Village History
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East Meon Vineyard

George Bartlett, owner of The Court House, has established a vineyard in the old Berry Garden. In three separate years, he writes about the planting, growing and harvesting of the vines. There was almost certainly a vineyard near to The Court House in mediaeval times … Click here to read more.

Origins, from Meon Matters 2009

Anyone walking along the footpath by the allotments in recent months will have noticed the serried ranks of wooden poles that have appeared on the north side of the drive down to The Court House. Since the middle of May, close inspection would have shown that along the rows between these poles about 2000 vines have been planted. The object is to grow grapes for the production of champagne-type wine. The field to the east of The Court House was known in former times as the Berry garden, and was presumably the place where soft fruit was grown. In 1912 the western half of this field was conveyed to the parish council as allotment gardens, and remained in use for that purpose until 1956. So there is a history of horticultural production. A short distance along the Petersfield road Vineyard Hole testifies to the past growing of vines.

In the last two or three years there has been some quite extensive planting of vines for the production of champagne-type wine in this area. The Hampshire chalk downs, in terms of geology and soil, are similar to the best parts of Champagne, and the climate change has made our area more favourable to the sort of grape production that is needed – warm enough for ripe grapes, but not so warm that they lose the essential acidity. Hambledon vineyard has been replanted with champagne-type grapes and a French champagne producer has planted 10 acres of vines on the south side of Old Winchester Hill.

Our enterprise is rather more modest in scale, and soil and location are probably less favourable. The first task after the ground, an acre in extent, had been ploughed and harrowed was to set out lines of posts that will, in due course, carry the wire to which the vines will be tied. The chestnut posts came from the woods at Adhurst, where the coppicing of chestnut trees is still carried on in traditional fashion.

For the website of East Meon Vineyard, click here

Three-quarters of the vines are pinot noir and the rest are chardonnay, with a number of different clones of each variety, grafted onto root-stock that is of moderate vigour and tolerant of chalky soil. They came from a nursery in the foot-hills of the Alps, not far from Chamonix, and were kept chilled before being soaked and planted out into warm soil in the middle of May. Terry Louden led the planters in a prayer. Any failures or shortcomings in the crop will now incontestably be attributable to the incompetence of the growers.

For the first three years, while the vines are developing and being trained to the trellis, no grapes will be allowed to form (we are currently removing the little flower bunches that appear). The first crop will be taken in 2009 and will be sent away for the expert, and rather complex, process of making the wine, which should be available in 2010.

Harvest, from Meon Matters 2011

The East Meon Vineyard), 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay for the production of champagne-style wine, yielded its first crop in October 2009. The weather in 2009 was for the most part favourable for the growth of grapes for wine. Fine and warm at flowering time (late June and the beginning of July) and a sunny September to ensure sufficient ripeness. 2010 presented much more of a challenge.

It was a cold winter, but, probably because April was relatively mild, the first buds burst from the pruned vines on 27 April, only 3 days later than in 2009. A nasty late frost on 12 May killed some of the shoots, but happily the damage was fairly limited. Late June and early July were fine and warm, so that there was good flowering and fruit set, although the period for this was rather extended. There was the potential for a large crop, given good weather thereafter.

But August, as all who took holidays in this country will remember, was a dreadful month, with about two-thirds of the usual sunshine and a lot of rain, particularly towards the end of the month. It followed a spring and summer that had been unusually dry: only about an inch of rain fell in each of the months April, May and June, and there were less than two inches in July. These conditions were ideal for the development of botrytis, which develops on the grapes as an unpleasant grey mould (and is to be distinguished from “noble rot” botrytis, which, at the end of ripening, brings white grapes that are to be made into dessert wine to a raisin-like sweetness). You spray against botrytis from the time of fruit-setting, but it is never possible to prevent it, particularly in such a summer as this. We first noticed it in the first week of September, as did other vineyards, and over the next few weeks we spent many hours removing infected grapes. Torrential rain in the first week of October encouraged it further.

Because of the extended period of flowering and fruit set there was a wide range of ripeness in the grapes. We planned to postpone picking for as long as possible – to the last but one weekend in October – in order to extract the last bit of ripening from the declining year. A forecast of unhelpfully cold weather, however, prompted us to pick on 17 October (still a week later than in 2009), and it was a good decision. In the course of the next week there were frosts, one quite severe, and we should have lost out by hanging on. On the 17th a slight but undamaging frost opened a most beautiful, sunny autumn day, and our team of helpers assembled to harvest the crop.

Harvesting was less straightforward than the year before owing to the botrytis and the range of ripeness of the grapes. We left unpicked the less ripe grapes, and the team went through every picked bunch to remove the grapes that were mouldy. The result was a van-load of grapes that we thought seemed quite respectable. When we got to Dermot Sugrue’s winery near Findon, Dermot took one look at them and called the staff out from the winery to admire what he said was the most perfect crop he had had delivered to him. The stacks of crates waiting to be pressed from one of the larger vineyards certainly presented a contrast, with many unripe bunches and the suffocating smell of mould.

At that point, therefore, we were feeling modestly pleased that the result of our hard work had in the event produced a decent crop. We felt even more pleased, and possibly slightly less modest, when, after the grapes had been pressed, an analysis of the juice showed the sugar content, acidity and pH to be spot-on the ideal. Despite our rigorous selection the yield was 20% up on 2009 (though far short of the amount that we shall get when the vines are fully mature) and, after a gentle extraction, it will result in about 700 bottles. The wine is now in a large oak barrel following fermentation. I have yet to taste it, but the indications are that it will be very good. It will be bottled, to undergo its second fermentation, probably in August.

So a very different year from 2009, but it illustrates the nature of our little operation. Champagne production, and the production of sparkling wine by the larger producers in this country, is all about blending wines from different batches to produce something that is recognisably consistent with the wine of previous years. In these mixing processes the less good can be absorbed with the larger good. We are simply seeking to produce the best wine we can from the year’s yield. So we will limit the crop as necessary to ensure that the quality is good, and if there are years in which conditions are so adverse that even selection will not produce a wine of sufficient quality we will sell the crop or the wine for blending.

Meanwhile the 2009, which was bottled in August 2010, will already have developed its fizz. Probably in April 2012, the yeast will be popped out, the liqueur d’expédition will be added and the cork inserted. Dermot will no doubt then tell us to wait for a year or two before starting to drink it, but I rather think that is one piece of advice that we shall ignore.

Harvest, from Meon Matters 2012

On 13 and 14 May 2006 about 2000 vines were planted on an acre of land to the east of The Court House on part of the field known for centuries as the Berrygarden .Three years and a summer later, on a sunlit morning on 10 October 2009, the vineyard yielded its first harvest to a team of 50 or so pickers, in which the Garden Club and the Cricket Club both featured strongly.
The vines, 75% pinot noir and 25% chardonnay were planted to produce grapes for the production of sparkling wine, for which England has now an increasing reputation. The year before we planted much more extensive areas were planted at Hambledon (a replanting of the existing vineyard) and at Exton, and a producer from Champagne transformed part of the upper slopes of Old Winchester Hill into what looks like a transplant from the Montagne de Reims. Ours are laid out not in the narrow, dumpy champenois rows or in the much taller, rather claustrophobic, style that is now usual in this country but as they are in Limoux in the south of France, where sparkling wine was first made. With the top wire at 5 feet (the fruiting wire, to which the winter-pruned shoots are tied, is at a height of about 27 inches) when you are in the vineyard you can see across it and out to the village roofs and to Wether Down and Small Down and Yew Down beyond.

Vine growing is labour intensive, though for the most part enjoyable, and a single minute spent on each of our vines amounts to over 30 hours work in total. We pruned during March. Budburst, the first emergence of the green shoots, was on 24 April. A frost at budburst can do great damage, and there was a frost on 28 April and another on 4 May, but both were so slight and over so quickly that no harm was done. Once growth is under way it is necessary to rub off buds that emerge on the trunk, and as the shoots grow they have to be pushed between the double, middle, wires and trimmed when they reach the top wire. Weeding beneath the vines, a tedious task, is also required. Spraying is needed throughout the spring and summer at fortnightly intervals to ward off powdery and downy mildew and, from July, botrytis. The 6 feet spacing of the rows is sufficient to accommodate my articulated Italian tractor, to which I attach an orchard sprayer. During the spring we sowed grass between the rows (it is more easily maintained than bare earth and looks more pleasing) and for cutting this I have a flail mower attached to the tractor.

The most crucial time for a successful crop is at flowering, when the little bunches of buds throw their caps and the single-stamen self-pollinating flowers appear. What is needed then is fine, warm weather, and this year we had it. The second week of Wimbledon (our flowering started on 27 June) was memorably glorious, as indeed much of the month before had been, so that the vines, in terms of the number of grapes, were able to fulfil their potential for the year.

July was a miserable month, with rain on 22 of the 31 days, and August was much less sunny than it should have been. But temperatures were about average and so reasonably conducive to the growth of the grapes. There is a point – the start of what the French call véraison – at which the grapes turn from green to purple (or, if white, to a more yellowy green) and they then swell and ripen rather more rapidly. Véraison started on 29 August, and we then had a 6-week run to harvest when the sun shone during early autumn days of great clarity and beauty (September concentrated almost all its rainfall in a single day, the 2nd). Temperatures were only about average, but they were sufficient to ensure a good and healthy crop.

And so we harvested, and B, which seemed a gratifying reward for five years of planning and work. What was interesting was the difference in yields between the varieties and clones of vines that we had planted. The Chardonnay (25% of the number of vines) produced only 5% of the total yield. We planted three different clones of Pinot Noir, each constituting a quarter of the vineyard, and one of these produced nearly half the total crop (or ten times the yield from the same number of Chardonnay vines). The principal reason for this variation is likely to be differences in maturity, and we expect that things will tend to even out in future as the root systems develop. All being well in a good year we should quadruple this year’s yield.

The pickers harvested with such enthusiasm, filling baskets with bunches and emptying them into crates at the end of the rows, that the task was completed in not much more than two hours. We are very grateful to them – and to those who arrived, eager to play their part, only to find that the work had already been done. By 4 pm we were tipping the crates of grapes into the press at the winery, and shortly afterwards we were tasting the delicious pale pink juice as it emerged. Since it is not left to ferment on its skins, the colour of the wine is derived entirely from the juice, and even the pink particles will sink out of it, leaving it a pale straw colour.
The wine is being made for us by Dermot Sugrue. He was the winemaker at Nyetimber when it gained its reputation as the leading English sparkling wine (and the vanquisher of champagnes in international competitions). Having planted a vineyard for the owners of an estate in Sussex, he has now set up on his own as a sparkling wine producer there at the Wiston Winery, and he will, I have no doubt, establish himself as a world-beater. He is bringing the same care and attention to detail in the production of our, comparatively, little quantity as for the large amounts he is producing for Hambledon, Jenkyn Place and elsewhere.

I tasted the wine after it had just about completed its fermentation, and it was fine and clean. It will move forward to its next stage in the summer of 2010, when it will be charged will some sweetened juice and yeast and put into bottles to undergo its secondary fermentation. Then, two years later in 2012, the yeast residue will be removed and the 650 bottles will be re-corked and labelled, ready for drinking at the end of that year, although it should improve for a number of years afterwards.

And the name? Not finally decided, but we favour “Berrygarden” with underneath “East Meon Vineyard”. Since we doubt our capacity to drink it all ourselves, it is clear that others will have to assist in the task. Sorting out that side of things is for the future. Before then there will be three more harvests, and what they will be like will depend, apart from our work, on the vagaries of the weather. We would readily settle for more years like this last one.

For the website of East Meon Vineyard, click here

George Bartlett