2020 will long be remembered for COVID-19, but for me the overriding memory will be of the wonderful harvest that rounded off a long, warm and enjoyable summer.
Of course the weather had its moments, and hot off the heels of scorching 33˚C temperatures, we headed into a cold and wet August bank holiday that felt like Autumn may come early. Maybe a little too early!
Getting ready for harvest.
Before we can start thinking about harvest, I have to empty the tanks from last year's crop and give them a thorough clean.
By the 1st of September the Rondo and Regent grapes had reached 7.5% potential alcohol, and I knew harvest was around the corner. The wasps and birds always hit the Rondo quite hard, but we still managed to pick a decent amount of very clean and ripe fruit on 19th and 26th September.
It is always a lovely job picking these 200 vines, the weather is normally still in summer mode and it’s a relaxed and informal affair, made all the more pleasant with help from friends and family.
However, it is from now that my life becomes a lot more stressful, as I prepare for the main harvest of the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, and the weather changes as we head into October.
October didn’t disappoint when it came to stress levels. It was an early pick for most vineyards in the UK, and sourcing pickers was tricky. Furthermore, the rain came. Like a form of torture, wherever I was in the house I could hear the rain. Seemingly constant and unrelenting. I had not protected the vines with a spray since late August, and I was getting increasingly concerned for the grapes’ welfare. Excess rain can dilute the sugars and acids, and the berries can swell and split, introducing disease to a bunch that will destroy it in a matter of days. I continued to monitor the sugar levels but knew there was little I could do unless I chose to do a wet pick, something we have only ever had to do twice before.
Because of our size we can generally wait to pick until the optimal moment. If we were larger, we would have to pick some grapes before they were ready, some as they became ready and some when they have possibly passed their best. But we only need a small window of 3-4 days to bring in our harvest. This usually consists of a couple of days to pick the Pinots followed by the Chardonnays 7 to 10 days later.
However, this year everything was ripe at the same time, and earlier than ever before. With my eye on several weather apps and constant communication with my pickers over availability, I waited and stressed. Finally, the opportunity came, a window of 3 days when it stopped raining and pickers were available.
Our FAVOURITE harvest ever!
Due to Covid restrictions we had the same team of hired pickers every day. This meant they learnt my systems and 'special ways' and worked well as a team with little supervision. We had a small hiccup on the first morning when the tractor broke down, but a good friend popped over with a quad bike for me to borrow and the tractor was fixed by early afternoon. That said, the quad proved so useful (and fun) that we continued to use it instead of the tractor.
Harvest 2020 began on 9th October, one day earlier than our previous earliest pick in 2010. A beautiful, misty Sussex sunrise lifted my heart and picking was underway.
Pinot Meunier was first, and unfortunately my fears from May were confirmed that volumes in the Pinots would be down. That said, the quality was exemplary, and the sugars spot on at a perfect 80 Oe. The Chardonnays were starting to show signs of botrytis, so we concentrated on getting them in over the next day and a half. They also hit the magical 80 Oe.
Finally, we finished with the Pinot Noir from the far field and house field on the Sunday. Having the onsite winery meant the grapes went straight from vine to press, and we managed 2 presses a day without finishing much after sundown.
As well as the hired pickers we also had a small team of volunteers each day, made up of friends and neighbours. Social distancing was easy (hired help in one field, volunteers in another field!) and I bombed between the two on the borrowed quad, collecting crates of delicious grapes for the press. I can honestly say this was my favourite harvest so far.
The combination of weather, pickers and grape quality ensured I had a relatively relaxed 3 days and finished with a huge smile on my face that is yet to dissipate! Yes, the Pinots were slightly low in volume, but every press load returned juice at 80 Oe and we picked 7.5 tonnes in total.
As the juice sits happily in the winery, the yeast slowly turning the sugars into alcohol and the bubblers playing their tunes as the CO2 is released, I have time to reflect on a most unusual year. I do hope this awful pandemic is soon over, but for me it is the glorious summer and harvest to remember that is forefront of my mind. Stay safe and please support your local producers, we need your help more than ever to get through this difficult time.
Anthony, Zena and everyone at Team Tickerage!