2020 Harvest at Wiston Estate
Blood, sweet and tears. These are just a few things that usually end up in your average grape press load. Not forgetting leaves, mud, insects and the odd kit-kat chocolate bar (true story). Matter other than grapes or "MOG" can be quite exotic. Luckily, grapes hugely outweigh unwanted detritus, and anything "extra" surely only adds to the sense of terroir...
MOG is just one of the many delights experienced over the past 4 weeks, working as a cellar hand at Wiston Estate in West Sussex. I won't lie, it's been a pretty gruelling experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. My alarm has been set for 5:30am every morning, working 7 days a week, with a 1 hour drive to get to the estate for a 7am start. Thankfully, all of the team were brilliant and most importantly, big tea drinkers; and tea, as everyone should know, is a priority before anything else.
As part of the AM crew, led by the wonderful Marcus (Assistant Winemaker) and Megan (Production Manager), our team was responsible for getting the winery in tip-top shape before even sniffing out a bunch of grapes. Someone once told me that being a winemaker was 80% cleaning, 10% wine-making and 10% drinking beer. They weren't wrong. The first two days of my harvest experience were spent cleaning everything in the winery. Floors, tanks, presses and general equipment. You name it, we cleaned it. For those interested, chemicals weren’t used in the cleaning process. Just plenty of water and elbow grease. This way, the winery wasn’t tainted with any residual chemicals that could impact the final wine. I enjoyed drinking beer so much those first few evenings on my return home, I started to wonder if I had made a mistake limiting my studies to only wine.
It was ever so exciting when the first grapes did arrive, a total of 1.25 tonnes of Bacchus on 3 pallets. We couldn't wait to get stuck in. Using the Wilmes press with a capacity of just 1 tonne, a bit of foot treading after manual loading was necessary to make enough room for all the grapes to physically fit in. Once the press had been closed up and switched on, our attention turned to another delivery of grapes, this time 4 tonnes, to be loaded into the larger Pera press, or “The Ghost Train” as it became fondly known, due to the haunting scream it made at the start of each cycle. As more and more fruit landed (around 200 tonnes over 4 weeks), the arrival of grapes became slightly less exciting, with the anticipation of physically loading more crates, cleaning said crates, and then emptying out and washing the press once the juice had been pressed off, taking its toll. Once the Buscher 8 tonnes press was finally in action, christened “Elephant” for its booming trumpet call when switched on, I came to terms with the number of carbohydrates I was eating and embraced double lunches most days.
After a few days of lifting and shifting, it became possible to partake in some of the more intricate and intriguing winemaking work. Starting up ferments involved weighing out sugar (to increase potential alcohol), yeast (IOC 18-2007 used to initiate fermentation) and nutrients (Activit, to feed the yeast). Accuracy, timing and temperature were critical, as yeast cultures need to be slowly integrated into their future tank environment. It is also essential to remember that 1 hectolitre = 100 litres, not 1000 litres, to avoid big mistakes happening. What a difference a decimal place can make...
I was also fortunate enough to spend some time in the laboratory, analysing grape juice as it arrived on site for sugar, acidity and potential alcohol levels whilst continuing to examine results as the grape juice fermented. It took me a little while to get my head around the chemistry of free and bound SO2 measurements (I’ll admit - I’m still getting my head around it) but being able to physically undertake these tasks, rather than being limited to reading about them in books, was so helpful in complementing my studies.
Despite a lot of manual work involved, there is something about the magic of harvest that lifted our spirits. How quickly we went from not knowing each other, to sharing stories and jokes, singing and dancing to Motown classics, and generally having a wonderful time. We found ourselves in a fulfilling routine, with shared purpose and real drive. To load the press as best we could, attack the crate wash with every ounce of energy, and clean down each press at the end of every cycle - because we were part of a team, making some of the best wine in the UK, and our efforts really did make a difference. Thank you to all the team at Wiston for making my 2020 harvest experience so enjoyable. I can’t wait to taste the finished wines!