As Charles Dickens once wrote, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sums up this month quite well, although perhaps the ‘best of times’ bit was a little under-played. But let me start with the bad bits and see if I can end on a positive note. We had a visit a couple of weeks ago from an Aussie chum. A knowledgeable man with his own vineyard in Western Australia. He told us he makes 4,000 litres a year, just above hobby status, he suggested but, to us, quite impressive. As he is when he talks about the wine-making process – he undoubtedly knows his stuff. Which is why what he had to say about our vineyard was really quite depressing. In a nutshell he looked at our vineyard and said, if you want to make wine, then buy some grapes because you’re not going to get a crop of any sort from what you’ve got here.
We were quite devastated. While we knew what we were doing was a risky business and not a business at all, just a hobby, nevertheless we had hoped that the grapes we had on our Rondo vines (and we do have a fair number) would ripen in the next four weeks and we could at least have a go at making our own wine. Which meant that the bits and bobs of equipment we have been buying over the last couple of months – crusher/de-stemmer, fermenting buckets, press, refractometer, hydrometer, not to mention the ‘winery’ / shed, star of last month’s blog etc. etc. – would be money well spent. But here we were feeling that the whole thing had been a complete waste of time, effort and money. A very bad moment. It left me disinclined to buy any further equipment – like demi-johns and bottles.
I suppose what was clear was, and the good news in a perverse sort of way, that there was nothing to be done and we could only go on. Maybe onwards and downwards but onwards nonetheless. There is no turning back. And that is what we have done in the last couple of weeks since our visitors left. The first thing I did was take a measure of what level of sugar we had in our grapes, using the aforementioned refractometer. This was my first time of using this piece of equipment and it was some relief to get a reading of any sort. Admittedly some way below the ideal, well a long way below the figure my Australian chum had suggested we needed – 24 on the Brix scale – we had 12.5. So not good but, as I say, at least we were on the blasted scale. I also started googling what to do with unripe grapes – make vinegar was a common suggestion – what the French call verjus or verjuice (green juice). Not what we wanted and I don’t like vinegar, but something at least. Then I specifically asked Google whether it was possible to make wine from unripe grapes. A tentative, very tentative, yes, by following a recipe for making gooseberry wine. So again a ray of hope.
When we looked this up it didn’t seem particularly complicated. It suggested adding a few grapes to the gooseberry mix. It reminded me of an idea I’d had a while ago about how wine is made in Turkey and Georgia I think it was. Only the other way round. The Observer reviewed what they called orange wines and reviewed the end product very favourably assuming you like the taste of orange in your wine. Set me thinking that if our wine, if /when we made it, was a little thin or lacking in fruit then we might legitimately add different kinds of fruit. I wrote down at the time – orange pips, spice, cherries, nuts, pears. In this way our wine would be distinctive. I do realise that the word ‘distinctive’ can mean many things, good and bad. But still, it was an idea and it came back to me after the first period of thinking buggeration, we’ve wasted our time. Be creative I thought. I even thought about making the wine in amphorae buried in the ground as I remember they did in Georgia when I visited there. Until I looked at the price and also contemplated how big the vessel was and how small our amount of grape juice. So maybe not this.
Finally, and again trying for the good news front, I started checking on the internet and from other local vineyard owners what was the lowest sugar level they would recommend picking Rondo. Again reasonably encouraging, the figure of 17 on the Brix scale was mentioned and this is significantly below the 24.5, to be exact, suggested by our OZ chum and not that far off the figure of nearly 15 some of our grapes were registering. And we had maybe another 3 or 4 weeks if the weather stayed good before we needed to pick them. So far, at now nearly the end of September, the weather, even up at the top end of Nidderdale, has been kind to us. A relative term you understand.
On the less good front again, we have hens and chickens. If you were a non-vine grower you might say ahh, that’s nice, he’s taking up keeping life stock because his grapes aren’t growing. If you are a vine grower you will know that I’m talking about a great variability of size (and ripening) of the grapes, i.e. big ones and little one, in a bunch. This does not help the picking and wine making process at all. It’s not impossible but it probably does mean picking out all the unripe and small grapes before trying to make wine with what’s left. So that’s not great but hopefully not insuperable, if that is a word.
The other thing we’ve done this month is get the soil analysed again. At £14 a sample and 6 samples, this is not something to be undertaken lightly. I decided to do it because some of the leaves were showing some classic signs of mineral deficiency. We’re doing OK on the potassium, phosphorus and Magnesium front but there are other important elements at work here. Again more reading on the internet about what might be happening and sites talking about a problem with the carbon-nitrogen balance. Back to our first comprehensive soil analysis to read about the need for boron and zinc application. It’s all quite anxiety-provoking and, as it’s probably not the right time of year to be applying any additional chemicals, easy to put on the back burner until next year – assuming there is a next year.
So there we have it, September’s progress report. The bad bits – you’ll never make any wine (quite a big bad bit) and your soil needs treating, the good bits, well, we’re keeping on with the dream. We have 3 or 4 weeks for the weather to remain good and our grapes to ripen and hence for us to make some wine of some sort. Retirement, so many opportunities to lead an interesting life.