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Harvesting time at Chapel Down winery

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My grapes are nearly ripe at home so I wondered what is involved with the harvesting of vines for making wine.

With the English wine industry growing at such a pace, where better to see how it’s done than to take a trip to Tenterden to meet up with Frazer Thompson, Chief Executive of Chapel Down Group to talk about this busy time of year for them.

The vineyard at Chapel Down
The vineyard at Chapel Down

After a growing season of around 120 days the harvest is usually the first week of September taking a week to 10 days.

They started picking four or five days earlier than most years this year and the fruit has been excellent.

There are four hurdles to overcome when growing grapes for wine making:

The first being avoiding the frost when the sap is beginning to rise, unfortunately the champagne region of France was devastated with frost this year. West Hampshire and the west of the UK also suffered.

The second hurdle can occur around Wimbledon fortnight, this is when flowering starts.

The vines are self-pollinating so need still calm weather, not heavy rain or high winds which can be normal in May and June.

This year they had one good week, the second week and the first week was a bit mixed. If the weather is bad at this time one of two things can happen, one is that you don’t get as much fruit as you originally thought, the second is an irregular fruit set, some small some large fruits.

The third hurdle is the summer; an English summer is generally a nice mix of sun and rain, which is ideal and this summer has proved to be just perfect.

Grapes start to swell and ripen, what you don’t want is temperatures to drop below 18 degrees C or they will stop, but this year has been good.

The fourth and final hurdle being the harvest itself, September, in a perfect world there would be no rain at all as if it rains when you start to harvest you can get botrytis, mould, you can spray against it but you have to know when to.

The grapes are picked by hand with secateurs into a bucket, which is then tipped into the machine; if it has been raining you get extra water as well which you don’t want.

Harvest in a good year takes four and half weeks in a bad year it can take five and half.

If the weather is good they may decide to wait a few extra days to allow another degree of sugar into fruit.

This is when an accurate two-week forecast is needed to calculate the risk of botrytis but also to managing labour with the usual 52 staff increasing to hundreds required to take on the task.

Chardonnay grapes
Chardonnay grapes

When planning the vineyard they had to consider the managing of the picking process to make sure different fruit could be picked at different times, a bit like planning our gardens we want flowering to spread through different months so planning is required.

They want different grapes ready at different times so they can manage the process to be able to systematically work through.

Bacchus had already been harvested when I visited with Pinot Noir being next and finally Chardonnay being one of the latest ripening.

To make sure the vines are getting the right nutrients they undertake a soil analysis. This is complex process and can’t be judged by looking at the leaves alone.

To achieve the consistent taste required the vines need to be fed the right amount of nutrients.

The next stage in the process once the grapes are picked they arrive between 7-8pm at night they then have 4 hours to process them in.

The grapes, including stalks, are tipped into the hopper, they continue down into the drum, which has grills on the floor, a bag on top of which is gradually inflated pressing the grapesvery slowly.

Crushing by their own weight, the first juice that comes out is the most valuable; in champagne they don’t use more than 50% of the waste.

Still wine is made with the remainder. They have three presses working which can take 20 tonnes of grapes, around 10 acres of fruit.

They have 100 acres of fruit to get through, so these machines although only used for five weeks a year are put through it in that time.

For red wine there is a different process. Red wine needs to stay in contact with the skin and no stalks are needed.

Placed in a tank, the skins float to top, they are then pumped around to stir them up which gives the flavour.

Care is taken at this stage, as there is a fine line skins causing bitterness, regular tasting and checking is needed to get it right. Keeping the taste the same is a key challenge, as when you buy your wine you want it to be the same great taste you love.

If you’d like to learn more about the winemaking process there are four guided tours a day of the vineyards and winery complete with tastings are available to book.

Frazer Thompson of Chapel Down
Frazer Thompson of Chapel Down

Vines in your garden:

Looking good, proving shade, good autumn colour and delicious fruit they tick all the boxes so if you’d like to try planting a vine at home try one of the following:

Vitis coignetiae for glorious colour turning purple, orange and yellow in autumn.

For good looks and good grapes go for ‘Regent’, ‘Brant’ and ‘Black Hamburg’ both ornamental and fruiting types. For the best all-rounder try ‘Lakemont’ or ‘Pinot Noir’. Buy bare-rooted plants while they are dormant.

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