The first thing you notice about wine grapes is how small they are compared to regular eating grapes. I took a childish delight in this and felt like mentioning it to some of the other journalists in my group at the Bolney wine estate in West Sussex. But I didn't think it would go down too well. They knew vastly more about wine than me and I wanted to keep it that way.
I was on a press trip to the countryside. I was used to turning up at top kitchens and getting my chefs whites on for a full day of Bedlam, so standing in the rain with a pair of secateurs clipping off bunches of grapes with serious wine writers was about as far out of my comfort zone as I could imagine. And I had forgotten to bring a jacket so I was soaked.
The Bolney vineyard, located between Crawley and Brighton, stretches over 39 acres and has a team of winemakers who have begun to make a bit of a name for themselves. They produce white, red and sparkling English wine and my day was to learn all about it by getting stuck in and actually picking and sorting grapes.
As I was snipping in the wet, I ate a few of the grapes to see what they tasted like. We were picking deep black Pinot Noir grapes at the time, and these were not sweet but tasted earthy and quite sharp. It felt wonderful to be out in the open picking grapes despite the rain.
According to Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney, Pinot Noir is a notoriously hard grape with which to reap consistent vintages. It’s a tricky grape to grow in inconsistent climates and with little sun, but Bolney are masters of the art of cultivating Pinot Noir in this country.
Pinot Noir grapes grow in tightly packed clusters, increasing the chances of mould spreading and general poor quality, which means growers must keep a close eye on their progress.
“Experts are predicting Pinot Noir will become the nation’s go-to bottle,” Sam told us as she passed out red boxes to collect the grapes. “We’re a nation of white wine drinkers, but a Pinot Noir is as light a red as they come.”
As we picked I chatted to Sam about Bolney. She knew her wine back to front, having grown up in and around the Bolney Wine Estate. Her parents planted the first three acres of grape vines in the area back in 1972. In 2012, Bolney won the title of UK Wine Producer of the Year at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.
Together we managed to collect plenty of Pinot Noir grapes after half an hour, but were thankful that the bulk of the crop had already been harvested as the rain continued to lash down. We escaped back to base, and then on to the sorting tables where huge crates of Chardonnay grapes were being poured onto a vibrating conveyor belt.
This was the last chance to make sure any bad grapes, leaves and other gunk were removed before they went up and into a large metal vat for the first major stage in the wine making process. The vibrations on the conveyor belt helps to sift through the grapes as they make their way towards the vat, and we made sure nothing odd or alive made its way down the line.
We had boxes under the tables to bin the rubbish, and I was so engaged in talking with Sam that a few healthy grapes sadly met their end by my carelessness.
“Once this is all done,” Sam told me, sifting through the last remnants, “The grapes are crushed in the vat, the sediment removed, and then the fermentation process begins.”
Once in the vat, the grapes are gently pressed which brings the sugary juices into contact with the natural yeasts on the skin. This is the fermentation stage which turns the sugar into alcohol, and usually takes anywhere between ten days and a month.
After this comes filtration, or clarification, which is where any remaining solids are removed to purify the wine.
For still wine, the next stage is ageing/bottling, but to produce sparkling wine, a second fermentation process is needed. The winemakers bottle the wine, adding further yeast and sugar, stacking them horizontally. This method is called ‘tirage’, with carbon dioxide a by-product, giving the wine its fizz.
Back at basecamp, it was time to pair wine with food. First up was a selection of local cheeses - Burwash Rose, Tremains Cheddar and Sister Sarah Goat's Cheese. Both white and red wines are appropriate with cheese, and it’s often a matter of preference.
I like a robust red wine and a strong cheese, so my pick was the pairing of the goat’s cheese with Bolney’s Lychgate Red. Having been out in the rain with the grapes in my hands, it was satisfying to now drink wine and eat cheese. The very, very last stage of wine - consumption.
I managed a conversation about this with a couple of the wine journalists who were from the major papers. They were able to taste the wine and write complicated notes about flavours and bouquets. I just tried as much wine as I could and stuffed my face. Out of this came my own delicious combination: Bolney Cuvée Noir - a full-bodied sparkling red (with cherry notes) - with chunky pâté.