Sunday, 7 January 2018

The low sun is rising on 2018 and as we start with the major winter task of pruning the vines it’s time to reflect on Vintage 2017.

It was our earliest-ripening vintage ever, and we go back further than most, to 1988, our first small harvest. People often ask why 2017 was so early. It didn’t seem such a special year, weather-wise, after all. The official temperature records do show a warm year in Somerset, but the important factor for the vines was the mild, dry 2016/17 winter and early spring. 

The vines started into growth early and that meant the flower buds opened early, on 18th June. That is the same day as our previous earliest vintage from another unusually early spring, 2007. But in 2007 July was exceptionally wet here, and the flowers took nearly a month from first opening to completing the fruit set. In 2017, by contrast, the flowering co-incided with a mini-heat-wave and the set was complete in two weeks. Once the fruit is set, the time to ripeness is fairly weather independent, though it DOES vary with the size of the crop. A big crop takes longer to ripen. In 2007 our crop was quite small. In 2017 it was middling. Overall in 2007 the grapes ripened slightly faster from a later start and we picked the Madeleine on 22nd September. In 2017 we picked on 17th September, earliest ever. We harvested the Kernling the same time as usual, because it’s such a late-ripening variety that we always pick at the end of October, beyond which it won’t improve. But it was the ripest ever with very high sugars and, for Kernling, quite moderate acid.

A lot of wine estates in the south east, and some too in the southwest, suffered a horrendous spring frost at the end of April, which for some nipped off all their new buds. Where vineyards were dependent on regrowth their 2017 harvest was not so early. We were lucky, A small singe from a brief minus 1C wasn’t too damaging. Just lost a few buds in Frost Corner but not significant overall. Thanking our lucky slope!

We’ll be off to Steve’s winery to taste tank samples of the new wines soon. Can’t wait to see how this early year will turn out in the bottle.

A happy family year at Oatley too. Big gathering for the idyllic wedding celebration of our youngest, Fred, to Nora early in July. So lucky. Perfect weather, the end of that mini-heatwave that hastened the fruit-set. Very international, Nora’s family are Norwegian and Chinese, and the happy couple, both architects, had friends from working in New York, London, Rotterdam, Copenhagen and Hong Kong. A lovely bunch of people and such a happy time. Then Nora and Fred's daughter, Liv, was born in Copenhagen in November, our first grandchild. 

Oatley’s a beautiful spot and it’s great to see it used for family occasions. Our role was just to tidy everything up but getting rid of 30 years of barn detritus was liberating in itself! Now we’re all set for the next big family birthday….

And last year our cute Christmas 2016 collie pups, Jack and Benji, grew into rangy, inseparable but individual doggy vineyard companions. We love them to bits.

November kept me busy with rebuilding our website. After 10 years, it seemed time for an update. New software to get to grips with so it’s work-in-progress as I find my way around. New, simpler blog format too. Hope you like it.

And looking forward, the earliy-ripening year has meant super wood to prune for next year. Chestnut-brown, smooth and disease-free. Ideal. That’s Madeleine pictured below, often not the prettiest wood-ripener but this year it’s a picture. But gosh, we are late to start. Nearly the whole family, including me, were flu-struck over Christmas. I like to have the top Madeleine block finished by New Year, but I've hardly started. Iain is, unusually, ahead of me in “his” top Kernling block. So from now on it’ll be pruning, pruning, pruning for weeks, till it’s done.

Remodelling our 30 year old Madeleine Angevine vines to replacement cane, "Double Guyot" pruning is now finished and the yields from these vines are starting to rise again. Good news for our “Jane’s” fans as recent lower crop volumes have meant we’ve had to release the Jane’s a bit young. Our 2016 stocks are a case in point. On to the last 50 cases now, just as it’s reaching its best, so the 2017 will be pressed into service soon after bottling in March. But there’s enough of that ’17  for us to start building up the pre-release cellaring again from next year. The Jane’s is at its best from 1 to 3 years after bottling so it doesn’t need serious bottle ageing, but we like to give it maybe nine months or so. 

We are still managing to keep the under-vine vegetation reasonably under control without herbicides. It’s been six years now and although strimming is hard and slow work, seeing the plant varieties change naturally to lower growing, less troublesome native species is rewarding. In just a few places, mostly shady spots near the bottom hedge, there are nettles getting really clumpy. We plan to do some spot-spraying, just of those, early in 2018 before the vines come to life, but other than that we’ll maintain our herbicide-free strategy.

On the wine front, apart from decisions on the finishing of the 2018 vintage (probably no more complicated than, “Just bottle them as they are, Steve, lighter-weight bottles and best proper corks as usual.”) we have the release of the first wine from our new, acacia-headed barrique to look forward to, around Easter. Watch out for our Barrel Matured 2016! We’re really excited about this wine. Early tastings have been delicious. Later in the year we’ll probably release the 2016 Leonora’s too. Got enough of the smooth and elegant ’14 to keep Leonora’s fans happy for the mo, though.

And it won’t be too long till we open for visits again. 2017 was our busiest ever year for vineyard visitors with over 700 people coming to share an Oatley Moment. A lot of visit vouchers were bought over Christmas so we know we’ll be busy again this year. From Good Friday, 30th March we’ll be open Fridays, Saturdays and all over bank holiday weekends until early September. Oh and for the whole of English Wine Week at the end of May. Other times by appointment. 

We don’t plan any changes. People seem to like the not-very-commercial experience of tasting through our dry white Somerset wines under a tent in front of the farmhouse and walking the vines individually with us.  For now at least we’ll carry on the same, encouraging people to bring picnics if they want to combine the winetasting with a meal. Picnicking’s free. Vouchers include three bottles to take home so voucher visitors have the fun of choosing what to take too. Well I suppose all visitors do really. Most seem to like the wines enough to want to take some home. Quite a lot home sometimes. No reason to change, really...

So that’s our next few months sorted!

Happy New Year, all.