Harvesting The Grapes At Tas Valley Vineyard

A glorious weekend in mid-October was judged by Mike Smith of Tas Valley Vineyard to be the optimum time to pick his grapes. This decision is not come by lightly. As with all crops, it is very much dependant on weather conditions both earlier in the year and right up to the moment of picking. This year, the weather has been kind and the crop was very heavy, to the extent of pulling some of the vines from their moorings. This was due to a warm spring followed by good flowering and fruit set in July.

The time to pick is very much dependant on the ripening of the fruits and Mike has to monitor sugar and acid content constantly to reach a decision. Aided by sugar tests, measured in percentage Oeschle, he can avoid picking too early and imparting the wine with a sharp, acidic quality. But in October, the weather can be unpredictable and to bank on late autumn sunshine to improve sugar content, could prove disastrous. This year it was finely judged with some losses due to damp but overall the quality was very good.

Of course the decision when to pick is one of many which crowd this end of the season. A slot has to be booked at the processing plant many miles away in Ashford, Kent. This facility is used by many small producers who must all be accommodated within a very few weeks of each other. Then there is the transport itself to organise as well as the staff to pick the actual fruit.

So it was that my husband Bryan and myself joined about twenty other people of all ages and from various corners of Norfolk to pick grapes in 'our' vineyard. With Health and Safety warnings about sharp grape scissors ringing in our ears, we set to, filling two buckets apiece for hours on end, tipping them into large black bins ready to be loaded onto the lorries. It was constant, concentrated work in beautiful sunshine and strangely therapeutic. It was good to be part of the romantic side of a vineyard, out in the open amongst the gentle hubbub of voices as people chatted through the vines. It was satisfying to feel close to the land and part of the cyclical rhythm of nature. Even the aches in our backs when we had finished our stint were pleasurable insomuch as they represented a connection to the manual labour of harvest time.

For Mike Smith of course, the romance was fleeting. Over the weekend of 7th to 8th October he transported five tons of ripe grapes to Kent, driving down for three hours and returning at two in the morning to begin the whole process again at eight o'clock the following day.

Time ran out that weekend and the crop at the top of the vineyard was not gathered. In the following week, it was 'touch and go' whether Botrytis encouraged by the damp, muggy weather would send the close-packed bunches completely 'over the top' to be a worthless proposition. A heartbreaking decision should it come to abandonment. As it happens, Mike and his helpers gathered another ton and a half of good fruit and made the trip to Kent and back once again. So the harvest was safely gathered in and should produce about 6,500 bottles overall.

Of course, harvesting is not the end of the story. The 4,000 vines will now be allowed to lay dormant for the wood to ripen and harden before pruning commences between January and March. This is a much longer task than the final picking we have just enjoyed.

Plans for the construction of a new winery and shop are well advanced with planning permission obtained. This will obviously help tremendously in the future and cut the need for long, expensive and stressful journeys.

Tas Valley Vineyard grows three types of German grapes, Bacchus, Reichenstiener and Muller Thurgau, early-ripening varieties suitable for our climate and this year, Mike will again be making 2,300 bottles of sparkling wine, and 3500 bottles of still dry and medium dry white wine. His first 2004 bottling of sparkling wine will be available early in 2007. This is unique to Norfolk! The only sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in our region and made by traditional Champagne methods.

Innovation is helping Mike create a niche in the market with his personalised bottles of wine, ideal to celebrate special occasions. You can choose a template or have your own photograph or design printed on the label. Go to personalised wine on the Tas Valley Vineyard website and follow the simple instructions or call on 01953 789445. Mike offers seven varieties of English wine for this service. Cheers!

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About The Author, Lynda Preece
Lynda Preece is part of the grape picking team at Tas Valley Vineyard, Norfolk.