Saturday 24 October 2015

Task 17: Pick at least 20kg of grapes in our mini vineyard

I have a rather sad story to tell you about this task. It all seemed to be going so well......

Firstly, perhaps I should give you a bit of background on this rather random sounding task. Four years ago we had our garden re-landscaped, and decided to establish a very small vineyard on a grassy slope that was looking a bit bare and empty. In truth 'vineyard' is much too grand a term to use - we have just 13 rows of vines with 10 plants in each row (see below) - but nevertheless it does make quite a statement in the garden. We planted a mixture of pinot noir and chardonnay vines, with a view to producing a very modest quantity of sparkling white wine. Ever since then, we've been under strict instructions from Lucy not to move house until we're in a position to supply the guests at her wedding reception with a nice drop of Gate House fizz. In return we've been keeping a quiet eye on her marital prospects (only don't tell her that). 

We've spent the last 3 summers pruning, spraying, feeding and generally nuturing our infant vines. There was that infamous episode last July when....ahem.....Andrew put Harvest weed killer into the leaf nutrient mix instead of potassium, which understandably the vines objected to quite strongly (and I wasn't too happy either). But they bounced back surprisingly well. In May this year we finally reached Year 4 and we've been preparing ourselves for the First Harvest.

We had a grand plan to do a 'Pick a bunch of grapes for ARUK' event. We had organised to get in some bottles of local sparkling wine to offer everyone a taster of what we would eventually be producing. I could see it all in my mind's eye - a warm afternoon in late summer, neighbours dropping by, vines groaning with ripened shiny fruit, children playing on the grassy slopes, slabs of cheese and bread on rustic tables, the sound of glasses chinking, merry laughter etc etc

Oh dear, how ignorant could I be?  Andrew and I soon discovered that vine harvesting, like any other harvesting, is entirely dictated by the weather conditions, which of course have been pretty challenging for winegrowers in these parts this year. In our tiny vineyard, multiple bunches of miniscule grapes sat and sulked, as day after day the sun declined to shine on them.  

For weeks we waited.....and waited.....and then all of a sudden, whoosh.....out came the sun in mid-September and the grapes instantly responded to its rays.  We witnessed 'veraison'  - the point at which red grapes begin to change colour. I was so excited.  Blimey, this was like being a real vineyard owner!

At the beginning of this week, it looked as though the grapes had finally reached their peak of lusciousness. All over Twitter, Sussex vineyard owners were tweeting away manically about harvesting their crops. By then Andrew and I had put the brakes on our fund-raising event and instead invited our Cobdown neighbours Rebecca and Di to join us for a 'pick a row of grapes and have a cup of tea' session. The stage was all set for Thursday morning. 

On Tuesday lunchtime I went out to do my daily vine patrol, and here's what I found.......if you're peering at the photo on the left and saying to yourself 'Er - so where are those grapes?' I can assure you I was asking myself the selfsame question. In one single morning, a gang of delinquent pheasants had feasted on the entire Pinot noir crop. I was in despair. Just one small consolation - those marauding birds clearly weren't convinced that the Chardonnay grapes had ripened enough and had decided to leave them for another day.


There was no time to lose. It was us or the pheasants. Andrew came home from the office like a bat out of hell and we got stuck into picking the Chardonnay grapes. We then weighed our depleted harvest. Had we managed to cobble together the required 20kg of grapes as specified in Task 17? Well, as near as damnit. And our Plumpton college student Juanita, who's been guiding us through the whole process this year, has now taken the containers away to begin making the wine (it could be as much as a whole case!)

What a steep and painful learning curve it's been for us amateur viticulturists this year.  Next summer we're going to invest heavily in netting - for now, those pesky pheasants had better mind their backs.....oh and Lucy, you'd better hold fire on that wedding for a bit longer!

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK. For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at  

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