Monday, 18 October 2010

Wickham Vineyard harvest

In my three years at Decanter, I've yet to pick a grape. Until last weekend. With English sparkling's star in the ascendancy, I was keen to get out to one of our local vineyards and muck in with the picking.

Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire invited me to take part in their harvest last Saturday, along with members of WineShare - a vine sharing scheme that offers vine rentals in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, Chianti and Hampshire.

Picking starts predictably early, so I have to board the train in London, bleary-eyed, at 7.30am, in order to be there for the 9.30 start. The early start is made bearable by the beautiful weather. It's one of those perfect autumn days - bright, crisp, and full of sunshine. Looking out of the train window, the leaves on the trees burn bright with jewel-like hues - copper, ruby and amber – in their final blaze of glory before death.

A short taxi ride from the station and I'm at the vineyard, being ushered into a garden full of WineShare members huddled together in their wellies, clutching cups of coffee for warmth. Gulping down a coffee (it's too early for bubbles, even for me) winemaker William Biddulph hands round a bucket of pruning sheers and explains our mission for the morning - to pick as many grapes as humanly possible.

Biddulph, who looks like a foppish Jason Donovan, started life at Berry Bros, then spent the mid '90s in Gisbourne, New Zealand, taking the helm at Wickham five years ago as winemaker on the seven hectare estate planted with six white and four red varieties, including the epically named Triomphe d'Alsace; the grape we're about to pick, which will go into their Row Ash Red 2010 and Row Ash Rosé NV.

We're split into three groups and given a row each to work on. Basket and sheers in hand, I stand at my alloted spot and get picking. There aren't many rules, we just have to avoid unripe and over-ripe bunches. Apprehensive of the sheers at first, I soon find my rhythm and pick up picking speed. Seeing everyone else frantically picking around you helps spur you on. It feels a bit like a competition, but the more you pick, the quicker your basket gets emptied.

Mid pick, I pop a couple of the grapes in my mouth. They're small, round and inky blue-black like blueberries. They're lovely and sweet but incredibly tannic. I decide not to eat any more, and take to peeling one open instead. Behind the blueberry skin, the flesh is red and pigmented like Dornfelder. I squidge it between my fingers and ruby red juice squirts everywhere.

After a couple of hours, the sun is high in the sky and warming our backs. It's hard work, and I find myself looking at my watch and wondering when we might be rewarded with lunch. Every now and then a quad bike roars up my row and zooms away with the contents of my basket. Flagging a little, I wish were picking to music. I run through a picking soundtrack in my head of high octane tracks to keep my momentum up.

Snipping off the final few bunches on my vine, I scan the row and realise it's naked of grapes. Lunch beckons. I bound back to the garden and am treated to a banquet of a buffet. Famished from my morning's work, I ask for a bit of everything and the food seems to taste especially good having laboured for it. In three hours our small group stripped the vineyard of two tonnes of grapes. We toast our success with a glass of Wickham Special Release Fumé - a blend of Bacchus and Reichensteiner aged in French oak. I'm looking forward to the Row Ash Red being bottled, and to drinking a wine I helped make.

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