Wine from Wendover

An Accidental Vigneron In Bucks

The first time I saw the vineyard looking across the valley toward Cock’s Hill in the Hale with my colleague, Chris, in what would be a large departure from our normal lives, I was immediately seduced by it. The vines appeared to us to be laden with grapes and it was a balmy afternoon in late September. Harvest wouldn’t be for about three weeks.
“Well”, said Antony, “I’m likely to grub it up if you don’t take it on as it is just getting a bit too much for Carol and me”.

“What do you think, Chris?” I said. Chris, always up for a new challenge, agrees without a pause. This was in 2013, and we’ve now had three harvests at the Hale Valley Vineyard we now manage. Despite Antony and Carol’s unflinching support and advice, our yield has, in those three years, gone from “great” to “okay” to “what’s the point”!

The vineyard, planted over 25 years ago, is small, about an acre, and frankly what we knew about cultivating vines would take no more time to express that than it takes to swig a small glass of English fizz (which is what we’ve mainly had made, by the way). Our job is to produce large, clean (free from mildew), juicy sweet grapes with just the right acidity to make the wine makers job a doddle to produce wonderful wine – except it’s not that easy: we’ve got to prevent frost damage, mildew, botrytis and once we’ve done that, somehow persuade muntjacs not to treat our grapes as a delightful dessert to their normal diet. At least we don’t have wild boars in Bucks with their penchant for “just ripe” grapes!

But we have produced grapes – enough in the first year to make 1100 bottles of fizz – and we’ve had very favourable comments on it.

We are not doing this as a commercial venture; we would need 25 times the size and a fistful of biochemistry degrees, I’ve discovered. To get a yield of up to 3 tonnes per acre, everything, including our ever fickle weather, would need to be just right – from the soil nutrients to the skills involved in winter and summer pruning and identifying worrying marks and appearances on leaves, grapes and vines. It’s a whole new world! But vines are hardy and quite difficult to kill.

The pleasure of the harvest in mid-October comes second (of course) to the pleasure of drinking wine from locally grown vines. After our first, when we had about 15 helpers for picking (the vendange to us now we are vignerons) and at the lunch hosted by Antony and Carol afterwards, Antony was heard to comment “not bad for beginners”. We were elated.

Now, three years on, Chris has moved westwards but still comes up to mow, prune and spray and my brother, Ric, has joined us. We are just about to start our mildew control programme for the season and we’re hoping that the frosts forecast for this week (when I’m writing this piece) won’t trouble our delicate buds which have started bursting a little early this year. Our trellis system is quite high off the ground which helps with this and, importantly as we are not getting any younger, not having to bend double to pick the grapes later in the year.

There are more and more vineyards being planted in the UK – the UK Vineyard Association report that in 2015 over 5,000,000 bottles were produced and a record 1m vines will be planted over the next 12 months, enough to produce 2m more bottles of wine a year. It’s virtually impossible to pick up a paper nowadays without some reference to the burgeoning UK wine industry where our quality “British Fizz” (a term coined by a New York bar owner) is winning international awards every step of the way.

It’s great to feel part of this in an, admittedly, very small way. Sometimes, just sitting on a log in the vineyard on a clear day brings me close to a real sense of peace – Ah I hear you say, only until HS2 comes to town. Well, maybe it’s just good to enjoy things while we can. Cheers……

A summer postscript: Well, the air frost did hit us at the end of April (and we were not alone – even down as far as the south of France!). The buds were just budding and it took virtually everything. But Nature is a wonderful thing and secondary buds appeared and have caught up remarkably quickly. Not as many, of course, but I think we may have something if the weather holds and these later grapes can ripen. More to come!

Patrick Hurd, Hale Valley Vineyard