OUR TASTEBLOG

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 3 – Flowering

img_1080As promised, here is a belated update from Sutton Ridge – this time following a visit on an idyllic midsummer’s evening (3rd July 2019).  Luke was advising a family hoping to plant a vineyard in the Cheddar area, chilled rosé in hand, from a vantage point on a high grassy bank overlooking the vineyard, Blagdon Lake and the Mendips.

img_1078Merely 10 weeks ago in late April the vineyard was neat and tidy with its first leaves of the season showing.  Now look at it!  After a long dry spell, June brought abundant rain and the vines have responded by throwing out shoots left right and centre.  Here is Flo doing her bit to bring order to the chaos.

Flowering is usually expected in Wimbledon fortnight, and despite the chilly wind and rain, flowering was happening, right on cue.

There were no pretty flowers to see, though.  Vines img_1132self pollinate, so there are no attractive blooms to lure in pollinating insects (except the roses planted as early warning signs of disease).  Neither is there much scent to speak of, although vineyards tend to have a honey-citrus perfume around flowering time.

So where are the “flowers”?  “Flowers” are simply the seed bearing part of a plant.  Vines are hermaphrodite, and so are self contained; they have just what they need to reproduce, no more, no less.  So they have male parts (the stamens) which bear pollen (20,000 grains per flower!), which wait for the flower caps to pop off adjacent flower clusters containing the ovary, or female part.  If it is warm enough, the clusters open, enabling the pollen to transfer to the ovary and pollinate the vine.   The stamens and pollen are only a few millimeters away from the flower clusters, so a gentle breeze is all that is needed for the pollen to transfer to the ovary.  Pollination can happen even in still conditions, but ideally some wind is good to blow off the caps and rub the stamens and clusters together.  Damp weather at this time is unhelpful as the caps tend to stick and the growth of the pollen is slowed down.  If the caps stick they can become embedded in the bunches of berries, increasing the risk of bunch rot in varieties with tightly packed bunches.

Grape growers want to see an early, quick and even flowering so that the crop is full, the harvest date can be predicted, and ripening is even.  Late, slow and patchy flowering has the opposite effect.  20-25°C is ideal so lots of flower caps come off and clusters open quickly.

Although warm sunny weather at flowering is important, the quality of flowers is also crucial, and this is determined by growing conditions during May-July in the preceding year.

img_1126After flowering, Luke loses no time in spraying against disease, aided by his neighbours at Aldwick Estate who have a tractor with air conditioned cabin for this purpose.  But there is no chance of getting a tractor along the rows at the moment without damaging the vines.  So the race is on to tuck in the unruly waving arms (see top photo – right has been done, left still unkempt) and at the same time thin out shoots and canes so sunlight and air can penetrate the canopy.  Care has to be taken, however, because when leaves reach 50-80% of the maximum size they help the vine build up sugars needed for the next year, so pulling off too many at this stage could jeopardise the health of the vine for the following harvest.  So management of the leaf canopy continues throughout the growth cycle since leaves at maximum size start to contribute decreasing amounts of sugars and can be more safely removed.

img_1081Already the variation in how tightly packed the bunches will be is evident.  The black skinned variety Regent (see photo) has relatively open, spaced out flowers, so the resulting grape bunches should be at less risk of mildew.

So what else has been happening?  The 2018 vintage has been released, and I have been sampling it and comparing it to the 2017.  Here are some notes about Bacchus (for Rosé wait until véraison blog!):

2017: Pale lemon green colour.  Very pronounced appealing nose of nectarine, apricot, freesia, freshly mown lawn and nettles. High acidity and tangy red gooseberry bite balanced by creamy weight and rounded mouthfeel.  I would have liked more length but this is a good, balanced and moreish wine.  I fancy cheese with this and suspect a tangy vintage cheddar would work well.

2018: Pale lemon green colour.  Pronounced, complex yet elegant nose of lemongrass, very ripe pear, red apples, pineapple, and strawberry with a steely note; an overlay of img_1049white flower perfume lifts the aroma profile.  Smells classy.  High acidity, very clean, pure and precise in the manner of a Riesling, with additional distinct white peach and nettle flavours, again with a tangy bite balanced by a creamy weight on the palate.  Long if delicate finish.  A very good wine that really sings.

Notes made before results of Wine GB announced – Bacchus 2018 won Silver!!.

Another Year at Aldwick Estate

img_1031It was my annual privilege recently to attend the Harvest Supper at Aldwick Estate in Somerset and to receive my hard earned wine “wages” for my toil in the vineyard last autumn – which followed a long hot summer, so great things are expected particularly from the red grapes, Regent and Pinot Noir.  These wines won’t be released yet but the whites and a rosé should be available very soon.

img_1032Sandy’s update on the past year was short and sweet, but suffice it to say that this ambitious estate goes from strength to strength.  A telling statistic is that production of grapes has risen from 8 tons in 2013 to a whopping 42 tons in 2018!  This was at least partly due to the exceptionally favourable 2018 vintage, which produced a bumper crop across our green and pleasant land.   It was so huge a crop that the winery didn’t have enough slots available to vinify it all.  Another reason is the increased number of pickers.  70 were involved in the 2018 vintage, and 60 were there for the supper.  Sandy’s sister Carol, a professional chef, is back from Spain and her tasty spreads are fast establishing a reputation for quality.

So here is this year’s line up:

Solaris 2018

A pale white wine made from 100% Solaris grapes.  A dry, tangy and  mouthwatering appetiser which comes into its own with food.  It has wet stone and mineral tones, and light citrus fruit flavours.  It reminded me of a quality Muscadet and would be a lovely match with shellfish, especially oysters.

Buteo 2018

A fresh fruity white wine made up of 1/3 Madeleine Angevine, 1/3 Bacchus and 1/3 Seyval Blanc grapes.  A perfect summer’s evening wine with aromas of cottage garden flowers, lemon, green apple, strawberry, gooseberry and grape with peachy notes added on the palate.  This is the quintessential “summer evening in an English country garden” wine.

Bacchus 2018

Aromatic white wine with intense floral and peachy aromas and a distinctive grapefruit twang.  To taste, it is dry, refreshing and yet creamy with notes of mandarin.  The finish is very long indeed!  Many of us were impressed.  Usually, Bacchus has more green fruit and vegetable flavours, so the stone fruit flavour profile suggested grapes somewhat riper than usual – no surprise given that 2018 was a very hot summer.    I think a salad with a fruity element would be a lovely match – Coronation chicken maybe?  With food or without, sip and savour to appreciate its quality finish.

Mary’s Rose 2018

img_1028After a chat with the delectable Mary herself, I tasted this year’s rosé.  Pale salmon in colour, this is delicate yet weighty and I thought there was a slight spritz.  There were restrained tangy redcurrant, loganberry and cranberry flavours on the nose, but this wine is all about the palate.  There was real depth of jammy strawberry flavour, with a creamy texture.  The finish was long, and evolved into notes of apricot.  It might not have oodles of complexity but the length, evolution and depth of flavour more than compensates.

Regent 2017

img_1030-1A pale ruby-red wine with a purple tinge.  An inviting intense nose of plum jam, tinned strawberries, cherries and spice with hints of rose hip and hedgerow fruit.  Velvet smooth on the palate with low tannins but enough alcohol to balance with the flavours. Although a light red, it is not thin and weedy like English reds tend to be.  It has enough depth and complexity to be satisfying, and a hint of Italian style sourness on the finish makes it an attractive food match – try lightly chilling it for optimal balance and crack open with charcuterie.  Be quick – I have just read that it got a Decanter World Wine Awards Bronze medal so it won’t be about for long!!!

A favourite?

Each wine has its own ideal situation so choosing is impossible – so I’ll go with the one I opened first when I got them home……and that was Mary’s Rose.

Somerset Wine Fair 7th June 2019 – Nyland Manor, Cheddar

Aldwick Estate (as well as Sutton Ridge and Oatley) are presenting their wines so if you want to taste them for yourselves why not come along.  Here is the link for more information:

“Summer” Somerset Wine Fair – Friday 7th June

 

World Wide Whisky

It was Whisky Night again at The Wine Shop in Winscombe last Friday, and after a couple of weeks’ duty as an exam invigilator I can tell you this tasting was just what I  needed to reinvigorate my senses.

Marlowe Harris, the whisky buyer for Amathus Drinks whisked us around the world to try twists on old favourites, ground breaking innovations and a couple of whisky based cocktails.

We kicked things off with Whiskey Thief, in which bourbon is reinvented using convection oven technology to bring out additional flavours from the oak barrels used for ageing, which are reflected in the whiskey – in this case mocha oak flavours.  Created by the owner of the Lexington bar in London, I felt it was lacking in balance on its own.  I enjoyed its notes of corn, caramel, prunes and nuts, but it was very hot, and had a bitter tinge.  However – it was a revelation in the Whiskey Ginger (i.e. with ginger ale and an orange slice).  There was a smouldering smokey embers finish which didn’t seem evident at all served neat.  Marlowe explained that very often the smokiness from the charring of the barrels, key to the bourbon style, comes to the fore in a cocktail.  Whiskey Thief is a sublime mixer and a snip at £25.99.

Next was Koval Organic Single Barrel Rye Whiskey from Chicago.  They set out to make a grain dominant whiskey, moving away from the oak dominant style of bourbon.  This was smooth, balanced and complex with a nose of straw, clove, cinnamon, rye, raisins, burnt orange and peanut brittle.  On the palate I also noted honeysuckle and coffee and a creamy mouthfeel.  Very good – £46.99 is a fair price for it.

img_1037Kings County Distillery’s Straight Bottled in Bond Bourbon (see photo) from New York City came about when a chap from a dry part of Kentucky began ageing his moonshine.  To be Bottled in Bond the whiskey has to be 50% abv, at least 4 years old and distilled in one season only, i.e. not blended.  It has gongs aplenty.  It is pale mahogany in colour and exudes powerful intense aromas of prunes, marzipan and brazil nuts with some floral hints.  Others would say cherries and chocolate.  I felt it needed a little water – but I added too much which rendered it soapy – oops!  It’s £33.99 for 200ml reflecting its individuality and intensity.

Spirit of Hven Hvenus Rye Whisky (see photo) is from a Swedish island where they grow the grain used for their whiskies.  It is the brainchild of a leading chemical analyst of spirits who set out to isolate why Swedish rye whiskies taste so distinctive.  This orange tinged tipple had a little sediment in it and was bracingly herbal in its flavour profile.  I smelt cherries, benedictine, menthol and mint – my nasal passages were well and truly decongested.  On tasting, it seemed like a dry Drambuie – in a good way.  Its 45.6% abv was balanced with its powerful flavours and silky texture, and with water it acquired chocolately creaminess.  A mouthful I could sink into – £48.99 for 500ml reflects its provenance and quality, and it comes in a funky conical shaped bottle.

The English Double Cask Bourbon & Oloroso is a limited batch release from the English Whisky Company in Norfolk.  2,943 bottles were made with a minimum age of 7 years.  The tiny output from this distillery can be put into context – Glenfiddich produces in 2 hours what they produce in one year!  They managed to procure input from Ian Henderson Master Distiller, formerly of Laphroaig and Ardbeg, when he retired.  Their aim is to make whisky according to Scotch rules, but in England.  The nose had what I would expect to find in Scotch – straw, burnt lemon, bread, and a wee hint of damp dog.  However, it’s the palate that really sets this dram apart.  There is a massive surge of flavour, and a long, evolving finish which includes such disparate flavours as strawberries, nuts, straw, smoke and herbs – but you could sip it over and again and find even more going on.  My classy glass of the night.  £52 for 700ml – not bad for a dram of this class.

We finished with a fancy Overaged Malt Whisky from Michel Couvreur of France, a wine trader making this unctuous extravagance using Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry barrels which still contained sherry.  Blended to achieve optimal balance, and gravity filtered to retain flavour, this was very promising on the nose with inviting toffee apple, tarte tatin, brazil nut and caramel aromas.  The rich and weighty palate had bite and smokey notes.  With water the sweeter tones of the nose were more prominent, so how much if any to add depends on how you prefer it.  This was a big hit with several of us, but they will need deep pockets since the price is as fancy as the dram at £81.99.

The martini glasses were out for a Manhattan to round off the night in style, made using Whiskey Thief, Berto Vermouth and Bitter Union Aromatic Bitters.

This tasting proved that these days, there is so much more to whisky than just Scotch.  Bold new flavours, textures and adjustments to balance are being created for every conceivable whisky savouring experience.  With the advent of new technologies, there is without doubt much more to come.

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 2 – Budburst

img_1005There is a quiver of excitement in vineyards the world over when the bare skeletons of pruned vines suddenly reawaken after their long winter rest.  Despite the many vineyard tasks and eternal vigilance which will now be needed to reap rewards at harvest, budburst (aka budbreak) represents the promise of the forthcoming vintage,  especially exciting this year in Somerset after the bumper quality crop in 2018.  Each bud contains everything the vine needs – new shoots, lush leaves, tendrils for clinging, and clusters which will bring forth flowers, and hopefully, lots of healthy grapes.

img_1014So you can imagine how it felt to gaze over the gate upon the Pinot Noir vines we pruned last month, now tied down and, quite literally, bursting into life.

Apart from a rogue bud here and there, budbreak didn’t get going properly until Easter Monday (21st April) or thereabouts.  It doesn’t all happen on one day of course, different varieties reacting to warming temperatures at different rates, but the “window” was around then, brought on by very warm weather over Easter preceded by a decidedly cool spell which had slowed things down. Luke thinks this is around about the usual time.  Compared to spring in our gardens which has been long established, vineyard spring seems surprisingly late.

img_1006The weather since my last visit had been largely dry until this week, so the canes were unusually brittle and some snapped off when tied down.  Other than than, as you can see, Luke seems pleased with progress so far.  He aims for buds about a fist length apart on the canes to give enough room for air to circulate in the canopy.  He also wants to see plenty of life from the “thumbs” we left for next year’s canes.

The most feared weather hazard from this point is frost.  Early budburst facilitates a long growing season allowing complex flavours to build up in the grapes, essential for quality wine.  However, it comes with greater frost risk.  In the UK, on balance, later budburst lessens the frost risk and we have such a long growing season that there is usually plenty of time for the grapes to develop.

Sutton Ridge’s position in the Yeo Valley, its south easterly aspect and its location in the relatively mild south west of England is such that the frost risk is less than many other UK sites.  Luke could lessen the risk further by taking anti-frost precautions if frost is forecast, but these are expensive so he takes his chances, aided by late pruning (see previous blog) which helps to push back budburst slightly later than elsewhere.

img_1001Other than site selection and late pruning, there isn’t much grape growers can do to control when budburst happens.  The process begins when the soil warms up to around 10°C which prompts the vine’s roots to send sap upwards through the trunk to the latent buds.  Pruning also prompts sap to rise, but only if the soil is warm enough.  Carbohydrate reserves (sugars and starch) stored in the roots, trunk and canes fuel the process.  Minute root hairs explore tiny fissures in the soil, extracting nutrients and moisture as they grow – some grow to become roots.  In colder wetter conditions these root hairs don’t develop so easily which delays budburst.  So even though we can’t see what happens beneath our feet, budburst is evidence that something must be going on!

Although climate change is having an impact on UK vineyards, as Stephen Skelton MW says in his “Viticulture” textbook, the main vineyard milestones of budburst, flowering, véraison and harvest are still occurring more or less at the same time each year.  There are annual variations of course, and Luke told me that last year flowering, expected in Wimbledon fortnight, happened ten days early.  Judging by this year’s weather to date, he does not expect early flowering this year.

Luke has already sprayed the vines against disease just before budburst, and he expects to spray the vines every fortnight or so from now on i.e. 8-10 times during the growing season because if mildew sets in it is hard to get rid of it.  The timing of the next spray depends on the weather – if it remains soggy as it is at present, spraying will happen sooner rather than later.

img_1010-1Other tasks include moving the wires downwards so they can be more easily adjusted around the vines as they grow, and rubbing off unwanted buds from the trunks so the vine’s efforts are directed towards the fruiting canes.

Luke also wants to remove secondary buds, again to concentrate the vine’s efforts into the best shoots.  But a secondary bud can be a useful Plan B if frost strikes, so Luke will wait until they are longer and the frost risk is much lower before he loses them.

img_1013With discernible pride, Luke pointed out a new vine created from a neighbouring cane to replace a vine he lost.  It had been bent across, trained downwards, allowed to take root and then been set free from its parent such that it was now growing up by itself.  A vine teenager, if you will.  It does not have roots resistant to the predations of the phylloxera louse, but it makes a useful stop gap and seems pretty perky so far.

As for what is new outside the vineyard, Luke was proud to announce that his Dewdown sparkling white wine was awarded silver in the IEWA (Independent English Wine Awards) competition, and he plans to enter his wines in Wine GB again this year – last year his 2017 Rosé won Gold – remarkable for what is a boutique vineyard without the resources of others with similar accolades.

The eagerly awaited 2018 Bacchus white wine and the rosé are now available and I can’t wait to taste them.  Watch this space for a comparison of the 2017s and 2018s, and also a comparison of my tasting notes of the 2017s this time last year with notes one year later to see how they have developed in bottle.

I will next be visiting Sutton Ridge in Wimbledon fortnight for flowering so here’s hoping jack frost has made his last appearance for some time.

Exceeding Expectations: WSET Level 4 (Diploma) in Wines & Spirits

img_0032Graduating after any period of study is a great time to reflect on what has been learned, and gained, as a result of the years of toil.  Was it worth it?

So here are a few thoughts about a journey that began in September 2015 and ended with graduation in January 2019 – from which future students will note that the diploma might have a far greater impact upon one’s life than expected.

September 2015 saw me as a partner in a law firm in Gloucester.  I also gave wine tastings as a cheeky sideline.  Wine kept me sane – so why did I listen to my husband encouraging me to take the diploma course?  Total madness, looking back on it, but fearing my tasting ability would diminish with age, it seemed to be a case of now, or never.

The course itself, run by West of England Wine School, exceeded expectations in many ways.  Our viticulture and vinification lecturer was Martin Fowke of Three Choirs, who allowed us access to both their busy winery and beautiful vineyard during the harvest, which was an unforgettable experience, as was joining in the harvest at Aldwick Estate, which I have happily done each year since.

img_0054All the lecturers were experts in their field, and included several MWs.  Our fortified wine lecturer was none other than Javier Hildago – one of the greatest characters from the sherry universe.  He very kindly signed my copy of Manzanilla which he co-authored with Christopher Fielden.  From him I learned, among other things, that sherry must be enjoyed in a white wine glass, not a schooner!  Also that he enjoys a Manzanilla pasada each lunchtime…..

Some aspects of the syllabus were really tough.  Not being from the trade, the unit about the global business of wine was tricky as it is largely self taught and I didn’t have access to many of the trade publications and research.   I knew from this that if I was to pursue a career selling wine, I would have a lot more to learn!

Aimg_0968ll the tasting exams were hard – there never seemed to be enough time, and it was all too easy to charge into the tasting notes forgetting all about the structured approach and producing illogical conclusions as a result.  “Let the wine tell you its story” said my wine mentor friend (Kelli Coxhead of The Wine Shop Winscombe) – but did I listen?

My brain physically ached as I crammed into it the vast breadth of knowledge required to get through the dreaded Unit 3 exam – Still Wines of the World.  The news footage of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower was on TV in the hotel lobby as we waited to sit our exams.  Whatever our exam fears were, this horrifying event put everything into perspective.  Quite possibly it was because of this that I took myself in hand and knuckled down, and this was probably the first tasting exam where I began to apply properly what I had been taught.

img_2216-2The big challenge was spirits.  Fearing this would be my undoing, I went overboard and tasted until I had virtually no tongue left – and anaesthetised what was left of it during the tasting exam.  While I enjoy a wee dram or two of Scotch, the wider whisk(e)y and spirits world was largely unknown.  However, what started out as something I had to do to get the diploma evolved into a whole new voyage of beverage discovery of its own.  I have been to some amazing spirits tastings, and I even like gin these days – I now know that it’s tonic I don’t like, and I am now quite content sipping gin neat with ice and/or water!

img_0837-1As it turns out, I seem to have a half decent spirits palate, and I plan a separate piece recording my exploits as a result of winning the Worshipful Company of Distillers’ prize for my spirits exam result.  There will be more to follow as I plan my spirits inspired travels – for my prize is to study a spirit producing region……many thanks to WSET and WCD for that.

img_0221I should also thank the West of England Wine & Spirits Association for generously awarding me their John Avery Award for my diploma results.  The genuine encouragement from local and national wine trade leaders has been evident throughout my studies.  The late John Avery MW was one of my Level 3 lecturers, and receiving this award from his daughter Mimi was very special, as was receiving my diploma certificate and award from Stephen Spurrier, with the likes of Jancis Robinson MW in attendance.  It was also lovely to see Susan McCraith MW at the awards ceremony in London, a friendly local face in otherwise daunting surroundings.

Part way through the diploma course, Kelli approached me about becoming a WSET tutor for the Level 1 and 2 awards in wines (and spirits for Level 2) for The Wine Shop Winscombe.  I was also approached to give wine tastings for contacts made in the legal profession.  All of a sudden, my life was veering off into the direction of wine education and events.  So by the end of the diploma course, I had left the law and was a fully fledged WSET educator.  How did that happen??

I have therefore achieved plenty more than I had ever believed possible when I started the diploma course.  I have evolved from a lawyer and wine hobbyist into a wine educator and spirits enthusiast, I have made new wine and spirits loving friends, including students I have taught, I have fellow wine student friends from around the globe, including a lovely lady with her own Bordeaux vineyard, and I have my own wine and spirits events enterprise.

img_0832I take this opportunity to thank those who have encouraged and supported me in my studies.  In no particular order: Tim Johnson & Lys Hall (West of England Wine School), all the WoEWS lecturers, WSET tutors on the Educator Training Programme, Kelli & Matthew Coxhead (The Wine Shop Winscombe – Kelli’s advice and support kept me going throughout), my long-suffering husband Andy, seen here at the pre awards ceremony sherry reception (not drinking sherry – boo!), and my daughter who relished lining up my blind tasting samples – even if she did almost bankrupt me and pickle my liver with enormous measures – see above!

 

 

 

More gin please, we’re British.

img_0948In the absence of the wine wordsmith that is Ian Abrahams, I thought I would update Bristol Tasting Circle members about this month’s gin tasting at Great Western Wines.  Of their huge range of over 100 gins, we could only cope with 8 in one sitting.  Our host was the irrepressible Tristan Darby who exuded enthusiasm for his subject from every pore.  He even let us sniff a few extra gins – such as the incredible Orkney Old Tom Rhubarb!

I am more of an aged spirits girl than a gin fan, so what appealed to me might not be gintastic to gin lovers.  But I hope these notes give you the gist of it.

Our tutorial began with an introduction to botanicals (including squidging juniper berries to fix the pinelike aromas in our minds), and instructions on nosing – start with the glass at chin level and note how the aromas change as you move the glass towards your nose – floral and citrus, then herbs, then juniper.  No swirling!  Add tonic gradually until your perfect serve is attained – 1:4 is usually far too much tonic.

We sipped neat, then with ice, then tasted our chosen mixer, then added it to the gin, and finally, added garnish in skinny slivers, as we were tasting, not drinking.

Hayman’s Old Tom Gin 40% abv

This family distiller from Balham is now in its 5th generation, having begun its operations 150 years ago.  I met Christopher Hayman at the Worshipful Company of Distillers Luncheon last month (more of this in another blog) so it was a happy coincidence that Hayman’s kicked off the tasting.  This is made to a family recipe from 1870.  We tasted this neat, though with ginger ale it can become a Ginger Tom.  A quality sip – silky and mellow with a mouthcoating of subtle sweetness facilitating appreciation of its complexity.  Impeccably balanced, it went down well with many – an essential for any Old Tom based cocktail but equally enjoyable all by itself.

Broker’s London Dry Gin 40% abv

img_0954From Langley’s distillery.  This dapper chap with bowler hat cap was admired by my gin loving friend Heather, who already has a taste for Langley’s own label.  She appreciated its classic gin character.  Sipped neat it was citric and bitter; ice released juniper notes.  I found it too bitter with Fevertree Premium Indian Tonic but with lime peel (hold skin side down and twist before dropping it in) this serve became perfectly balanced.  Dave Broom says “It’s long and considerably more serious a proposition than the bottle suggests” (Gin – The Manual).  Classic G&T and good value.

Hepple Gin 45% abv

Production of this Northumbrian creation sounded rather involved and futuristic in a Heston Blumenthal fashion – a vacuum still, a heated still and CO2 extraction were used.  Neat, the nose was fresh, clean pine.  With ice, floral lavender and spicy notes were released.  With Fevertree Naturally Light Tonic it seemed sweeter, and I quite liked it but reactions around the room were mixed.  I might have overdone the lemon peel squeeze as I couldn’t then taste the gin!

Sipsmith VJOP Gin 57.7% (VJOP = Very Junipery Over Proof – apparently)

Though determined to hate it, there is credible intent here.  The idea is to use juniper in three ways – maceration for 3 days, adding just before distillation, and then vapour infusion hung in a basket, to get different juniper notes.  Nosing was interesting; the order of botanicals seemed reversed as my glass edged towards my nose – pine first, citrus last.  Neat, the weight and length of finish set this gin apart.  With ice it was fresh, with notes of pine, lavender and spice.  Despite it needing dilution as it is overpoof, tonic ruined it for me though with lime peel it was better.  Plenty of admirers in the room.

Ramsbury Single Estate Gin 40% abv

img_0949Almost everything is from their estate in Wiltshire.  They aren’t organic but adopt sustainable practices.  They began as brewers so the grain used for the beer makes the base spirit – which adds another £40k to their investment costs so was it worth it?  It is aromatic and fruity with notes of grain.  The palate is rounded and long, with baked orange, cherry and quince paste flavours (fresh quince is one of the botanicals) becoming more savoury with tonic.  I could taste quality here – I sat back and savoured it.  The pear garnish topped it off nicely.

Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin 45.2% abv (bolder strength for mixing)

Made in the West Midlands and conveyed to Iceland where pure water is added.  Bready and rich on the nose, fruitier when ice added.  Fevertree Aromatic Tonic, flavoured with angostura bark, brought out pine notes and balanced it.  The strawberry slice looked inviting with the pinky tinge from the tonic.  Successful mixer gin.

Nordès Atlantic Galician Gin 41.8% abv

Fashioned from Albariño grape spirit, this breezy coastal influenced gin from Green Spain has aromas of stone fruits, sea, herbs and wine becoming more pronounced with ice.  It has a long finish, even with tonic and a garnish of sliced grapes (I have also used 3 grapes on a cocktail stick).  Gin meets wine!

What else did I learn?

Bertha’s Revenge, an Irish Milk Gin with spicy notes I enjoyed at The Wine Shop Winscombe gin tasting, apparently makes excellent Martini.

And the winners are…..

Hayman’s Old Tom and Ramsbury Single Estate – I could quite literally taste craftsmanship in every sip of these gins.  But I know everyone had their own favourites.  There is undoubtedly a gin for everyone these days.

With many thanks to Great Western Wines, Tristan Darby and Graeme Ewins for this eye-opening tasting experience.

A Year At Sutton Ridge Vineyard: Visit 1 – Winter Pruning

I am not like Sarah Jessica Parker.  No, really, I’m not.  We both like a glass of vino but who, with any wine cred, would announce a new wine range with a sentence making it clear she has yet to visit the vineyards where the grapes are grown.  Even if they are in New Zealand.  Come on SJP – hop in your jet and get those generously donated wellies on…..

I, on the other hand, have been out and about in the (sometimes) sunbaked slopes of Sutton Ridge in Somerset with my very muddy Hunters on to find out more about Luke Ford’s increasingly renowned wines in a bid to see if I can get my head around that most hardcore of all vineyard activities – winter pruning.

I chose my vineyard well – it is Luke’s policy to prune late so pruning here is a fairer weather job than in most vineyards. My visit was on 1 March 2019, by which time most English vineyards aim to have finished this task – and a sneaky peek into Aldwick Estate on my way there confirmed that pruning there was already done and dusted.

img_0934Sutton Ridge Vineyard lies on a sunny slope overlooking Blagdon Lake which is steep enough that  I was slightly breathy on reaching the top.  Its manageable size enables Luke to prune late as he can get the job done fairly quickly (he says early morning sessions every day for 4 weeks gets it done!!).  The idea of late pruning is to minimise the risk of losing his precious crop to frost.  But prune too late and he risks rubbing off the delicate leaf buds  – if they get “woolly” they are more vulnerable.

Before my visit, I flicked back through Stephen Skelton’s Viticulture tome and predicted that I would be cane pruning, not spur pruning, the former being the more usual choice in cooler climate vineyards with vigorous growth – like Luke’s vineyard, which lies on fertile land with rich clay soil over mudstone.

img_0938Cane pruning, also called cane replacement, creates a relatively thin “leaf-wall” better enabling pesticides and fungicides to reach the canopy interior, and also creating maximum exposure for buds, shoots and fruit – necessary in climates like ours where sunshine is in relatively short supply.   There was some spur pruning where a long arm had been grown along and down to replace a lost vine (see photo of Luke further down), and Luke kindly got me spur pruning to see the difference.  Even I could manage spur pruning – just count three buds and snip.  Whereas cane pruning involved me staring in puzzlement at the options for this year’s fruiting canes.  This “before pruning” photo shows how many there are, and the options vary from vine to vine.  Cane pruning therefore necessitates skill and time, and is expensive because it is hard to mechanise.  It also takes longer to remove all the redundant wood, and this also adds to the expense.

img_0936Cane pruned vines are known as single or double Guyot after Dr Jules Guyot who first recorded this system of pruning, and Luke’s vines are generally double Guyot – so after pruning, we aimed to have one “arm” or cane reaching along a fruiting wire in each direction, with a few “thumbs” beneath as the starting point for next year’s canes.  The “one armed bandits”, or single Guyot, were seen only on weaker vines.  I was not convinced that the canes could be bent as required without them snapping, but Luke assured me that they are sufficiently pliable, especially after rain.  In this “after” photo, the canes haven’t yet been tied down.

Luke had already pruned the dark berried Regent vines, so he let me loose on his precious Pinot Noir, used for his fresh and elegant Dewdown traditional method sparkling wine, and also sometimes as an addition to his moreish rosé.

I learnt that pruning is a process of elimination.  The old fruiting “arms” and new wood at the extremities is cut out, leaving the options for this year’s fruiting canes more easily visible.  The choice depends on the shape and condition of the vine.  Factors affecting the choice of cane include the need to get rid of any wounds, such as from canes which snapped off, which increase the disease risk, the aim of keeping the “head” at the top of the trunk of the vine beneath the fruiting wires, and the need to keep the origin of this year’s canes as near as possible to the “head”.  Ideally, “thumbs” with three buds on are cut accordingly beneath the canes.  img_0931But sometimes the “thumbs” end up above the canes if the better canes are lower down, some seemingly ideal canes are naughtily growing in the wrong direction, or are simply too short to be of use – and so it goes on – so having removed the less ideal canes, you are hopefully left with at least two suitable canes.  The photo above shows what you are meant to end up with.

To minimise the risk of trunk diseases, we dipped our secateurs in alcohol between pruning each and every vine.  This isn’t feasible in large vineyards, but Luke’s crop is small and precious so it is worth this momentary pause to keep his vines healthy.

That said, these vines produce 2,000 – 3,000 bottles of wine annually!

While I dithered about where to begin and which canes were best Luke, by contrast, was chopping away with ruthless decisiveness.  Needless to say, after patiently explaining everything and then allowing me to talk through the decisions, if we were to get a respectable amount done before dark, we needed to adopt an approach which involved Luke chopping and me tidying.

img_0941Ably assisting the process was Luke’s father Ian (a farmer) who efficiently collected the heaps of pruned wood and trimmed off the tops of the vines making the pruning easier.  Flo, Luke’s devoted collie, was delectable but less helpful – I was swiftly identified as a constant source of fuss which slowed down my pruning selections even further.  Flo is highly intelligent – she “retired” at 18 months of age having worked out that a dislike of sheep would give her an easier life.  She is now my favourite vineyard dog – along with bacon loving Dennis of Aldwick Estate, of course.

Since I was an unlikely candidate for Luke and Ian’s dawn sorties to the vineyard to complete the pruning in a respectable timeframe, I opted instead to return after budbreak to see how my Pinot Noir protegées and their companions are fairing.  The plan is to return after that at flowering, fruit set and veraison (when the grapes change colour) and then finally at harvest.  A blog will update you after each visit. Fingers crossed Jack Frost doesn’t visit the vineyard in the meantime…..