Tag Archives: Winemaking

A tale of Purley wine (part 2)

See A tale of Purley wine (part 1)

November 3rd was an important day in my wine calendar for it marked the start (and end) of the 2013 harvest of my grapes. After the perfect weather for flowering and fruit set back in July the grapes gradually swelled over the summer, enjoying the warm weather as much as we all did. My 2 large bunches and 5 rather smaller ones seemed pretty happy and other than the odd addition of fertiliser everything progressed nicely.

Young bunches of grapes…still a long way to go

As the long summer days turned a bit cooler my grapes finally softened and turned from bright green to a more dusky yellow/green. This indicates a stage called veraison when ripening occurs – and indicated that harvest wasn’t far away. Visions of the wine we could make loomed large – this wasn’t just going to be any Chardonnay but really rather top-notch Chardonnay. Chardonnay that would please my fellow monkeys.

Nearing ripeness

But I had forgotten the key facet of a winegrower’s year – its not over until its over. As great as the grapes may look on the vine all it takes is the weather to turn to change the whole course of a vintage. A winegrower’s eyes should be as much on the skies as on the vines.

Rain at and around vintage is the fear of winegrowers throughout the world. It can damage grapes in two ways – firstly by swelling the grapes and so diluting the flavours and potentially splitting the skins, and also by promoting the growth of both mildew and rot. Both of which can negatively affect both yield and quality and add off-aromas into the wine.

So the cool weather and rain in the run up to our harvest wasn’t ideal and meant we had a bit of rot to contend with when we did pick the grapes. Luckily when processing such tiny quantities of grapes, hand destemming and sorting is not really an issue – so we were able to easily remove the rot-affected grapes, though it did impact on our yield. Here follows a photo journal of the first stage of our harvest from picking, destemming, pressing, cold settling and inoculation.

Harvest time
Our grapes
Some of the rot affected grapes
After destemming and sorting
Into some old tights for crushing and pressing
The juice begins to flow
After cold settling in the fridge – note the layer of gross lees at the bottom
Racking with some straws and gravity
Clear juice after racking

As you can see we didn’t exactly get much juice from our grapes. Not so much micro vinification as nano vinification. But that wasn’t going to stop me. First up was a touch of chaptalisation to increase the potential alcohol of the wine by literally adding some sugar. 17g/l of sugar is enough to increase alcohol by 1%. and as we estimated the amount of juice at a mere 108ml, 1.8g of sugar was deemed to be sufficient. A touch under half a teaspoon. Next up was inoculation. Gavin Monery, winemaker at the new urban winery London Cru, had helpfully announced on twitter a few days previously that he had some open packets of yeast looking for a good home. So, I swiftly snapped up some VL2 yeast which should be perfect for Chardonnay. However, it turns out yeast packs deal in addition amounts per hectolitre….not per 100ml, so a sprinkling seemed like the best amount. Perhaps not the most scientific addition ever, but hopefully it will be enough.

And then we were off! Ferment has begun…

I’ll report back once the wine has stopped fermenting. Looking forward to the first taste already.


A tale of Purley wine (Part 1)

On a visit to Denbies winery near Dorking a couple of years ago I bought a Chardonnay vine on the spur of the moment. For really, what is a wine monkey without a vine? (As a quick aside – if you ever happen to be near Dorking, Denbies is worth a visit – if only for the hilarious ‘wine train’ tour of the cellars. Anyone who has been will know what I mean. Denbies is also the largest vineyard in the UK and produces quite a range of different wines, including a rather nice rosé if memory serves as well as the obligatory bubbles). Anyway, said vine was really a stumpy little thing, not much of a looker, but was duly planted in the garden in a sunny, south-facing spot. Cue huge excitement the following spring when the first buds appeared and began to burst. However, visions of the delicious wine we could produce were shattered when said buds were nibbled off by a passing squirrel overnight. Thus ended the first vintage of Purley wine.

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

The first buds before the squirrel ate them


This spring the vine was carefully enrobed in chicken wire when the buds began to appear to prevent the hungry squirrels striking again. And happily the buds burst and quickly grew to form lots of lovely shoots and leaves. The last couple of months have seen the vine growing nicely. We did have one slight worry when the leaves turned yellow – but a quick look at my MW books suggested a nutrient deficiency (likely magnesium, but molybdenum and manganese were also possibilities) and happily a swift application of fertiliser helped to solve that problem. And that put paid to any thoughts of organic production. Then, just a few weeks ago, I spied the first inflorescence amongst the leaves. This is the part of the vine that forms the flowers – and then the grapes. It actually looks like the stem of a mini bunch of grapes. It was the first indication that we might get a crop of grapes this year.

Now all we needed was some good weather to trigger flowering. And – lo and behold – that’s exactly what we have. So I am very happy to report our vine is flowering nicely, and I hope to see the first tiny grapes appearing in the next few days or so. Now, for any of you who haven’t seen vine flowers before, they’re not the most beautiful in the world being both tiny and with a catch-it-and-its-gone smell. I actually got engaged recently and one of my friends suggested having a bouquet of vine flowers. Which sounded like a great plan until I showed her what a vine flower looks like. Plus, of course, I doubt any winemaker would be very impressed with me picking the vast number of vine flowers that would be needed to make a bouquet as it would mean that those vines would then produce no grapes.

Vine flowers

Vine flowers


The current weather we’re experiencing with warmth and little wind is perfect for flowering so fingers crossed we should get a good fruit set (essentially each flower to self-pollinate and form a grape berry). And now the fun begins…just what is the best way to make wine from 1 vine? This is something I am going to ponder over the next few weeks. Quite a lot needs to be considered – how best to decide the picking date (for I cannot pick too many grapes to taste or I shall have none left), how best to crush and press the fruit, what vessel to ferment in, whether to add yeast or not and also whether to add sulphur dioxide (and where to source some). And that’s not even considering whether to chaptalise or not (this is when you add sugar prior to ferment to increase alcohol in the wine – done routinely in cool climates around the world). So, any thoughts on how best to produce my Purley wine? All helpful comments gratefully received!

I shall keep you all updated with how the vine fares over the summer and autumn – and I am anticipating a harvest date towards the end of October. Then all things being well the monkeys may get to taste some Purley wine!


I left my heart in the mountains

This year’s holiday destination is slightly out of the ordinary.  The itinerary comprises surviving on 5 hours sleep a night, working from sunrise to well after sunset and being on your feet all day; regulated working hours and weekends off?  Forget it. I had chosen to work a harvest, but I had chosen the winery with care.  The remote and breathtakingly beautiful Cederberg Mountain conservation area is a vast and largely deserted place of stark red rock formations, 5000 year old San Bushman paintings and at 1100m high, South Africa’s highest altitude winery; Cederberg Private Wine Cellar.  This is my home, my job and my heart for three weeks.

My little cottage is nestled into the mountains which pulse red at sunrise and sunset, next to it runs a perfectly clear river, my neighbours are a troop of baboons and my house mate is a large spider that I have named Bert.  Up here, far from civilisation I feel free and able to breathe, it is an exhilarating and liberating feeling, especially with no mobile reception or internet access. I have a short drive to the cellar each morning through the vineyards just as the sun begins to rise bathing the vines in liquid gold.  By 6am I am hard at work.

Despite my lumbering ineptitude and continuous stream of questions the team at Cederberg have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes, always pausing to explain a technical detail for the umpteenth time.  The camaraderie, the intelligence, the dedication and the unadulterated passion with which they work makes this close knit team a rarity to behold and a pleasure to be a part of, all be it briefly.  I would love to go into detail about the research and experimentation they do with clones, rootstocks, aspect, soils, extraction techniques, yeasts, blending and barrels but it would never do justice to the combination of science and art that makes these wines so special.  Rather you will see a snapshot of harvest through the eyes of a rather clumsy, completely unqualified English girl who, for three magical weeks is part of that dream team.

 The alarm is unpardonably early each morning; I leave barely time to dress and have a swift coffee before I am high-tailing it to the cellar to make it there by 6am. The usual gloom of an early morning is swept away by the awesome vista and the excitement for the day ahead.  As each variety, sub plot and clone is vinified and fermented separately each day is a case of juggling 60 balls at a time, keeping track of which tank or barrel needs what attention. There is crushing, destemming, chemical analysis, settling, pressing, racking, yeast rehydration, inoculation, fermentation, pump overs and punch downs, more racking, barrel aging, malolactic fermentation and blendings to contend with.  This is happening continuously and simultaneously over a 3 month period as the different grapes are harvested at different times.  Wine I have swiftly discovered, is like having small, temperamental children; they need constant monitoring, they need their temperatures and sugars taken regularly, they need to be fed and for the reds, they need exercising to get a good breath of fresh air in the form pump overs every 4-6 hours day and night.  2am and you know where you can find the winemaker, in the cellar talking softly to the wines as he takes their vitals.  I know many less attentive parents.

My nails have never been long nor manicured (to the disappointment of my mother), however I have swiftly seen the futility of having anything but clipped nails.  Lacking a clipper of any sort I have had to resort to biting my nails off one by one.  Each day I have a new fear to face.  Cleaning out the pneumatic press is the first I was challenged with.  This involves climbing into a large, cylindrical metal coffin, your access point is a small hole hovering over a rotating blade (hopefully inactivated at this point) within which you must scoop out the grape skins before hosing it out.  Claustrophobia was the least of my worries – being pressed alive was a far more pressing concern (excuse the pun).  However I have now discovered that the inside of the press has  wonderful acoustics and I keep my mind occupied by blasting out a self-composed compilation of dodgy 80’s anthems.   Apparently the press is not sound proof.  When I emerge 20 mins later I am soaking wet with grape skins clinging to my hair, eyelashes and clothes but you can eat your dinner off the inside of the press.

Shovelling the skins out of the tank for pressing is another fear factor moment.  This requires shimmying up the tanks (which are not at ground level) and manoeuvring yourself through a tiny hole in the side of the tank (an even harder endeavour on the return journey when you are slippery with juice) and lowering yourself into yet another metal coffin slick with skins often reaching waist height.  These have to be shovelled out of a small hole at the base of the tank into the press.  This is hard physical graft, a great substitution for the gym I have decided.   Topping the barrels (to prevent oxidation and make up for the ‘angels share’ lost to evaporation) is another job requiring acrobatic skills.  The barrels are stacked 5 high and I again find myself clinging precariously to the side of a sheer wall of barrels as the stack keens alarmingly to one side, hauling myself up until I am to reach the elusive top layer.

At the heart of the gruelling hours, the physical frenzy, the need for absolute accuracy and scientific understanding, not to mention being able to anticipate what each individual wine needs before it knows itself are the dream team:  David, Tammy, Luzaan and Alex (despite much confusion this is boy Alex rather than ‘Tannie Groot Lay Gat’, my affectionate – I hope – nickname).  A group of incredibly talented yet humble people who fill the winery with laughter, banter, energy and song (ok the latter is mostly my contribution) even when the heat is on.  This has cemented my belief that in order to make good wine one must first have great grapes (something the Cederberg has in spades due to the complete lack of virus or downy mildew) but in order to make a great wine you must have great people working with those great grapes, again something Cederberg has in spades.  Taste the soon to be released Wild Ferment Barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and you will see exactly what I mean.

I am bruised, I am cut, my feet are swollen and I am exhausted yet I have never been so happy or so inspired.