Thursday, 23 September 2010

It’s great to be back in Castillon, with the fever of vintage in the air.

They seem to come round quicker ever year, or maybe it’s just that people are still talking about last year and how great it was.

On that subject dad flew over for the weekend and together we racked the 09 Verniotte out of barrel and blended it all into a tank. The aromas of strawberry ice cream filled the cellar, I really have never smelt or seen a Castillon like this.

The wine is so dark purple in colour that if you spilt a bit on top of the barrels it stains it. You can’t get rid of it like usual, no matter how much sulphur I use it won’t budge. So my nice clean barrels I’ve had all year now look like they’ve been kept in a slaughter house.

But what might you ask does 2010 look like? Well one thing is for sure, there ain’t very much! Bad flowering in June has meant a very low crop this year and on top of that it has been extremely dry over the summer and so the berries are very small with little juice.

All this means that the fruit is extremely ripe and concentrated, sugar levels that I have never seen before. But no-one has picked because the acid is also high and everyone is also waiting for phenolic ripeness. Growers seem to be much better informed around here now as 5 years ago everyone would have started picking by now. Also there is rain predicted for Friday, and I think everyone is hoping some of it will get into the fruit to give a bit more juice, but we shall see!!

On Friday we are going to pick a very small amount of La Clariere, the young vines that have been really stressed in the heat and are very tired and want to be picked. But I don’t think the main picking will start until the middle of next week.

I reckon we will start Verniotte on Wednesday! The vines are healthy, if a little thirsty, but 2010 is looking superb and I can’t complain, except about volume, so I’m definitely a farmer now!


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

30 Years and counting

Today I am 30 years old, and I feel very happy. I’ve always looked forward to being older and wiser, maybe because I have always had a ‘baby face’ as Kaye puts it. I’m never really bothered about birthdays, but I guess when you reach a milestone like this you can’t help but reminisce.

My twenties have certainly been focused around wine and winemaking, learning and experiencing every year. When I started making wine properly for myself, at 22, I reckon I thought it was pretty easy, probably because I got lucky with some good vintages and had some excellent help. But as the years have progressed I have learnt that it is never plain sailing and problem solving is part and parcel of making anything.

Wine producers like to give the impression that everything is done perfectly and all is well all the time, but most of the time this is not true, but that’s what makes it so exciting. Making a good wine in difficult years gives a greater sense of achievement than making it in a perfect growing season (like Bordeaux 2009).

I tried my Wilson Gunn 2004 recently, and was truly amazed at how it tasted. When released it wasn’t the usual powerhouse, knock your head off wine like 2003, but it has aged much better, elegant and really classy. But the sad thing is that most people have probably drunk it already, and so can’t experience what I have. This is a constant conundrum in my head. The pressure to release young wines is great, because we need the money to make the following years wine. But even if we tell people to keep hold of it, they will probably drink it too early anyway, unless they have a massive cellar, which most people don’t.

Laithwaites are about to release my new 2008 Verniotte in the September catalogue. My first vintage from my new Castillon vineyards. I am very proud of it, but I know it will drink better in say 3 years. Not that it is not good now, but I know it will get better, because of my new found 30 yr old wiseness! But in 3 years it will be all gone, so if you do buy a case or 6 bottles (very nice packaging!) please, please save some bottles, you will not regret it, I promise!

Anyway enough of that, it is fast approaching vintage time in Bordeaux and I have to drive out tomorrow. I have finished tidying my UK vineyard (see Pic) and can now leave knowing they can finish out the season in a weed free manner. 2010 is shaping up to be another monster year, I think the Bordelaise are going to run out of words soon to describe vintages. But before we pick I have to rack the ‘great’ 2009 vintage, a chance to do the final blend and then tell you how it tastes.


Monday, 23 August 2010

A Damp End!

It’s Monday morning and we’ve probably received about half the month’s rainfall in one night. I didn’t hear it stop. So it seems like after the promising start to the summer, it will just fizzle out into autumn.

But I’m not that bothered really, as the young UK vines have had a lot to drink and after suffering from the lack of rainfall in June/July, they can’t have any complaints anymore, and have responded with some good growth.

We have seen some Potassium and Magnesium deficiency in some of the vines, even though we added this to the soil before we ploughed it. But because of the dry weather it has taken quite a while to be dispersed throughout the soil and consequently into the roots of the vines. Although it has been easy to treat with foliar sprays, so all is well.

The guys should finish the trellising this week. It has taken them much longer than they predicted, due to our dry, flinty, chalk soil. Which is great for vines, but not so easy to smash posts into!

It will soon be time to swap my attention over to Bordeaux, where the fruit is ripening well in the hot weather, and fingers crossed for a dry September so we can have yet another great wine in the cellar.

I’ll probably be heading out after my birthday on the 15th (will be 30!!!!!), and start getting ready for my favorite time of year, and am glad to say I will be joined by my younger brother Tom who is flying back from Oz just to help out!


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Time for Trellising

Today marks the start of our last big job of the season, installing the trellising system for the vineyard. This is the framework needed so we can train the vine into the right shape, helping to get the best out of each vine by maximizing sun exposure whilst also aiding mechanization. It’s going to take about 3 weeks to complete and for once, much to my satisfaction, we have other people to do this!

We have chosen to use metal post, which although are slightly more expensive, do last a good 25 years, which is re-assuring. And because of our hard, flinty ground, they're much easier to put in than wood.

As for the vines, well they have had a tough few months of it with the serious lack of rain, and pretty much stopped growing for a while. Thankfully the last couple of weeks we have seen some moisture and the tips have started growing again.

So far it is shaping up to be a good UK vintage for established vineyards, although not so great for the new plantings, but they should have it easier next year. It’s also been pretty hot out in Bordeaux as well, with people already bigging up the vintage. But there is still a long way to go, and as we have seen many times before, always comes down to the autumn!

We also enjoyed an English sparkling wine tasting on Sunday, after helping my mum and Cherry label their very first vintage of Wyfold - the sparkling produced from their own 1 hectare plot - made at Ridgeview in West Sussex.

We tasted all the top names from the industry, Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down etc. This was the first chance to taste all these wines together, along with Wyfold and Theale vineyard. I was amazed by the different styles of each wine, and it was quite clear that they were not Champagne, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. Such diversity was great to see, and made me wonder how ours would eventually turn out.

I was once told that sparkling is the ultimate expression of Terroir, mainly because they are all made in exactly the same way, so any differences are down to the vineyard site. In Champagne this is hidden as most are blends from many sites and often years, but this is not the case for many UK wines, which maybe a good thing and a point of difference.


Friday, 9 July 2010

A holiday and rain at last

After a pretty solid 3 months work to get our vineyard up to scratch, Kaye, Alfie and I have managed to get away for a week to relax, catch up on sleep and literally do nothing! Our destination is the truly wonderful Coniston in the Lake District, a place where no matter what the weather, we can truly unwind.

Of course it was also the place where we got married exactly 2 years ago. So we have spent some time reminiscing and realising we had done quite a bit in the two years since then! A year in the Bordeaux vineyards and then coming back and setting up in the UK. Sometimes things move so fast you never have the time to sit back and take it all in!

While the sun keeps shining down south, it is cool and rainy up here. Normally that would annoy me, but it’s actually a nice respite from the heat. It seems like it’s pretty hot out in Bordeaux as well at the moment, so everywhere except here. If only vines liked cold, wet weather this place would be perfect. So it made me laugh when I heard they might have to have a hosepipe ban around here next week!

Anyway back to the South on Sunday, and then straight into the vineyard to tie the now very long vines onto the stakes.


Thursday, 1 July 2010

Boys and Their Toys

I have just spent a solid 5 days on the tractor testing out the new vineyard equipment. I spent many hours mulling over what machines to buy to do the best job on our vineyard. I had already decided that I was going to inter-vine cultivate instead of using weed killer. This can be very dangerous with young vines as the wrong set-up can murder a lot of vines. This is the reason why I used thick wooden stakes instead of metal or bamboo, as these others would simply fall over and kill the vine.

My inter-vine cultivator of choice is the German brand Clemens, which I tested in Bordeaux last year and loved. I said I’d accept being spanked by their football team just as long as their machine worked, which they duly did……… but thankfully the cultivator worked a treat.

With all this sunshine the weeds really had taken control and the vines needed some breathing space. I have decided to leave a 1m strip of green cover between the rows to prevent erosion and help soil structure. So after using the cultivator and the mower, the vineyard is looking pretty smart these days! This should help them continue to grow up the post and make the most of what little water there seems to be at the moment. Overall I couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone so far (touching lots of wood!)


Monday, 14 June 2010

Stakes done!

It’s been about a month since my last entry, mainly because it has taken me exactly a month to knock in 20,000 wooden stakes. I knew it was going to be a tough first month but that was a marathon! Although I was lucky enough to be supported by family and friends who took time out during the week and over the weekends to come and help me out, always rewarded with a bbq at the end and some drinks!

Within this month the vines have taken off exceptionally well. Having hot spells interrupted with some rainfall really has given them the best start in the first month of their lives. We have now gone back to the beginning and are taking off all the shoots not needed, leaving a healthy, well positioned one that we will grow up the stake and eventually become the mature trunk.

We have the tractor arriving today, and the rest of the machinery in the next week or so that we will need to control the weeds which are starting to get a grip. Everything is still happening pretty fast and we have even received all the trellising material that will be erected in July to support the growing vines. Our aim is to do everything we possibly can to make sure we get a decent crop in 2012.

The field is really starting to look like a vineyard now and everyone who walks by is very interested in what we’re doing and wishes us the best. We have a long way to go but I am growing in confidence all the time that we can really make something special with this site.


Monday, 10 May 2010

Field into Vineyard

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon and we’ve just finished a very exciting week in our lives. The planting was delayed until Wednesday because of the rain last weekend, but our German friend Volka and his team turned up at 7am with their machine. A large military like Mercedes truck with the planting machine attached to the back.

He had a polish couple who’s job it was to sit on the machine and feed the vines into the claws, which grab the vines and then insert them into the ground. Inside his truck he has a GPS machine that latches on to Russian satellites accurately spacing out the rows to a standard error of 7mm. It all sounded pretty high tech, which sometimes worries me as the more complicated things are the more often they seem to go wrong.

We started with the Chardonnay which we had decided to put in the lower half of the field as there is more shelter from the wind and this variety is going to be the hardest to ripen so it needs any help we can give it. Volka then lines up his truck and then gently lowers his machine into the soil, where a blade digs in 40cm creating a space to insert the vines. At the bottom he stops, reverses back up the hill and them lines up the next row, pretty simple really. The vines go in at the perfect depth and straighter than if you did it by hand, truly wonderful. Sometimes when you see a machine that works so well you wonder how they must have coped back in the day when these machines didn’t exist!

By lunch we had planted 8000 Chardonnay vines, and much to our surprise there was quite a lot of space left! Kaye prepared a picnic and we sat down, all very relaxed and wondering when something was going to go wrong. Volka said one of his wheels had collapsed on the M20 coming from Dover, and held up the traffic for hours costing him a lot of money to fix.

We got cracking into the Pinot Noir after lunch which is going in the top half. Walking down the hill there is a noticeable change in the soil profile, with more flint and redder soil at the top moving to whiter chalkier soil in the middle with less flint and then finally arriving at the bottom where there is much more clay. I think this is going to give quite a variation in ripening and flavour profile which will add a nice complexity to the finished product ... I hope!

I had a arranged for a few press photographers to turn up and take photos of the machine at work and to hopefully try and spread the word about what we are trying to do. A lot of people already know it is going to be a vineyard as there is a footpath that runs along the field and people always ask what we are up to. But they then scratch their head when I tell them the we won’t be able to drink the finished product for another 6 years!

By 7pm we had planted 15000 vines with just the Pinot Meunier to finish on Thursday. A fine days work with not one problem. The next day they finished the job by 10am and were then off to the next job.

We now looked over our newly created vineyard and that’s when I knew the hard work was still to come. First up there is the small matter of hammering in 20,000 wooden stakes, a job that will take about a month!

Both myself and Kaye are very excited about what we have started, but are fully aware of how much time and effort it will take to turn these little lifeless twigs into world class sparkling wine.


P.S. An hour after Volka had left he had a tyre blow out on his way to Guildford!!?!?


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Ripping it Up!

This week was all about men and big machinery! It was ploughing week and conditions could not have been more perfect. The wonderful two-week spell of weather had made the soil bone dry, perfect for the first pass with the sub-soiler.

This contraption consists of 3 long legs with a flat angled arrow head at the bottom which goes about 60cm deep, straight into the chalk bedrock and then lifts the soil up, de-compacting and aerating. This will help the young vine roots spread quickly into the soil and establish better. This had obviously never been done before and consequently it took a 250 horse power tractor 2 days to get it done, using around 50 litres of diesel an hour!

We then had two passes of a standard plough, which broke up the turf and leveled it out to give a nice 10cm seedbed ready for planting on Tuesday. The weather doesn’t look great for the weekend and so there is a chance it might get pushed back. But fear not we will be taking a stupid number of photos and video to make sure we capture this moment!


P.S. Alfie and friends are really loving the field as I’m sure it’s starting to remind him of his life back in Castillon!


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Planting Day Approaching

Well I know the weather is partly responsible for causing absolute havoc with the planes, but I have to say it is doing wonders for our field. It is completely bone dry and perfect for ‘ripping up’ with the deep plough next week. We have finished the fencing which looks great and haven’t seen a cheeky rabbit or deer anywhere.

This week I took delivery of 26 pallets of 20,000 little wooden stakes which will support the vines in there infancy. The reason I choose wood when most go for metal rods is because I am using a very good inter-vine cultivator for weed control, instead of having to resort to weed killer. For this reason I need a solid stake to prevent the machine from damaging the young vines. Only problem is that I have to manually bang in 20,000 wooden stakes!

We have also been busy tree planting to help control the wind which seems to come form all directions. It is my one concern with this site so everything must be done to help, even though a bit of wind is good for disease control. Fertilizer has been added for potassium and magnesium and we are now looking to plant first week in May.

Whilst all this was going on I also had to make a very important trip over to Bordeaux to bottle our 2008 wines. Both La Clariere and Verniotte were bottled in beautiful sunshine, although I think bottling stresses me out more than vintage. It is a very important stage and if not done properly can seriously damage the longevity of the wine.

Apart from the labels arriving at the same time as the bottling machine everything went smoothly and I can say that 2008, as we always knew, is a great vintage. I know 2009 has now overshadowed everything, but the 2008’s have such a great expression of fruit for such a difficult year and it’s balance will keep it going for many a year to come.

Chateau La Clariere will be going out to the Confreres soon but my Chateau Verniotte and Aux Trois Freres will stay in bottle for a while longer, to be released before Xmas.


Monday, 15 March 2010

Our English adventure begins!

As I said in my last blog, whilst in Australia we signed for a 6 hectare plot near Marlow, where Kaye and I found ourselves after coming back from our year in France. It was a complete fluke I found this land, simply had a quick search on the internet and voila! Three weeks later we’ve signed and have put a deposit down for 20,000 baby vines. No turning back now!

It’s all happened so quickly, but I went up there today, the sun was shinning and I took this photo. I know it’s a picture of a field, but that’s all it is at the moment, a lot has to be done before we plant.

It’s a beautiful spot that overlooks the lovely river Thames below and the even more beautiful A404 to the left!! It ticks all the right boxes: south facing chalk slope, 50m above sea level and great exposure to both the east and west. Obviously there is a risk in growing in our climate, but many vineyards are now producing fantastic sparkling wine, and there’s no reason why ours should be any different. It’s a long term investment, and we won’t see the release of our first wine for maybe another 6 years, but I figure I’m still young and there is no time like the present.

We’re going to plant 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier, all with different clones and rootstocks, but all tailored to our chalky site. I hope to produce a vintage sparkling each year and then maybe a younger blanc de blanc and a house style that will be determined by how our vines perform and what we prefer to drink! But this could all change as the years go by.

First up we have to protect our site from the leaf-eating dear and rabbits! This will hopefully start next week and I can’t wait to get up there and smash some posts in!


Thursday, 4 March 2010

My annual Oz trip

As has been the norm for me over the last 7 years, I have just made my usual trip over to the sunnier side of the world. The main reason was to check over and prepare the latest edition of Wilson Gunn 2008 for bottling whilst also getting a chance to see the NEW RedHeads.

This part of the world (McLaren Vale) means a lot to me as it where I started my winemaking journey over 11 years ago. As a fresh faced 17 year old I got a job with Tatachilla winery as the lowest of the low-level cellar hands. It was bloody hard work but I learnt a lot from the then head winemaker Michael Fragos (now winemaker at Chapel Hill), and assistant winemaker and long time friend Adam Hooper, one of the original RedHeads members and maker of La Curio. Along the way I have made many more friends out there, many of which have come over to help me with my Bordeaux harvest.

Anyway since the early days things have moved on and everyone now seems to have their own shed! RedHeads is not now about one place, but about a collection of guys producing fantastic stuff in their own place, but still meeting up around an impromptu BBQ to talk shop and drink way too much beer into the early hours of the morning. It now brings more diversity into all the wines as you can taste the same parcel of fruit made in two different sheds, producing very different wines. It really is fascinating to see how the concept has evolved over the years and a lot of great photos were taken to show this, which I’m sure you’ll see in a mailing soon.

While I was there I had to finalise the blend for the Wilson Gunn 2008 Bellum Shiraz Cabernet. This was not easy as in 2008 we had a massive heatwave in the middle of vintage and everything that was picked after really suffered. So from my 28 barrels, I only managed to select 10 that were good enough, all picked pre-heatwave. But on the upside we have a cracking wine that shows classic deep purple concentration, smooth tannins and buckets of eucalyptus and spice flavours - it’s gunna be good!

Overall everyone seemed very excited about the 2010 harvest. After two hard years it looks to be a classic McLaren Vale vintage, concentrated and ripe!

Oh and I forgot to say, whilst I was away my wife Kaye signed on the dotted line for our piece of English terroir near Marlow, and then ordered 20,000 vines that will be ready for planting in May. Will tell more next time!


Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Last week I got the chance to make a small trip over to Champagne and start my education into this very different style of winemaking. I went to visit a good friend of mine Thierry Lesne, who was the head flying winemaker when I did a vintage in Valvigniere back when I was only 17. It was this vintage that caused me to fall in love with France and the whole winemaking world in general.

Thierry now lives in a place called Chateau Thierry believe it or not, but I’m assured he doesn’t own the town! It is right on the River Marne in Champagne country around 60km from Epernay. That seems like a long way but all the vineyard regions around here seem very spaced out, certainly not like Bordeaux.

Thierry has 7 hectares and grows fruit for Nicolas Feuillatte, a massive Champagne house in Epernay, who hold in stock around 70 million bottles!!! They organize base wine tastings for all the growers and then a 4 course meal at the cellar. I managed to wangle my way in and sat down with around 14 growers, tasting through 09 base wines, some reserve wines and then some blends. This was my first proper base wine tasting and we all had to give our tasting notes and our favorites. I always picked the most fragrant and aromatic, and Thierry went for the duller rounder wines.

I thought he was just getting old but apparently this is what it is all about. The more subdued the fruit, the more it means the aromas are ‘locked in’ to the wine and will be released with the secondary fermentation in bottle. This goes against most winemaking philosophy and something I had to get my head around.

I found it all fascinating and after chatting to the growers at lunch and after taking a few jokes about me trying to make wine in the UK, I really started to get enthusiastic about our prospects of sparkling production. It’s true they have massive amounts of history, tradition and knowledge which you’ve got to love, but there is something special about starting in a UK industry that is in it’s infancy. They couldn’t believe the fact that we can plant vines anywhere we want without EU permission!!!!

Anyway it was a fantastic trip and I think I’ll be going through the tunnel a few times to pick their brains!


Thursday, 4 February 2010

Sun starting to shine on UK project!

Well it looks like we’re finally getting some movement on our UK vineyard project. I won’t say where it is as I don’t want to jeopardise the purchase of the land, but it is a fantastic site that I found by accident on the internet and ticks all the boxes with regards to growing grapes in the UK; south facing, chalk bedrock, height above sea level and soil composition.

Time is short as we have to order the vines now, and can’t really commit until the land is officially ours. Kaye and I are spending a lot of time in making sure we get the best possible people to advise us and do the work properly. It is obviously a massive investment (5 hectares) and we need to make absolutely sure that we get it right, which means choosing the right rootstock and clones that are perfectly suited to our soil type.

A lot can still go very wrong very quickly, but we are pushing ahead as fast as possible and with some luck we will be ready to plant in May with around 20,000 little baby vines. Watch this space!


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Great to be back!

Yes it’s been a while since my last entry I know. But moving back to the UK just before xmas was no easy thing! But I have just made my first visit back to France since we came home. It was really great to be back, even though it was -6 degrees when I arrived.

The reason for the trip was to finish the job with regards to the 2009. Basically I had left the wine in tank to start it’s malolactic fermentation. This requires heat to raise the temp of the wine to around 25 degrees so the little bacteria can work in a nice environment. Some years it sails through others it is a pain in the buttocks! 2009 was a pain!

Because of the very hot season the bacteria find it harder to get going, even if we inoculate. So it’s taken until now to finish. But now this means time for 2008 and 2009 to house swap. 2008 comes out of barrel and 2009 goes in. We pump out the 2008 into tank minus the sediment, steam cleaning the barrels, sterilizing them, letting them dry and then refilling them with the various components of 2009. Any barrels older than 2007 are discarded and replaced with brand new French oak from my favourite cooperages.

Doing this to 60 barrels on my own takes quite some time, but I really enjoy it, tasting 2008 as it finishes its ageing and tucking up 2009 to begin it’s journey. I just stick Neil Young on the ipod (I’m a big fan!) and I’m in my own little world. Yes I’m not living here permanently anymore, but it just makes coming back that more special. I have planned to do a least one visit a month but have also put another offer in for 4 more hectares of vineyard, which if accepted could see me out here even more.

Fingers crossed!

The 2008 Verniotte is planned for bottling just after Easter, we are just putting the final touches to the new label. I really hope you like it when you see it!