Life on the vine

Life on the vine

My visit to Hedger Valley of Harpford to meet Richard Hedger in early April is a real treat.  The vineyard is bathed in warm sunlight and bud burst is beginning on the Rondo vines. 

With pruning complete everything is looking good for the season ahead.  We chat about the fascinating history of winemaking in this country.  Richard tells me, “around 45 AD, vines were brought over by the Romans along with the expertise to make wine, but as they retreated, many of the skills they had brought were lost.”

Moving on through the Dark Ages to 1066, William the Conqueror was a great lover of wine and vineyards began to spring up again, with every monastery having its own vineyard.  Sadly, Henry VIII was not just responsible for the ignoble gesture of chopping several of his wives heads off, he was also the instigator of the dissolution of the monasteries which lead to the loss of many of these vineyards, although Henry did in fact retain some for himself! 

Prior to WW1 there were still many vineyards, but following the war most were given over to agriculture. In 1918 a small number of vineyards were planted but of a lower quality and were, as Richard recounts with a smile, ‘lambasted by the French’.  WW2 placed pressure on the land again and this effectively ended the English wine industry for some time.

A couple of days later when I visit Pebblebed, temperatures have dropped and Alex Mills, vineyard manager, is nervous.  Temperatures in early spring warmed the ground so the sap in the vines has started to flow and bud burst is imminent.  In fact, the vines have started to come on early by about two weeks, leaving them vulnerable to a late air frost.  This is a grower’s nightmare.

But as Alex explains, there are things that can be done to mitigate against this.  

“You can do things to minimise any damage such as spraying water over the vines. You need to coat the vines in the night when you get the lowest temperatures. The fan on the sprayer disturbs the colder air close to the ground and the energy taken to freeze the water stops it from freezing the tissue of the buds.”   It may take all night to get round all the vines!

Sadly, by early May, Alex’s worst fears are being realised.  Many of the vines at the Cyst St George site have suffered some frost damage, and as we go to press another frost is forecast over the bank holiday weekend.  Alex is doing all he can to protect the vines. He comments ruefully “We thought the late frost of 2017 was a once in 20 years anomaly.  That was the first time we had ever been affected by frost.”  Fortunately for Richard Hedger over in Harpford, his vines have been unaffected, probably as a result of a slightly higher and less exposed position.

I ask what else has been happening since I was last at the vineyard?

“We have sorted out a lot of the blends, that’s always a nice job.  We taste all the tanks individually and create the overall blends… then replicate them on a larger scale.  We produce 5 wines so have 5 individual blends.”

So, are the blends for the sparkling and still wines similar?

“Grapes are harvested at different times as you want more acidity in sparkling, which are pressed according to the champagne method. It’s a more gentle pressing and these grapes have been picked a bit earlier.

“The blended wine will go through a couple of different processes.  We will move it from one tank to another after the sediment has fallen down to the bottom so it clarifies.  Some of the wines will have a light filtration as well, which takes out the bigger particles so the wine looks bright and clear in the glass for the customer.

“We age some of our red in barrels for 12 months, constantly topping it up as the wine evaporates.  We call this ‘the angels’ share.”

Do you think the personality of the grower influences a wine?

“Yes.  The wines we make here are a reflection of our philosophies, it’s a very personal thing… it’s partly down to the natural flavour of the grapes from this particular soil and… then how I make the wine and the blending also has an influence.  It’s an art and a science!”

The vines are not reliant on declining bee and insect populations as they self pollinate, helped by a gentle breeze.  Cross pollination also takes place as certain varieties are better pollinators, but crucially, regardless of what pollinates it, the fruit from, for example, a Rondo, will always be a Rondo.  New vines are cultivated only from cuttings and will be direct clones.

The vineyard will be busy over the summer with the team bottling wine from the vats, removing unwanted buds on the trunks by hand, training the shoots through the wires and later in the season removing leaves from around the grapes.  These climbers can put on a centimetre a day if the conditions are right and require trimming every two weeks, which diverts the vine from vegetative growth into the fruit.

On a final note, dare I raise the Brexit question?

Alex admits that fluctuating exchange rates are an issue as all the bottles and equipment used in the wine making process come from the continent, so as with many local businesses, the uncertainty is having an impact.

But for now there is wine to be bottled and vines to be tended.  The Pebblebed tours run from May to September and information can be found on their website.  I urge you to try their wines which are indeed delicious.

Susan Gebbie

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Editorial contribution from one of Devonshire magazine's guest writers. There are currently over 40 writers we are in contact with. If you have an interesting story/subject relating to anything Devon that you think our readers would be interested in, please contact Nigel Jones on 01395 513383