• Why ‘Hold your nerve’ is mantra for GB’s November harvest

    Sugar levels are down and acidity levels are up in Britain’s 2021 grape harvest, which is fine if you’re making sparkling wine but not such good news if you are making still wine like Chris Wilson. Wine scribe turned winemaker, Wilson runs Gutter&Stars, Cambridge’s first urban winery and his nerves are jangling as the still wine harvest is running four weeks later than 2020. Will the grapes ripen in time? Will rot set in? And how will this change the style of wines he will be making in 2021? More news from the front in our continuing series on how one wine writer has put his money where his mouth is and started making wine… in a windmill.

    Sugar levels are down and acidity levels are up in Britain’s 2021 grape harvest, which is fine if you’re making sparkling wine but not such good news if you are making still wine like Chris Wilson. Wine scribe turned winemaker, Wilson runs Gutter&Stars, Cambridge’s first urban winery and his nerves are jangling as the still wine harvest is running four weeks later than 2020. Will the grapes ripen in time? Will rot set in? And how will this change the style of wines he will be making in 2021? More news from the front in our continuing series on how one wine writer has put his money where his mouth is and started making wine… in a windmill.

    mm By October 21, 2021

    “Someone said that 2021 is a “sparkling winemakers’ vintage”, an astute call but I’m confident we’ll see some decent still wines too. The key may be to experiment stylistically and be quick-footed enough to shift expectations as the canvas reveals itself,” writes Wilson.

    I write my latest column from the sweet smelling Gutter & Stars winery where the tap tap of my laptop keyboard is accompanied by the click-clack of several active fermentations.

    This time of year in the windmill basement my every move is soundtracked by the air-locks atop each barrel and tank which move up and down every few seconds as carbon dioxide produced from the fermentation escapes, offering a staccato rhythm to work to as the transformation of juice to wine takes place.

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    It’s a very pleasing – not to mention reassuring – sound, especially given the growing season we’ve had in the UK. There have been days over the past few weeks when I thought the 2021 vintage would never get going, such has been the delay in ripening and picking this year – certainly compared to 2020 – but finally the hare is running and the harvest is afoot.

    In 2020 we picked the fruit for the first Gutter & Stars wine on 17th September, this year the same fruit (Bacchus) from the same vineyard (Missing Gate in Essex) was picked on 16th October. This demonstrates just how far behind we are, and it’s not a regional thing, across the country fruit is being harvested later than normal.

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    Fruit arrives at the Gutter&Stars windmill winery

    The early ripening varieties and much of the grapes for sparkling base wines are now safely click-clacking away in wineries across the UK, but for still wine-focussed producers like me a lot of fruit still remains in the vineyard. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for still wines is often harvested in mid-October (my Pinot and Chard were both in the cellar by now in 2020) but this year it looks like November – even mid-November – could be a real possibility.

    As we creep towards Halloween the disease pressure gets higher by the day and any gains made in ripeness can quickly be wiped away by losses in yield due to botrytis. It’s a stressful time of year for growers and winemakers who rely on this fruit. “Hold your nerve,” seems to be the mantra, but my nerves will be significantly less frayed when the rest of the harvest comes in and the joyous aromas of fermenting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay join the heady Bacchus smells I’m soaking up right now.

    Regardless of how much nerve is displayed over the coming weeks, and how long the fruit is left to hang, sugars across the board are lower this year and acidity higher, it’s a challenging palette to work with but that’s the nature of the game. Someone said that 2021 is a “sparkling winemakers’ vintage”, an astute call but I’m confident we’ll see some decent still wines too. The key may be to experiment stylistically and be quick-footed enough to shift expectations as the canvas reveals itself.

    For the first time I am experimenting with a skin-contact wine. This is currently on the go in the fermentation egg where 180KG of hand-destemmed Bacchus grapes are bubbling away with a daily punchdown. I expect to press it off the skins in a week or so and finish the fermentation in stainless steel.

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    Elsewhere in the winery there are four barrels of Bacchus for a follow-up to my inaugural wine ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and two barrels of a ‘vineyard blend’ from Yew Tree Vineyard in Oxfordshire. This refreshingly ripe fruit was the first to arrive and is halfway to dryness now and tasting very good already; it’s a near 50/50 blend of Ortega and Bacchus, which was co-pressed and is now co-fermenting in fourth-fill oak.

    To come over the next few weeks are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Missing Gate Vineyard in Essex’s Crouch Valley. Depending on quantities, ripeness and berry flavours the Pinot may become a rosé. The Chardonnay will get the same treatment as last year – barrel fermentation, MLF, barrel maturation – and I have a handful of newer French oak barrels to use for this which should add something extra.

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    The next release from the 2020 harvest is almost here. The ‘Daylight Upon Magic’ Chardonnay is set for release on Monday 15th November with pre-orders available from the Gutter & Stars website from 1st November. The name is taken from a phrase I heard Danny Baker use on the radio, which on closer inspection is a quote from English economist and essayist Walter Bagehot who used it to demonstrate the importance of preserving the ‘charm and mystery’ of the British monarchy.

    “We must not let in daylight upon magic,” he wrote. For me the line is wider-reaching than the context in which it was written, and chimes with the idea of perfection in imperfection, the beauty of the flawed, the concept that nothing is unblemished and more often than not beauty comes about because of the blemish.

    The golden-voiced Leonard Cohen put it best: “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

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