So, I’ve spent decades drinking it, swanning around wine regions, poking my nose into dozens of wineries on several continents. I’ve even got some vines growing in the garden, yet up until yesterday I’d never tried my hand at actually making wine.
Now, most interested wine addicts follow the route of a good many people I know, they go and help out a winemaker. Take all my mates who pop off down to Beaune to drink copious quantities of beer with Andrew and Emma Nielsen at harvest time. Some, if considered sober enough, are actually let loose in the vines and then, as a treat, allowed to sort, tread on and tip bunches of grapes into vats (trying not to fall in at the same time). Those who held back just a touch on The Kernel and those Trappists may even come away with more than just a rudimentary knowledge of winemaking, alongside their hangover.
I’ve often thought about helping Andrew, but an old man’s back, a growing inability to consume beer in quantity, and an increasing desire to be in bed by the time most young people start seriously enjoying themselves these days (remember “last orders”?), means I’ve never offered my services (despite the odd gentle prod). So when a friend got to the top of the Allotment waiting list and found his plot had vines, and he turned to me with a “you know about wine, Dave” look, I kind of knew we were in for some fun.
The first task was to try to identify the grapes. Twitter is full of experts who can all walk into a vineyard and distinguish Grenache from Syrah, or Cabernet from Merlot, so I thought a few pics of grapes and leaves and I’d be sorted. Not so easy. We never got a firm identification, though one or two suggested Seyval Blanc. Although that’s the educated guess I’d have chosen too, we can’t be sure.
The weather this year has been pretty mixed on England’s South Coast. Hot early in the summer, things kind of deteriorated through July and August, so we were not looking at mega-ripe raisins. That said, a couple of weeks of fine weather, barring a day of rain, meant healthy grapes (only a few insects and snails to worry about).
Picking went well with a crack(ed) team of four, and after three hours we’d filled seventeen bins. We weren’t treated a lunch of chicken chasseur washed down with a bottle or two of last year’s vintage lovingly made back at the cuverie though. We just had the pleasure of retiring to the shed to brew up coffee and down a couple of Vegemite rolls, plus the bar of dark hazelnut one of the team thoughtfully brought back from the nearby Waitrose.
So, by the beginning of the afternoon we had loaded up the tractors (er, hatchbacks) and set off for the Brighton Permaculture “winery” at Stanmer (winery is a total misnomer as these were the first grapes to reach a facility which normally presses apples for cider and apple juice, but as an experiment it will hopefully help open more possibilities for the people who run it).
The big advantage of the Permaculture facility, aside from plundering the knowledge of the extremely helpful and super nice guy, Stephan Gehrels (Eco Schools Project Manager, but also the man who makes the cider), was access to a press. A hydro press might not actually be a Bucher or a Willmes, but let’s face it, three bar of pressure wins over a bucket and a potato masher every time.
Making a cake!
Apple pressing was in full swing up at Stanmer, so we drew an enthusiastic audience, both the volunteers and public seeming fascinated that some grapes had arrived. The pressing bit was actually great fun, although running around cleaning and sterilizing buckets to catch the juice, placing the bunches in the press, and generally avoiding getting sprayed was almost as tiring as the picking. We finally obtained about 70-80 litres of juice from four pressings. The cake remained moist with even some unbroken berries, so I don’t think the extraction was too hard, just as well because we didn’t have a destemmer.
Ah, science, kids!
We had hoped to make the wine as naturally as possible, including the use of natural yeasts and no sulphur. Our first realisation was that we needed to chaptalise, oh English summer! The second was that we needed some yeast to get the fermentation going. We have three lots of pure juice with lees sediment and one into which we have dumped a load of grapes for a skin contact white. I was so tempted to find a small amphora at the garden centre, but I figured lining it with beeswax might best wait until next year.
We all need goals!
So now we have to wait. First to see whether it will ferment, then settle and clear (the juice did look brown after pressing but we know all about how that will clear, right?). I’m expecting at best a very acidic, low alcohol, beverage which I will hesitate to call wine (and the law might almost be on my side there) – but we shall have to see what the chaptalisation does. I swing from expecting a disaster to thinking that it can’t be hard, can it? I mean, a lot of what I seem to drink these days is natural wine made by winemakers who insist they just allow the wine to “make itself“.
One thing’s for sure, I have surprisingly got the bug. Now, I don’t have the sort of funds which will allow me to buy a wine estate, but I’m pretty keen to see whether Plumpton College have any short courses. Next year (I hope there is one) I plan to be much better prepared. For better or worse I’ll keep you all informed of how it goes. In the meantime, if anyone spots an old corking machine in a French vide grenier sale…
**Special thanks to Stephan, without whose help and volunteering to come on board, this project would not have got off the ground. Brighton Permaculture Trust is a charity working for greener lifestyles and sustainable development, including a lot of work in schools (which is part of what Stephan does). Follow the link and see what they do. They deserve our support.