the woolly-bud stage by the beginning of April.” so we can see that we are already later than that. Other factors will determine whether this is a good or a bad thing in due course.
Dangers that come with budburst
Over the winter, frosts have come and gone, causing no problem to the vines, which were previously “sleeping”. Once budburst has happened, though, the vines are very much at risk from frost.
Last year (2017), there was a lot of late frost, of a particularly damaging kind, This caused buds to be “burnt” and lost, which meant that they were unable to go on and produce flowers and thence grapes. Although what are known as secondary buds are produced, these will be fewer in number than the originals and since our marginal grape-growing climate means that it’s hard enough for grapes from first buds to get enough sunshine to ripen, even those secondaries that flower and produce grapes, will have a struggle to ripen.
So now is when “frostwatch” starts: weather forecasts will be studied and sensors in the vineyards will send text messages to wake people up and get them out to the vineyard if the temperature heads towards dangerous levels. The deadly days last year were 19th / 20th and 26th / 27th April. Right now the weather is unseasonably warm and for the sake of our future wine drinking, we have to hope that clement weather continues.
Budburst and vineyard visitors
For the vineyard visitor, budburst brings life and colour. Now is a lovely time to get out to your local vineyard, have a stroll around to put your tasting in context.
Lots of producers are releasing their new wines now, so you can be among the first to try them, too.
So What is Next?
As long as we get through the next little while without frost, the next big event is flowering which we will talk about another day.
As a rule of thumb, flowering is usually round about Wimbledon fortnight, although that was also early last year starting in the third week of June and pretty well finished by the time the tennis started in July.
Want to know more?
Ways of learning more about vine growing include reading – see Stephen Skelton’s harvest report from 2017 and Paul Olding’s book The Urban Vineyard is an excellent read too – the title belies both its relevance (what Paul learned from planting his small scale vineyard is surprisingly relevant to all vineyards) and its readability.