Hambledon Vineyard, Thursday 9th October 2014
I was invited to Hambledon Vineyard, along with various other great and good people (including wine merchants, customers, shareholders), to “help” with their 2014 harvest. I use the word “help” loosely as between us we only managed to harvest the best part of a single row of vines and I am sure we were probably more of a hindrance than anything else. On the drive up to Hambledon Vineyard, the weather was ominous. Do you remember the Crowded House song Four Seasons in One Day? That just about sums it up – heavy rain showers, bright sunshine and localised flooding in the roads around Hambledon.
If one has been following the 2014 harvest in the UK, one might have read that there has been “near perfect” conditions and that some wine producers started harvesting their grapes two weeks earlier than usual. For example, the harvest at Camel Valley began on September 23rd and was finished by the 7th October, Nyetimber began harvesting on the 7th October. The harvest at Hambledon Vineyard started a little later, beginning on the 8th October, and they expect the harvest to take about 7 days.
As it was explained to me, the conditions were almost perfect throughout the growing season. 2014 started with good, spring weather no major frosts. There was an early bud burst, very good flowing conditions and good fruit set. The summer was good and was followed by a mild, warm and dry September. Therefore the yields are very high and at Hambledon Vineyard they expect the harvest to be as good as the very abundant 2010 crop, with less than 1% rot.
As mentioned above, there was some pretty heavy rain storms around at the beginning of October, and indeed there were on the 9th, when I was in the vineyards. However, the chalk soils and sloping vineyards are very free-draining and I was surprised by the lack of mud in the vineyard. If the soils are not well-drained, this can be a problem, especially so close to harvest as the vines can suck up all the water. On the 9th it was also a very windy day in the vineyard ensuring that the grapes dried very quickly after the rain storms and I am told that bringing wet grapes to the winery can dilute the wine.
Back to the harvest… after a quick cup of tea we were taken out in the vineyard to the row of vines we were to be harvesting, row 118, Chardonnay. We were kitted out with pruning shears, 20kg boxes and set to work. Between about 10 of us, we managed to finish one row of vines in a little over an hour. The 2014 crop seemed very healthy, most vines had a good amount of bunches on them and there was very little rot. Peeking over the vines into the adjacent rows the Pinot Meunier vines seemed to be well laden with many bunches of healthy grapes.
After grape picking we returned to the winery for some sandwiches and a glass or two of Hambledon Vineyard Classic Cuvee Brut and a chat with founder and managing director Ian Kellett, head winemaker Hervé Jestin and Didier Pierson, Champagne producer, wine-making consultant and co-owner of Meonhill Wines with Ian Kellett.
The next bit was something I was interested to see: the loading of the presses and crushing of the grapes. Funnily enough, I had not really seen this being done before as most visits that us wine merchants get invited to at wineries are not at harvest time as they are too busy. Hambledon Vineyard is the UK’s only gravity fed winery which basically means the juice and wine travels throughout the winery, over four floors, via gravity with no pumping. You can read more about this in my previous blog post.
The grapes had been harvested into 20kg boxes, loaded onto pallets and taken, via a lift, to the top floor of the winery where the presses are located. Ian Kellett gave us a quick demonstration on how to load the grapes into the press and two or three of us all had a go at emptying the grapes. It takes two people to do this and once you can get a bit of rhythm going it is quite satisfying. Apparently a similar press would be filled in about 3 minutes by some burly Frenchmen in Champagne (using 50kg boxes), I didn’t time it exactly, but it must have taken us about 15 to 20 minutes!
As the grapes are crushed the juice flows into the collecting bins (known as belons in French) which are located on the floor below. These are custom built and compartmentalised into 4 sections – two larger ones for the first and second Cuvées, and two smaller ones for “les tailles” (the “tails” or ends) of the pressing. This allows the winemaker far more control – the juice from different parts of the pressing can be treated differently. Contrary to popular belief, the free-run juice and the first part of the pressing is not necessarily the best juice. Head wine-maker Hervé Jestin constantly tastes the juice as it comes out of the press to decide when to switch the juice going into the small container for “les tailles” over to the large container for the main pressing, “the cuvée.” Watching Jervé, there seemed to be a very definite switch from “les tailles” to the main cuvée, something that he has learnt from years of making Champagne. He was ably assisted in all this by Hambledon Vineyard winemaker Antoine Arnault.
At this stage I tried some of the juice and it was certainly very sweet and grapey but it also had a good bit of acidity on the finish. Unfortunately, at this stage we had to leave, and the grapes were still being pressed when we left. Read more about the next step in process from a previous visit.
Thank you to Ian Kellett and all the kind people at Hambledon Vineyard for an very enjoyable and informative day. I urge you to take the time to visit the winery or to attend one of their winemaker masterclass evenings.