Monday, 13 December 2010

New Cider Labels

What do you think?

Half Moon Cider ....as it comes

A while ago in an idle moment, ie before we planted a vineyard and idle moments became a thing of the past, it occured to me that the taste of apple juice is no less interesting than grape juice, in fact often it has more subtlety and character. From our semi in suburbia I thought about how great it would be if somebody got the chance with the right apples to make bottle fermented cider using sparkling wine techniques.
The coincidence that exactly the right mix of apples remain in our old orchard is gobsmacking. It is what made me think that living here was just meant to be. Bramleys for acidity, Golden Nobles, Morgans and Arthur Turners for sweetness and just enough old local Aller cider varietals that nobody seems to be able to identify for body.
We picked our first crop in 2008 using a wheelie bin to get them to the car - who would have thought that an old Mercedes estate could carry a third of a ton of apples.
There are long winded debates within the Cork Dorks of this world about the word Natural in relation to wine and other drinks. There are fervent ideological standpoints, squabbles between bloggers and I wonder when they find time to actually drink the stuff - maybe they don't. All I know is that the trees are left alone, it is fermented by whatever yeasts are in the air and we don't add any sulphur beyond cleaning out the bottles before filling.

This is an exciting time as we are just ready to start selling it. the first draft of the label is finished, Castle brewery in Taunton are going to sell it and we have interest from NewForest Cider who sell at Borough Market. It has taken two yers for it to mature properly, over time it's lost it's rough edges, it is light and has great fruit. Actually becoming more wine like!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Right Place Wrong Wine

We caught up with our friends Bernie and June that we rediscovered on facebook the other weekend who we hadn't seen for more than 20 years , well if you must move to Africa then it's hardly surprising that you lose touch. It was a red wine evening and they brought some Wolf Blass Shiraz and Cab Shiraz. I opened a bottle of Domaine Chevalier 1996 which if you bought it today would cost around 5 times as much money as the two Wolf wines put together.
On an evening of shared memories of 1980's London clubs, squats and music, the Aussie wines were just great - quite sweet, rich, lots of fun. The expensive Bordeaux, a bit underwhelming and somehow out of place.

I have drunk the Chevalier a few times and really enjoy it - it has everything that I like about great claret because it's light dry wine without too much alcohol and has a smell that goes beyond fruit into nice cedary overtones. There's just no way that you would necessarily want to glug it that's all. It makes me think of how almost all wine producing countries divide drinks into every day and special occasion - Vin de Soif and Vin de Garde in France. In Italy if a wine is serious they call it Vina Meditatzione. Thinking Wine.
Well, sometimes you just really want fabulous non thinking wine and that Friday was one of them.

When we all lived in a housing co operative (squat to the rest of you) in the 80's I was working in a fine wine shop and regularly used to bring home half full bottles left over from tastings at work. I was all for extracting every last taste from each glass. They just enjoyed them.

Monday, 15 November 2010

What will Aller Hill wine taste Like?

On Saturday we tasted our wine.
It's not difficult to describe the emotions that we were going through,  we were quite quiet in the car as we drove off the motorway. To be honest there was more trepidation than excitement.
Up until this point you really can't be absolutely certain what your land is going to produce. You know that in theory it is a great site and also that the grapes were ripe and balanced but every vineyard brings it's own distinctive charateristcs that come through in the wine. In Burgundy a Grand cru vineyard can be 200 yards away from a simple Villages plot that sells for a quarter of the price. Over the years (centuries) owners have been able to track in detail which site does best.
This was the time to see for the first time what, if anything, would stand out. We were tasting with Martin Fowke who has a better perspective than us as he has a hand in wines from 30-30 vineyards each year.

Making sparkling wine, most producers are aiming for very neutral base wines but the best, need a bit of  character if your wine is to stand out.
The verdict - first lots of qualifications, the wine has just stopped fermenting, it's slightly cloudy, it is still on its lees but....... it is good. Potentially it is very good.

There are three tanks. One is predominantly Chardonnay - ours has a fresh mineral gunflint edge to the aroma and is very clean to taste. The Pinot Blend is slightly rounder and richer with a very subtle fruit aroma. The still wine blend of all three varietals is softer again but still as dry and crisp as something like a good Chablis.

The thing that all three have in common is something that is hard to explain but wine makers describe it as structure. For example, there are wines from vineyards with the same varieties with the same levels of sugar and acidity that  are differently balanced to ours, perhaps not as elegant or having the potential to age so well. I have been cynical about "Terroir" how the land affects the wine but,  Martin is clear that our site is certainly contributing something beyond our own inputs.

So, we have something very good to work with - now it is down to us to make the right winemaking decisions so as not to mess it up! The first one is that we are going to buy a French barrel which isn't to give an oaky flavour but to allow a proportion of the wine to breathe and open up (controlled oxidation). Beyond this - there'll be no messin around!

Monday, 8 November 2010

What Happened Next - the Winery

If you saw Countryfile on the BBC two weeks ago they had a feature on English wine and filmed a vineyard owner delivering his grapes to Three Choirs Winery in Gloucestershire. Four weeks ago - that was me. Tasting the Juice, taking a hydrometer mesurement and generally trying to take it in despite more tired  than running the marathon.Three years work sitting in  9 plastic bins outside a winery in Gloucestershire on a cold wet Sunday morning. At least Martin the winemaker had the good grace to comment on how good the fruit  looked before carting them off on the forklift.





This is one of the Chardonnay bins being loaded into the crusher which also takes off the stems. Two days of nagging people to handle the grapes so that they don't get damaged undone in about 2 minutes and the result is -----





SPLURGE 1


Ahem - yes, the gentle moving of the precious juice using nothing but the force of gravity
that delicately transports the crushed grapes.

I should be in marketing.

No, get it into the press as soon as you can to get as little contact with oxygen as possible.






SPLURGE 2



This is the press just befor it's closed up and started. It works like a huge balloon that gently crushes the grapes as it inflates. The first portion goes off for the sparkling wine as it has to be very very lightly pressed and the last third will be used for still wine which needs a bit more body.  
This is where the wine is now - I know they aren't quite your gleaming new world winery stainless steel and look more like household hot water tanks but, they are actually double lined brewery tanks which are excellent at  keeping  variations in temperature down to a minimum.  -There are two tanks of sparkling blend, one predominantly Chardonnay, the other all Pinot. The tank for still wine is an equal blend of all three and we will be leaving it on it's lees after fermentation fo gain some extra complexity
If we have time we are going to call in to see how the wine is getting on at the end of this week which is going to be emotional. it's very easy to forget that it's there. It's very early to taste but we should be able to get some indication of how it's going to end up.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Aller Hill 2010 Vintage


8.00am October 2nd Aller Hill.


Times are very strange at Higher Plot Farm. For example, this Sunday we got up late, read the papers, went for a great walk in the countryside and then cooked a late Sunday lunch before consuming as much period drama and Antique roadshow as is possible for two people. It seems like an eternity ago that we were spending every waking moment and even a few sleeping moments, worrying about ripeness and disease in the vines, transport of grapes, would we have enough pickers and enough Lassagne to feed them with.
In the end - everybody that worked that day was brilliant if for no other reason but putting up with two overtired stressed out vineyard owners. Photos were taken by our friend Bernie Brough.


Beautifully Ripe Pinot Meunier.






Morning Frosts.




Obligatory Photo of ball obsessed Fred.

The result of all this labour  - 2500 or so litres of excellent quality white wine that is now taking a rest after first fermentation. Today, I'll be doing a final spray in the vineyard and then...it begins all over again. Winter pruning starts from the end of next week.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

FT Talks about English Sparkling Wine

Some interesting stuff about the business prospects for english Sparkling wine from vineyards 40 times our size. Still - it's a level playing field for quality!

Friday, 3 September 2010

First Harvest


The wonderful Indian summer means that the apples have galloped ahead and are falling - harvest number one starts tomorrow.
The trees are biannual and 08 seems like a long time ago. Then it was lots of nerves and stress, using a wheely bin to transport the apples, a third of a ton in the back of the car per trip, creaking suspension (the car that is). This year we have the tractor to shift the apples down the hill and a Land Rover and trailer to cart them off for crushing at the Orchard Pig cellars.
Can't wait to pick up the juice later next week - it will already be frothing away - wild yeasts = very wild fermentation. I think I'll bottle some quickly in Champagne bottles for a bit of fruity early low alcohol sparkle, it'll be interesting to see how far it goes.
Coincidently the man from Customs and Excise called round today - the first 7000 litres of cider are duty free, this was as farms used to pay their workers with it - god bless her majesty!
After the cider harvest, we'll use any remaining apples for Jam along with the damsons and blackberries. There are also hundreds of sloes and so there'll be sloe gin on the go after the first frost.
I'm sure there was something else to pick but it seems to have slipped my mind, something to do with vines....

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Aging People and Bottles


Had a great weekend with old friends from college, including a night lying on the ground in the vineyard in the pitch black looking out for the Plaeides ( meteors). We didn't see a huge number of shooting stars but there was lots of hooting with laughter and....
some brilliant wine.
CVNE Rioja Reserva 1995 - these wines seem almost indestructable. I got this when it was released and it seemed quite light, not a huge amount of tannin and you wouldn't think that 15 years later it would still be sweet, quite delicate but still with plenty of life.  It sort of breaks a few preconceptions that you think that only wines that start out tough and massive have the potential to improve.
We also had our very last bottle of  Beaucastel Chateauneuf 1996 which was not seen as being a particularly good year but I think that the drier less ripe years actually age better. The 1995 is sumptious and rich but for me, a bit soft. I think this just marks me out as a middle aged Englishman brought up on faulty unripe old french stuff. Too late to change now.
I also love the very cheapest wine that the Perrins of Beaucastel make - Vielle Ferme. £6.00 a bottle from Waitrose, organic (but doesn't say it on the label) and straighforwardly lovely.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Aller Hill on TV


This was us on ITV in spring 2009, new vines and lots of mud. 2010 no mud and a working vineyard.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Higher Plot Orchard


Apples have been grown and Cider made at Higher Plot for hundreds of years and there are still around 30 trees still standing which are at least 100 years old. The orchard is known as Half Moon. The one next door is called Full Moon because of the round shape of the hill. Over the next year we are going to start work on restoring it and planting new trees including some perry pears. The apples are old varietals including Golden Noble, Arthur Turner, Morgan Sweet and Bramleys.
 The Ton of apples that we crushed for the 2008 Bottle Fermented Cider.
This is a real contrast to the vineyard where control over clonal selection, soil management, spraying  and strict pruning is supposed to produce a regular (in terms of quality and quantity) crop. With the orchard, the trees are so entwined with their environment that they crop massively with no disease on a biannual basis with no intervention. This is a pure example of how  overtime biodynamic supporters see a natural balance establishing itself . I can really understand this but wonder how we could incorporate it into the vineyard over a number of years. The simple answer would have to be do nothing and see what happens! Maybe you lose everything for the first 2-3 years but then the balance would be acheived as the vines fought back.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Image versus Quality

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/29a2c3f0-532d-11df-813e-00144feab49a.html

Jancis Robinson is a wine writer that is fair and honest on most subjects and her thoughts on the quality of English wine seem about right to me - there is great potential, some people are making world class wines but not everybody is there yet. The link above was her view after a tasting which caused lots of feather ruffling in the English wine making community particularly because she wasn't very positive about still wines - she tells it as she sees it! She questions whether the quality is sufficent for the price and style. My view is that there is a niche for them just in the way that conumers happily pay £7-11.00 for Albarino, Gruner Veltlinger or even Picpoul which is now pretty fashionable in London restaurants despite being very very neutral. For me the varietal Bachus could hold the same place for England and Wales, interesting flavours which would be difficult to repicate in another country.

The point is, when people buy things like Champagne, quality is not actually the priority. Just as it is virtually impossible to tell one lager from another or one brand of cigarette from another, this is also true of Champagne. The famous names frequently buy finished bottles from cooperatives and stick their own labels on. Quality has to be up to a certain level but image is what counts. Having worked the West End of London as a Champagne rep in the 1990's , the brand managers really couldn't care if messages about dosage, malo lactic or reserve wines were getting out. It was  - who is drinking it, where are they drinking it and who can we tell?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

2009 Vintage of the Century

Yes - a third vintage of the century in ten years for Bordeaux wines.The others are 2000 and 2005. The press goes into overdrive, people buy the wine as futures - untasted, not even bottled. Prices go up with the top wines now at around €13000 a case.
Being old enough to remember years like1988,89 and 90 I wonder how they would have been treated nowadays - God Smiles on Bordeaux with trio of vintages of centennial splendour. You'd think that by now people would have owrked out that on average, Bordeaux has three great vintages per decade although this appears to be rising slightly with global warming.
Of all the places where wine is made they have really worked out how to attract interest and sales without having to have the tedious wait for the wine to be ready and the having your cash tied up for a couple of years. I'd love to do the same myself but not having made a single bottle it might be a but cheeky.

At the same price there is so much great wine in the world that you could buy and drink that day rather than waiting two years.
Still, I  bought two cases.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Non Alcoholics Anonymous

In England we are striving to acheive as much alcohol as possible from the grapes in our marginal climate and so it's ironic that I have just spent almost three years marketing lighter style wines which are dealcoholised down  as low as 5.5%. In places like California, South America and South Africa wines naturally come out at 15,16 or even 17% alcohol and in regular wines some of this is removed to make it palatable and this was just taking it to the next step.
When you ask people if they want less alcohol in wine they say no until you offer them something which tastes just like their usual brand and then, they start to think about how it would be good to have a glass at lunchtime and not fall asleep at their desk or maybe during a weekday evening when there's work looming in the morning.
And so, I think the time has come that I confess to myself and to my friends. Not all the time and I've got it under control but, - yes I am a non alcoholic. I do sometimes want to have the taste of beer but not the alcohol. I drink Becks Blue either on its own or mixed with regular beer to bring down the strength because I like the taste and I'm thirsty. I do it because I like it not because I have to and I'll accept the social stigma.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

1988 Priorat

Last night I was drinking a great bottle of Masia Barril 1988 Priorato with some friends who had come to stay. I must have bought it some time in the early 1990's from the Moreno shop in Paddington. Still completely fresh with lots of Garnacha character.  One of them lived there at the time and said that it was great until Robert Parker discovered the wines and then it all went downhill. I think that the reality is that a group of well funded producers made a concerted and orchestrated attempt to be "discovered" and recognised as makers of the most expensive wines in Spain. The likes of Clos Mogador and Alvarro Palacios are excellent in a modern style meets exceptional vine stock kind of way but ,you can't help but think that being the most expensive was the motivation and the marketing tool.
I've met Palacios and liked him (and his wines) a great deal and he always had a clear sight of what his message was going to be. He was completely un abashed even before release in saying that he was going to make some of the world's highest priced wines.
I look at our hectare of thriving vines and think about our plans for reserving still wines for future blends, barrel fermentation and lots of bottle aging and know that, however good the wine will be, - I'm no Alvarro Palacios.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Camel Valley Congratulations and Celebrations

Camel Valley have just won the trophy for best sparkling wine at the International Wine Challenge which is big news. I wonder if there'll now be a scramble on to find out where they got their grapes from? Their model is a sound one and is the same as most Champagne houses - grow some grapes yourself but then secure your supplies by buying in under longterm contracts. I wonder if a single grape from the valley made it into the wine?
I've never met the Lindos but can't help thinking that the wine business could do with as many people like them as possible - lots of promoting themselves and their brand which would be completely pointless without excellent wines to back them up. I hope that they are sitting in the sunshine enjoying their success but no doubt in reality they will be spraying, canopy managing and generally keeping a winery going.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Organics - Doing the right thing.

I sometimes wonder whether non interventionist organic agriculture is a ruse from the big oil companies to encourage consumption.
You can use one spray of one litre of glyphosate weed killer and go off and find something better to do or, you can invest in kilometres of plastic mulch, buy a gas weed burner and mow ten times a year using gallons of diesel pumping loads of Co2 into the atmosphere. It's the same with plant sprays - you can go through your vineyard burning up gas every day with compost teas and biodynamic treatments but one single spray of a chemical like CBZ will do the job.
How organic can we be when oil gets too expensive or runs out? The amount of work that you can acheive in spraying, mowing, trimming and general transport of heavy stuff with one small tractor is amazing and you really appreciate the back breaking toil that agricultural workers had to go through. Trust me, I've shovelled enough shit to know what it must have been like!
I rejoice that we have the choice in how we manage land but can't help feeling that taking the completely "natural" way is actually a luxury in that you have a lot of spare money to invest in labour and the risk that you can lose a whole years crop without going bust.
Rightly or wrongly we have taken a middle route where sometimes you just have to spray to avoid days if not weeks of work but, there is also huge biodiversity in the vineyard. Ladybirds are eating aphids, grasses are suppressing nettles in the rows, foxes are keeping the rabbits down and if you remove a single thing from the whole chain then you immediately get something else predominating. We have just put down bait for mice because they are killing some of the vines... now waiting to see what will have lost it's predator.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

When I'm 64

This picture is of what was once Pilton Manor Vineyard. It is now planted with an orchard so maybe it has reverted to its true self. The wine they made was truly excellent and there has been a lot of talk in the UK wine business about why so many of the vineyards planted in the 70's and 80's are no longer around. What with all the new plantings I suppose people are questioning whether they will last.The first thing to say is all credit to those pioneers who were really experimenting in a brave new world with varietals and trellising methods. The reality was that for many of them the vineyard was a retirement hobby and the produce only had to reach a basic quality level. They were also told that only obscure German varietals would work and that anything else was a waste of time. Funnily enough, I was also told this by a self proclaimed English Wine expert in the early 1990's.
Once they became too old quality often wasn't sufficiently good to make it worthwhile anybody else taking it over. Todays self proclaimed experts are really quite snooty about these people now that they feel they're part of a real proper wine region but, the old guard gained a  lot of satisfaction and made many of the mistakes that we now routinely avoid. Their wines were often searingly acid and packed with sulphur but, I bet some of these 15-20 years later are suprisingly good.
When we planted, we had the view that possibly our only measure of success would be in 20-30 years time would it still be here and would somebody want to buy it or take it over. You don't hear about Clos Vougeot or Stags Leap being grubbed up for lack of interest when somebody retires! Our aim is to make really full on no compromise great wine, well, you have to have a goal. It may not happen very often if at all, it may not be universally recognised and it most certainly won't make us a fortune but it will be viable.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Ice in the Veins

2009 is looking good so far with the vines catching up after a slow start from the cold winter. We are hearing that a lot of people were hit by frost which will set them back with a smaller crop. The sap in new buds feezes and it kills them. Secondary buds will grow but they are never as good. This has affected good as well as bad sites and it reminds you that some years you may just have to accept that the climate is against you and you aren't going to get a crop despite all your work. Luckily here we never went below 2 degrees but mentally some years you have to be prepared to lose everything.The next step for us is getting our antiquated sprayer running. You have to complete training courses to use it which sounds a bit nanny state until the practicalities set in of getting the right dose for 3200 vines and not killing your self overturning a third of a ton of liquid in a tank on the back of a tractor.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Where should you plant your vineyard?

For many people, the reasons for planting in a particular spot are
- it comes with a nice house,
- close to good schools
- a decent pub just down the road.
Other reason - it's in a tourist area and you'll make as much money selling souvenirs in the shop as you do from the vineyard.
But, if you are looking to make world beating ultra fine wine then site selection is imperative, if you are only looking for something that is going to give a consistent crop then you have more choice.
Despite climate change, our charming climate is still marginal for grape growing . For those deniers I would look at the way peoples harvests have crept forward from as late as November to as early as 1st October in the last 20 years.  If you are going for the highest possible quality I would say you have to have all of the following -
Top tips for site selection -
South Facing
Well Drained
Low Altitude
Right Soil

If you don't have all four then you'll always struggle - maybe great ripeness if only you hadn't been hit by frost or lots of vigour but no grapes - there's no prizes for growing leaves unless you're thinking of starting a Dolmades business.

and... beware of consultants who want you to plant and would tell you that you have a great site on the top of a scrap heap, if they can get years of fees trying to cure the problems. There are large plantings out there with three to four year old vines that have grown less than a metre high who employed very expensive advice!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Sitting down at the end of the day with a glass of your own wine overlooking your vineyard

Yup - that's one of the most frequent motivations you hear along with "livin the dream". Fine, a great ambition but, are you really sure that's enough -  can you answer these questions -
- Do you like being outside year round in all weathers?
- Are you happy repeating the a task 2000 times?
- Can you stand repeating the same task 2000 times because you got it wrong the first time?
- Are you prepared to work all year for nothing if frost hits your crop?
- How are your back/shoulders/wrists and joints in general?

For me -
- By being outside all year round you see things that you would never otherwise see, changing seasons, animals and birds that come to treat you as part of the landscape.
- Doing a simple task that requires a little thought each time can lull you into a zen like state and you find your mind wandering in the same way that it can when you do along walk.
- A frost or hail storm is part of the risk of planting in a marginal climate and you should draw on your zen like calm developed whilst pruning to overcome the pain.
- Getting that task wrong, no there's no diguising that, it's tough
- As for the physical demands, there is the use it or lose it school. There are instances of rsi but for each of these there are people in their seventies and eighties bounding up rows of vines secateurs in hand fit as a fiddle.

If you do want to do it then plant very little, half an acre could give you 500 bottles in a very good year and even this will require year round attention so that you don't lose a crop to mildew or botrytis. Maybe rent a few vines? It is easy to get absorbed in growing grapes and it can be rewarding but on a larger scale it can be hard work as there's only so much you can mechanise!

So, why should you plant a vineyard? To make money? This continues to be the subject of deabte which, considering people have been doing this with varying amounts of seriousness for around 40 years yyou'd think that the answer would be obvious. I will come back to this when the mood takes me but for now, I think that you should be able to make some sort of living with a hectare or more if the site is right but, the old wine trade adage always comes back to haunt me - if you want to make a small fortune then start with a large one!

What they don't teach you at Plumpton

More and more people are thinking about planting vines in the UK and there are plenty of people who will take your money and give you advice on planting the right types of vine and how they should be sprayed but, I'm not sure that it's easy to find out about what it's actually like doing it day to day, how do you start, how much or little work is needed and what sort of results can you expect and most importantly, will you enjoy it?

We planted a hectare of Chardonnay Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in 2007 and are expecting our first harvest this year although we have been thinking about how to do it on and off since the early 1990's.