Diary of an accidental winemaker, part two: Mamma Mia, here we go again

Chris Boiling

26 September 2018

In part one of this series, part-time winemaker Chris Boiling was easyJetting off to his vineyard. Follow along as he continues the story of his 2018 vintage in Slovenia…

The tock-tock of the klopotec heralds the start of the grape harvest season here in northeast Slovenia. These large wind-powered wooden rattles are erected early in September to scare birds away from ripening berries. To me, they look like flying machines designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

The harvest soundtrack in the hamlet where I have my winehouse and small vineyard also includes the laughter and chatter of families and friends who only come together for weddings, funerals and the harvest. Each family seems to have an uncle who plays the harmonium and never needs much encouragement to get it out and continue playing until everyone else has left.

We’re luckier than most; it’s a nephew who turns up at one of our neighbour’s properties and, rumour has it, he made the semi-finals of Slovenia’s Got Talent a few years ago.

The winemaker in his vineyard
The winemaker in his vineyard

There’s a buzz in the air, too. Our normally quiet street is alive. Tractors trundle up and down, trailers laden with green grapes one way and marc on the way back. Cars block every driveway and cover the grass verges. The dog in the farm opposite, who only barks at strangers, is going crazy. He won’t survive the day at this rate.

We added to the soundscape this year. My wife bought a CD for the two-hour drive from Ljubljana airport. So, in addition to the klopotec and harmonium, our 2018 crop was gathered to the strains of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.

But the sound that most concerned me as harvest morn dawned was a distant murmur – a murmuration of starlings heading over the Jeruzalem-Ormoz wine hills, coming my way. I’ve seen the damage this cloud of birds can do when it descends on a vineyard. They can strip its juiciest, ripest berries in minutes.

They approach low. In formation. My heart beats faster. Was this the grapes’ Waterloo?

The klopotec takes another turn. TOCK. But the birds continue to zero in on my vineyard. The murmur becomes a buzz as the super-swoopers sweep in – and fly past.

Not one of them even has the courtesy to dip a wing and check out my grapes.

I was hurt. How can I have a dream of charging £85 a bottle when even hungry birds won’t give my grapes a second look?

Admittedly, the poor little wine pills didn’t look their best. They had been battered by one of the stormiest summers on record and three hail strikes. But there were some bunches that still looked in peak condition.

Perhaps the birds were just scared of the klopotec. Or maybe they were swallows, which don’t eat grapes. (Ornithology is not one of my strong points.)

So, the harvest preparations could begin. Suncream. Old clothes. Wide-brimmed hats. Nabbing the best secateurs for myself. My wife puts on rubber gloves, but I’d rather my hands were sticky than sweaty.

I place crates strategically along the first row, and fill another with water (so gloveless pickers can wash their hands).

We fortify ourselves against wasp stings and the vineyard’s incline, which gets steeper as the day wears on, with my version of Nocino, a walnut liqueur I try to make every year on my birthday in June using green walnuts plucked from my own trees. I make it using an ancient recipe. It’s more bitter, more nutty and less sweet than other versions of Nocino that I’ve tasted across the border in Italy.

We start picking the grapes at 9am on the dot and finish the day at 9pm. The first year, when everyone was keen to help us pick, we finished picking by lunchtime and spent the afternoon making wine. When our family could no longer be bothered to help, we used local friends but I spent more time making lunch and drinks and being the perfect host than I did making wine.

A couple of years ago when we tried to do it all by ourselves, we finished at five the following morning. So, this year, I’ve done a deal with my neighbour – his family and friends will pick six of our 11 rows. He will keep the grapes but won’t charge me as much for spraying the vines and mowing the grass. I agree to the deal before I see the grapes. Before I see why the starlings snubbed them.

Our yield is going to be very low. There won’t be enough grapes to fill the basket press and we will have to press them with our feet.

When we bought the property nine years ago, the old vines were producing about 1,200 litres a year. I chose to prune and green harvest for quality, reducing the yield to 700l for a few years. But recently it’s been 300-400. This year, after my deal with my neighbour, I’ll be lucky if I get 100l.

Still, at least the sugar levels are good – 92 Oeschle for the Laški Rizling (Graševina) and Šipon (Furmint) field blend and 90 Oe for the two rows of Pinot Noir. The grapes taste sweet and most of the seeds are dark – both good signs of ripe fruit. easyJet did it again!

We pick the white grapes first and destem, crush and press them before moving on to the Pinot Noir. I suggested leaving the purple grapes until the following day, but my wife says she only wants to get sticky once.

I agree, as I have a surprise for her – I’ve made a call and bought some Šipon grapes, so I can make an orange Furmint.

The 2018 vintage may be small but I am going to produce three wines from it, and their names have already come to me. My white field blend will be called Dancing Queen, the slowly-made Pinot Noir is going to be called Andante Andante, and the spicy orange Furmint will be acclaimed for its Kisses of Fire.

I don’t know where the names came from. I guess there was just something in the air that night...

Tune in next week, when the actual making of the actual wines gets underway

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