We all dream of owning a vineyard. But what’s it really like to grow grapes and make wine? In this cruelly honest series of posts, Chris Boiling gives you the hilarious reality, warts and all
I’m flying over the Alps on board flight EZY8421, heading for my tenth harvest in north-east Slovenia. I think this qualifies me as a flying winemaker.
Okay, the low-cost, budget kind, but we can’t all afford vineyards in south-east England. Or north-east England for that matter. Or France. Or Italy...
My vines are in the picture-perfect Jeruzalem wine hills in Slovenia, where everyone from 13th-century crusaders to Napoleon have found the promised wineland.
Terraced vineyards on every rolling hill, snaking their way round the contours. Aromatic white grapes thriving in the sunny days and cool nights. There's Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Traminer and Yellow Muscat – and my not-so aromatic Laški Rizling (Graševina) and Šipon (Furmint) field blend.
It’s a region that boasts the oldest living vine – nearly 450-years-old and producing grapes so sour the wine is almost undrinkable. My 45-year-old vines are also producing wine that is almost undrinkable, but that’s not the grape varieties’ fault. That’s down to me and my hands-off, low-intervention style.
I’m not a natural winemaker, just lazy
I’m not a natural winemaker, just lazy. I figure nature knows more about turning sunlight into sugar and sugar into alcohol than I ever will, despite my foundation degree in wine production.
I signed up for the four-year part-time course at Plumpton College after my first harvest. The previous owner of the winehouse and 0.5ha vineyard said he would show me what to do as part of the sales agreement.
But I couldn’t remember anything he said – apart from starting the day with homemade grappa, drinking a spritzer every time you destem a crate of grapes or move the handle on the ancient basket press, and it’s law to finish off the remainder of last year’s vintage with lunch.
I bought the three-storey house with a press room on the side and a cellar underneath nine years ago as an investment. Something that would give me a pot of gold when I retire.
It wasn’t my shrewdest business plan, as my wife frequently reminds me. But the other reason for buying a vineyard was to keep our grown-up kids interested in what we are doing. For the first few years, the pruning and harvest trips were fun family affairs. Then the kids got wise to the sheer hard work involved in growing grapes and turning them into vinegar.
My wife Karen and I are flying out on our own again this year. None of the rest of our family has had the stamina for more than two harvests. It’s amazing how quickly the glamour and romance of a vineyard dream wear off for youngsters…
Taking into account the flights and car hire and cash for the neighbour to look after our vines when we’re not there, each bottle costs us about £75 to produce. It tastes like a £5.99 supermarket special. I’ve only sold one bottle – for a very respectable £19.99, making a loss of only £55.01.
We save some money by letting easyJet select our harvest dates. Some vintners go for phenolic ripeness; we go for the cheapest outward and return dates in September. easyJet has got it right eight out of nine times so far – their lowest fares coinciding with the highest Oeschle reading in our little slice of the Jeruzalem-Ormož wine region.
My neighbour to the north has been picking his grapes, while I have been picking a magazine to read on my flight (Imbibe obvs).
But my harvest won’t be for a few more days. The forecast for the week is sunshine, so I’m going to take full advantage of those rays. Plus, there is plenty of preparation to do when I land.
I have to jet-wash my destemmer/crusher, press, crates, tubs, tanks and fermentation barrel, check it’s not leaking and dry everything out. I also have to buy a packet of yeast in case the native yeasty boys go rogue.
It’s the only addition I make these days. I used to spray the incoming grapes with a little sulphur and citric acid to prevent premature oxidation, add a pectin enzyme to speed up the maceration and settling, but it still turned out crap.
True, some people liked the wine, but they were getting it for free. For me, it was a £75 bottle that tasted little better than a mass-produced Pinot Grigio.
This year I want to make a wine that’s worth £75 (£85 to you). We can all dream. But, at the moment, I’m higher than the Alps and reality is a bumpy landing away.
Find out how the harvest went this time next week, once Chris Boiling has finished drinking last year’s harvest