Wine journalist – and regular Buyer writer – Chris Wilson has added another string to his bow as he launches his own urban winery in the heart of Cambridge this autumn called Gutter & Stars. In the third instalment of his column for The Buyer the Pinot Noir and Bacchus have arrived at the windmill-based winery, Chris puts his DIY cellar tools to the test and the stereo is turned up to 11.
“I’ve been following other English and Welsh winery’s harvests on social media and am fascinated to see the different approaches they take, not only in their approaches to grape processing and techniques but also in the non-wine stuff that goes on,” writes Wilson.
It’s been a busy month for Gutter & Stars, and a month is a long time during harvest. The day my last column was published (17th September) the first grapes of the season were picked and were making their way to the winery. Yesterday (19th October) the final grapes of the 2020 vintage were gently bucketed into the last remaining empty tank to begin fermentation.
In a little over four weeks my winery Gutter & Stars has slowly filled up, with juice, grapes and fantastic smells. Before harvest the predominant winery aromas were Danish oil, sawdust and coffee, and now it’s fermenting juice, oak barrels and a variety of cleaning chemicals. Add a splash of blood, sweat and tears to the mix too.
The Bacchus which was picked back in September was fermented in fourth-use American oak and finished fermentation in around two weeks. Since then it’s been recovering from the vigours of fermentation; half in a topped up barrel and the rest in stainless steel. It smells wonderful but must now be left alone without too much meddling (something I struggle with at times).
Also on the barrel rack are four casks of Chardonnay – again fourth use, but this time two French oak and two American oak, all ex-Burgundy (Pouilly-Fuissé to be precise). This is some of the sweetest juice I’ve tasted in a long time – probably since my time in Napa in 2012 – and tipped the scales at 100 oechsle, with a pH of 3.16 and TA of 7.8.
A winemaker friend down in Essex (very close to where this fruit was grown in fact) half joked that with those numbers he’s expecting me to make a “Shaw & Smith M3”. No pressure then.
The quality and ripeness of this year’s fruit has exceeded all expectations. The Crouch Valley in Essex is quickly getting a reputation as the ‘Costa del Crouch’, a real hotspot that’s home to some of the best sites in the UK for growing ripe, disease-free grapes specifically for still wines. Hats off to the vineyard manager and viticulture consultant at Missing Gate Vineyard who grew the magnificent fruit I’m using for my wines.
Alongside the whites I have three red ferments underway; two in open-topped picking bins and one in a 250-litre egg, all Pinot Noir. They are all bubbling away nicely and smelling wonderful; the Pinot was ripe (not quite three digits, but ideal for still red wine) and had a pH which should make malolactic fermentation straightforward. As ever though… fingers crossed.
The fruit was hand-destemmed using a wire grid, five eager friends, a banging soundtrack (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Television, Talking Heads etc.) and a selection of pale ales. It took an entire evening but was a fun way to show some mates the winery and ‘share the experience’ – at a social distance of course.
The highlight of the day at the moment is punching down the Pinot to unleash an incredible redcurrant and raspberry aroma and reveal its red foamy underbelly. I made a bespoke punchdown tool for this process from an oak shelf and a broom handle and it’s surprisingly effective. It saved me about £80 too, and fits into the egg.
I’ve been following other English and Welsh wineries’ harvests on social media and am fascinated to see the different approaches they take, not only in their approaches to grape processing and techniques but also in the non-wine stuff that goes on.
I noticed a few posts featuring ‘harvest t-shirts’ issued to the vintage crews at various wineries, so thought I’d get in on the act too. A while ago I bought a simple black tee but on its first outing my wife said I looked like Ricky Gervais and it’s been hiding in the wardrobe ever since. Harvest has been the perfect time to get it out again as I’m generally covered in juice or dirt so it can happily get ruined. I never found time for a smart or pithy slogan though… maybe next year.
As well as cranking the music during the destemming session, there’s a constant soundtrack to my work in the winery which is the perfect opportunity to listen to some new music too. On top of BBC 6Music (the gateway drug to some of the best new music out there) I’ve been enjoying the new LPs from Idles (chippy and angry, yet soulful and lyrically sharp as a tack) and The Flaming Lips (moody, cinematic, ethereal). Whether the music played in the cellar affects the wine as some studies have found is a moot point, but it certainly affects me in a good way.
The plan over the coming weeks is to guide the Pinot and Chardonnay through their fermentations and malo, press the Pinot (I’m still on the lookout for a suitable basket press in the Cambridge area) and get it into barrel. Then it’s full steam ahead on wine names and label design, something I’ve been looking forward to. Don’t expect anything too traditional.
Meanwhile the website www.gutterandstars.co.uk is now live so please take a look. And ‘see you’ next month!