CHET VALLEY VINEYARD
Winemaker’s Report 2023
2023 was a year when many of our plantings started to come of age, and as a result we have harvested our largest ever crop: we will make around 29,000 bottles of wine this year, a 31% increase on last year.
This is due to a number of factors:
Making wine in England is a pursuit which is very much dependent on the weather. Climate change, which is of course a cause for great concern throughout the globe, is giving us more sunshine hours and therefore more consistent ripening. There is however more rain on average throughout the year providing perfect conditions for fungal attack. There are also more frequent and more severe freak weather events.
Overall the weather was pretty kind to us in 2023. There were no great frosts, particularly as we entered budburst in the spring and there was good sunshine in September to allow the grapes to ripen and conditions for the harvest was mainly dry making picking easier.
The rain came just when we needed it to encourage the berries to swell. We enjoyed enough sun for the grapes to ripen fully, giving us excellent sugar levels which will translate into wines with extra extract and depth of flavour.
We harvested during the first three weeks of October. We enjoyed warm, sunny weather – ideal conditions for our wonderful team of pickers. The weather broke in the fourth week of October when all was safely gathered in.
Like many English vineyards, we rely on a dedicated team of volunteers to boost our in-house staff to bring in the harvest. For each of the three weekends of the harvest we were joined by between 25 and 30 local people of all ages, in what has become a real community event. Our volunteer pickers work extremely hard, and it is our pleasure to reward them with a harvest supper and a glass or two of wine at the end of each day.
We are extremely grateful to everyone who came and helped us – we couldn’t do it without you.
We have around 20 acres (c.8 hectares) under vine; our harvest of around 32 tonnes of grapes will give us approximately 21,750 litres of wine – equivalent to around 29,000 bottles. That equates to a yield of 27 hectolitres per hectare, which in global terms is low – this is on account of our wide spacing of vines at 2.4m between rows and on us limiting production to improve quality as wellas reflecting the challenges of growing wine grapes in such a northern location, and on the only-now emerging maturity of many of our vines.
Another factor in that relatively low yield is that we are very careful not to over-press our grapes. We extract an average of 680 litres of must per tonne, at a maximum pressure of 1.2 bar. This ensures a quality end product, at the expense of sheer quantity.
Individual Variety Reports
The first grapes we picked were our Solaris, an early-ripening variety which was ready for harvest in mid-September.
The grapes had a very high sugar level this year, which is what you want as a winemaker, but this also meant that they were a tempting target for both wasps and birds – blackbirds in particular seem very partial to this variety. This did mean the loss of some crop, especially at the perimeter of the field, and we now use netting to discourage birds from stealing our crop.
Sugar levels were excellent with a Brix score of 23, which will equate to an alcohol level of between 12.5% and 13% in the finished wine.
Verdict: Yield OK, quality very good
Phoenix is a relatively new variety, which has been developed by PIWI International to be disease and fungus resistant. This means that we can use fewer pesticides, and that downy mildew is not really a problem, although the grape is susceptible to botrytis, given that it is a large berry with a thin skin. Because of this, 2023 has been a difficult year for Phoenix, and we have had to give the vines considerable care and attention throughout the year.
We delayed harvest until the first weekend in October to allow acidity levels to reduce a little. As a result, the grapes were nicely ripe, and the yield was 50% up on last year, with around 6000 litres of must resulting. We use Phoenix in our Skylark sparkling wine, so its good fruit and crisp acidity this year will be ideal, and there will be a plenty of Skylark available next year.
Verdict: Yield excellent, quality very good
Our Regent vines are amongst our most mature at 15 years old, and we use the grapes to make our sparkling red wine, Red Kite. It has an earthy, herbaceous character which requires careful handling in the winery to bring out the fruit.
We changed the way we prune our Regent vines two years ago, and we are benefitting from that decision, and the relatively benign levels of frost have also helped the yield this year.
We harvested the grapes over the weekend of 10th/11th October, by which time they were scoring 18 on the Brix scale, which will naturally give a wine of between 10.55 and 11% alcohol.
Verdict: Yield good, quality good
We also picked the Schönburger over the weekend of 10th/11th October. This is a difficult grape to get right: you have to be careful not to lose its natural aromatic character, and you have to manage the natural proteins otherwise you will end up with an unwelcome white haze in the must.
The Schönburger is showing lovely aromatics this year, which will give the wine flavours of lychees, elderflower, lemon and quince.
Verdict: Yield good, quality good
Seyval is a later budding variety, which means it tends to avoid all but the very last frosts, but it also results in a grape which ripens later and is therefore susceptible to bad weather through the ripening and harvest period.
We were fortunate to be able to harvest these grapes on 9th October while the sun was still shining and the weather was still warm – although ideally we would have liked to have left them a few more days. As a result, sugar levels are slightly down on last year. We did, however, achieve a yield which was almost double that of last year.
We use this grape in our Skylark sparkling wine blend, where the quality of the Phoenix grapes will more than make up for a slightly lower Brix score for the Seyval Blanc.
Verdict: Yield excellent, quality OK
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
We are putting these two varieties together in our winemaker’s report because they are very similar in nature, and we harvested them together, over the weekend on 16th/17th October. We are very grateful to our pickers who managed to harvest these grapes before the weather broke.
We have two clones of Pinot Noir in the vineyard, 1-84 and 20-13. Both are relatively recent plantings which only came on stream last year; 2023 is the first year when they are really mature, which has resulted in a hugely increased yield – some 80% up on last year.
We were lucky that both clones avoide disease this year, and as a result the sugar levels are good, and the grapes are showing nice flavours. We use the Pinot Noir in our flagship House of Hemmant Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine. We have also decided to make a small quantity of still red wine from the grape this year; we expect this to be quite light, but with the typical varietal characteristic of Pinot Noir.
Our Pinot Meunier vines also really came good this year; this is the other grape we use in our house of Hemmant Blanc de Noirs. The yield was more than double that of 2022, and the grapes are showing a nice aromaticity.
Verdict: yield excellent, quality very good
We also picked our Chardonnay during the third weekend in October – we left them as long as we dared to let the sugars develop. This is a plot which we planted eight years ago, but it has been slow to mature and start producing at satisfactory levels. We believe that in 2023 we have finally reached the tipping point, with a yield four times that of 2022.
The young Chardonnay vines struggle in extreme heat, so this year was far more benign than the very hot summer of 2022. As a result the vines produced lovely bunches of berries, and the quality is very good indeed. We hope that this marks the start of the genuine period of maturity for our Chardonnay vines.
Verdict: Yield excellent, quality excellent.
This is a Swiss variety which is very resistant to downy mildew, and hence which does well in English conditions. We have a relatively small planting of this variety, and we picked it on 10th October, by which time it was showing a Brix score of 18, which should translate to around 10% alcohol in the bottle.
The yield was similar to last year, which means we will be able to make around 1,200 bottles once again. This proved very popular last year and sold out early, so get your orders for the 2023 in soon!
Verdict: Yield good, quality good
We are very happy with the results of this year’s harvest. We will make more wine than ever before, and the quality is generally very good, with some grapes returning excellent results.
On a personal note, I would like to thank our very hard-working staff and our wonderful harvest volunteers for making it all possible. There are times when being a winemaker can be a solitary pursuit, but there are also times when you realise that a vineyard like Chet Valley is really valued in its local community, and the harvest period is one such.
I very much look forward to introducing the 2023 vintage in the spring of next year.
John Hemmant, Winemaker, Chet Valley Vineyard
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