Dear friends,

Well, even for February this has been a bit of a doozie… cold and dreary with plenty of added rain, enlivened only by the birthdays of those in possession of the best zodiac sign of all…

I have been marking the endlessly surprising arrival of the start of my seventh decade by taking each of my nippers out to dinner, one at a time, in a restaurant of my choosing. The Wine Widow is not a fan of restaurants, but I am and this cunning plan is giving me four bites at the succulent cherry that is London’s restaurant landscape. Seems mad not to make this an annual event?

I have been marking the endlessly surprising arrival of the start of my seventh decade by taking each of my nippers out to dinner, one at a time, in a restaurant of my choosing.

In the vineyard the pruning is over, the pulling out is nearly done and the tying down is underway. This means we are approaching peak tidiness – the trellising empty, wires lowered, each vine a picture of dormant potential, canes demurely bowed, waiting for the warmth to raise the sap, swelling 8 to 10 buds on each cane into delicate, silvery leaf…we just have to pray it doesn’t start until after the last frost!

Vineyard

In the winery the blending is over and our teeth are recovering – tasting 30-odd highly acidic base wines really tests the enamel and we could all do with a visit to the dentist - but it will be worth a bit of pain because the wines were really revelatory… That wet mid-Summer followed by a baking early Autumn seems to have done something wonderful to the Chardonnay – the aromas we’re used to, of green apple, citrus and pear drops, have not been obliterated but they have been overlayed by scents of succulent peach, nectarine and apricot. Despite worries about dilution there is plenty of acidity to hold the wines together and Harry and Juan are very excited to see what these new flavours will turn into… in just 3 years’ time.

Yours,

Zam

We have two broken toasters in the house, both of which have been dud for years.  Actually I never knew one of them when it worked, it having been brought here from his father’s mending pile to join ours, many years ago. The other toaster, given to me over 30 years ago, has done me well before packing up in about 2018.  Since then both have been waiting for the practical man to … I don’t really know … source parts, take them apart, put them back together again? I believe that’s what is meant to happen. 

Friends who come to stay look very confused and a little downcast at breakfast where there is therefore a poor toasting game.  Bread is put on the right hand plate of the aga and if you time it right might be turned before burning/sticking to it.  Most days I open the hot plate to find a charred piece of bread that Zam has forgotten before heading to work.  When I found this again last week I took a unilateral decision to invest in a new toaster. 

I paid a visit to a well known department store in order to see for myself, feel their sturdiness and so on.

I googled and I couldn’t decide so I paid a visit to a well known department store in order to see for myself, feel their sturdiness and so on.   There were several models, all of which were for display with an accompanying notice that read “available online” which defeated the object obviously of coming home with a goddam toaster.  This failed mission gave Zam the chance to beg me for another week before I condemned him to useless consumption with built in obsolescence.

I think is how he termed it.

Yesterday Zam locked his keys in the boot of his car as he was heading out with wine deliveries.  I found two spare sets in the drawer and drove them over but neither worked so I went to Halfords and bought new batteries and bleep bleep, all was good.  This reminds me of the one and only time I have been a sensible parent:  One of our children, then aged about 4, stuck a bead up his nose and every time I said “blow” he sucked in his nostrils with intensity.  Luckily my godson had put a frozen pea up his nostril some weeks earlier and at A&E the medic sucked it out with a straw.  Which is what I did with the bead.  This was a very proud moment for an impractical woman.

I have also solved the toaster issue.  I have oatcakes for breakfast.

I have just left Olive at a train station where we missed her train by a minute which means waiting an hour.   She is heading to Wales for 3 days holiday.   She is wearing walking boots found last minute in the cupboard, (owner unknown) with which she is rather pleased while asking “do you think it’s okay that they’re a bit small?”  We sit in the car watching the rain and I offer her an old waterproof that I happen to know is buried in the boot but she says she has already got too much luggage and when, after about 15 minutes, I tell her I’ve got to get on and therefore abandon her, I think she’s right.

There is palpable relief from the team at a respite from venison burgers and pigeon breasts.

We unload three large bags, one of which holds a pasta maker.  She’s got an unusual view on walking holiday essentials. 

 

Last night she asked Zam for the weather forecast which would, for most of the year, be a sure bet for a detailed answer.  “I don’t know” he says, “Because I don’t care.”   That is a man basking in the post-harvest liberation of it not mattering in the slightest and it is in this mood that he will remain.  Until the frost panic starts again. 

With the grapes safely gathered, the juices safely tanked, he has also hung up his barbecuing tools.  There is palpable relief from the team at a respite from venison burgers and pigeon breasts.  Perhaps the meat feasts even got to him because he spent last weekend making soup from a pumpkin the size and shape of a canoe.   “What are the chewy bits?” I ask nervously (he never cooks anything normal and we all remember the pork and marshmallow with sauerkraut that appeared during lockdown).  “The Parmesan rind I found at the back of the fridge” he announced happily.  This would be the Parmesan I bought on impulse at Costco a couple of years ago, also the size of a canoe.  I remember telling him that Nigella (I think) puts dried out Parmesan lumps in soup to add umami.  I thought I told him she then removes it.

There is no doubt that every hour of sunshine is ever more gratefully received as the tanks and presses are washed and polished in preparation for harvest. Everything gleams, excitement is building, the atmosphere is fantastic. From time to time some idiot repeats a weather rumour: “apparently there might be a frost on Thursday” or similar which makes Zam stare at me in disbelief because a) I have no idea where I heard this and b) it is beyond the realms of consideration given everything else that needs to be considered right now.

Extremely keen on a tape gun, lists and labels, I have a happy time piling boxes onto a pallet which I hope to move with a lifty thing.

To be helpful, I offer to lend a hand in “fulfillment.” Extremely keen on a tape gun, lists and labels, I have a happy time piling boxes onto a pallet which I hope to move with a lifty thing.

When I do start to lift it, everything tilts in rather an alarming way. On seeing me gingerly manoevre this, Zam suggests that perhaps I ought to have stacked the boxes a little more evenly. A couple of days later I notice a number of items have been returned by the courier, looking very much the worse for wear - as though they’ve been duffed up on a night out. “We don’t understand why these have come back” Zam says, walking past. I look at them more closely with the sinking knowledge that these have all been sent out by me and that they have been returned because I put the wrong postcode on them.

“I just don’t understand” I begin “how I’ve put our home postcode on these.” I trail off. “You must email the customers and explain that you’ve taken on someone with limited experience…” Zam doesn’t look up from his computer but says in a low voice “Don’t worry. I already have.” I suspect he worded it more succinctly.

Then he says he is going to task three friends to carry magnums to a 60th birthday party in Seville the following weekend. That will never work I tell him. The bottles will explode. Nobody will want to take them. It’s a ludicrous idea.

But they do arrive. They are much enjoyed. No problemo. Which for some reason, I find rather annoying.

Join us at the Winery on 30th November from 9am – 3pm for A Makers’ Sale of Work.

There will be cushions, cards, blankets, baskets, rings, books, waistcoats...

We will be showcasing creations by Laura De La Mare, Fungus & Mold, Sarah Tyssen, Eland Books, Beyond the Barn, Camilla Dinesen, Izzy Letty, The Silo Collection, Winchester Cocoa Co, Louise Brown, Institches, Francheska Pattison, Acre & Holt and wine from The Grange

 

There will be cushions, cards, blankets, baskets, rings, books, waistcoats, wrapping paper, flowers, chocolates, decorations, mugs, magnums and more...

With food by Becka Cooper

Entry is free, with donations on the door for Allegra's Ambition

When I ask Zam what’s happening in the vineyard this week he tells me it’s all about waiting as he stares at his weather app looking for sunshine… prolonged sunshine, ideally until October.  There was no sign of any last week on a day in which the whole concept of waiting got thrown.

Our ticket for the Isle of Wight ferry said we must arrive an hour before departure. We arrive at 4.50.   The man in the booth checks our vehicle details, hands us a “6 o’clock” sign that we’re told to dangle from the mirror and directs us to lane 8 where we wait for our friends who are parking their car and then joining ours.  Within minutes another man directs us aboard.  We climb upstairs to the deck and wave at our friends sauntering towards us.

“Is that cruiser moving?” I ask, gawping at the size of the liner next door. “No.” Zam replies, “We’re moving.” 

“Is that cruiser moving?” I ask, gawping at the size of the liner next door. “No.” Zam replies, “We’re moving.”  To our astonishment our 6 o’clock ferry is leaving at 5 o’clock.  Our friends stop waving as they watch us depart.

 

Several phone calls and a foot passenger ferry later, we are reunited on either side of Cowes, none of us quite sure what just happened.  We head to the pub we’ve booked and eat fish and chips accompanied by a blistering 80’s soundtrack that reaches it’s peak with “I love rock n roll” before an early bed in preparation for an 8 a.m start.

The plan is a long walk, lunch, a return ferry at 5.30pm.  But as we sip coffee and stare out of the window we amend the plan.   We visit “Britain’s Hottest Garden” where we stand in the hothouse listening to rain hit the roof, we admire the countryside through the windscreen wipers, we buy paracetamol for backs that didn’t like the pub beds. We feel very unlike people who were planning to walk for 10 miles and more like people who want to sip from a thermos in their car looking at the view.  Except we don’t have a thermos. 

“Shall we go home earlier?” I’m not sure who first suggests this but it lands to a universal yes.  We head back to the ferry at midday.  “But you’re on the 5.30 ferry” the woman in the booth tells us.  We know, but we also know that yesterday it seemed to be like catching a bus so any chance of an earlier crossing? She shakes her head.  “All fully booked” she says.  We cannot find anywhere to eat because everyone else is already eating so we decide to buy a picnic at the supermarket and eat in the car. Zam approaches the ferry lady again.  Some time later he reappears saying triumphantly “I got us on the 3.30,” waving the thing you dangle on your mirror.

 

We are directed to lane 1 where I begin to butter rolls on my lap and a bottle of Chardonnay is opened. We’ve got crabmeat. Bliss.  A nice long picnic in the car in the rain.

And then it happens again.  Seconds later we’re waved on to the ferry which promptly departs. It is 2.30. 

“How was it?” I’m asked on the family WhatsApp.  “Confusing” I reply. “You sort of never wait for a ferry.”  Either that or the Isle of Wight is an hour ahead. 

I am anxious about the sweet peas (about to hit full throttle) and Zam is anxious about the vines (heatwave followed by rain = potential trouble) but we are committed to a holiday in Spain. The day before we go I wake up deaf in one ear.  This is not unusual.  I ring the ear clinic who tell me the audiologist is also going on holiday tomorrow and there are no appointments.  A text pings in from our daughter: Can you talk?  As she has just arrived in Greece this cannot be good news. In fact I know, as soon as I read it, that she has lost her passport.

The passport has indeed disappeared somewhere between the airport and the B&B.

The clinic call to say they’ve had a cancellation.  Anna rings to say a taxi driver found her passport and Alf eventually secures a third choice bed.

I abandon my online search for an alternative ear clinic and enter “emergency travel documents” but the main focus of the day remains trying to book our son’s university accommodation for which he has a timed slot and not a minute before - we tried.  (Whenever I recount this to anyone they say “like buying tickets for Glastonbury” to which I nod although in truth I’ve no idea.) 

At the appointed hour the accommodation website crashes.  I yell. Alf tells me to calm down.  The clinic call to say they’ve had a cancellation.  Anna rings to say a taxi driver found her passport and Alf eventually secures a third choice bed.  It’s nearly lunchtime. Trouble, everyone knows, comes (and in this case goes) in threes.
The next day I sit next to a very nice woman on the flight to Seville who tells me she broke her jaw when she fell off her daughters bunk bed where she was trying to kill a daddy long legs on the ceiling. The jaw went undiagnosed until she insisted that she could hear her teeth rattling every time she spoke and she then underwent various procedures including pins and pin removals which have left one side of her face paralysed “And it’s been peeled back twice” she explained.  I stare. “I’m a keen runner” she went on “but I broke a shoulder when I tripped.  Then I broke the other one when I slipped in the rain.”  I do not say that this confirms my deep distrust of running.   “And while being introduced to a new member of our running club as Most Accident Prone Member I fell over and broke my foot.”

My own jaw is now pretty much on the floor.  Not least because that puts paid to the three rule.    “Jesus,” I say, “and you’re on my flight.”

The sun is shining – it’s time to take a trip to wine country, England-style.

Karen Krizanovich came to visit us and wrote about it for Civilian

One of my favourite vineyards is The Grange. (Gusbourne and The Grange are not unknown to each other – and yes, Gusbourne has purchased vineyard acreage in West Sussex too, yes I know.) You can accuse me of being obsessed. I accuse me of being obsessed, but this vineyard sings to me in ways I can’t quite grasp. It’s not just the enthusiasm, professionalism, sleek functionality and a wine vehicle that is a beautiful Series One Defender. I love the smell of the place, the look of it, the countryside stretching without interruption, the trees and the rolling hills. It’s a place of serenity, for me as a visitor at least.

I can taste England all over the place

Like many vineyards, The Grange is giving tours throughout July and September and The Grange’s Zam will have you understanding, experientially, first hand, why this wine really does taste of where it’s from.

2 bottles of The Grange WHITE FROM BLACK, an English sparkling wine made from Pinot Meunier grapes

I swear opening a bottle of The Grange brings the windswept sweetness of the Hampshire breeze smack into the bottle itself. My favourite – the favourite of many – is the rare vintage White From Black 2018, a Meunier-only white sparkler from that year’s extraordinary crop. This tastes of white stone and orchard fruit, condensed but fresh. Made from four different Meunier cuvées, with just a touch of oak, this is an exceptional bottle. And if you drive out to the vineyard, you may still be able to get one of their still rosés, available solely on site. While I prefer sparkling – as PeeWee Herman once said, “All my friends have big buts” – The Grange’s Still Pink 2022 is my big but. But it’s a still I like – and it is just like that south of France rosé that tells your mouth you’re on holiday. This one is English, just as summery and uplifting and you’ll drink it all at once. Both of these wines have won Silver medals at 2023’s WINEGB Awards, just two more in bulging trophy case at The Grange.

Simon Mason, Head of Wine Sustainability at The Wine Society, wrote the following on regenerative viticulture at The Grange

Change can be slow in the world of wine, with tradition a major selling point for many. The annual cycle around the one precious crop of grapes understandably means a reluctance to throw caution to the wind with dramatic experiments.

For all that, new ideas do come around, and last year I wrote about the beginnings of a new movement focusing on regenerative viticulture – improving soil health and biodiversity to produce healthy, more disease-resistant grapes – and potentially, better wine.

Zam Baring, managing partner of The Grange and its vineyard Burges Field, and vineyard manager Samuel Philippot were at several of the same conferences I attended on this subject, and I was delighted to visit them to see their work for myself.

Zam Baring and Sam Phillipot
Zam Baring (left), managing partner of The Grange and its vineyard Burges Field, and vineyard manager Samuel Philippot

The Grange is situated on a chalky slope above the River Itchen in Hampshire, planted in 2011 to classic sparkling-wine grapes – chardonnay and pinots noir and meunier. The gravelly clay soil is incredibly shallow and the vine roots dig down deep into a thick layer of pure white chalk.

When I visited in April, on a cold, blustery day, it was hard to believe that Samuel was expecting budburst to begin the following week. That said, the bougies (candles) already laid out as a precaution against damaging frost were a reminder of the still marginal nature of winemaking in many areas of the UK.

Originating in Montpellier in the south of France and arriving at The Grange five years ago after managing a Bordeaux domaine, Samuel gamely says he greatly enjoys the English way of life. Starting in 2014, Zam and the rest of the small team trialled several different cover crops throughout the vineyard. A cornerstone of regenerative agriculture, cover crops can be used to improve soil texture and water retention through breaking up compaction, improving nitrogen content in the soil without adding fertilisers and potentially, by helping the soil store carbon.

A question of trial and error

As those in regenerative agriculture are at pains to point out, there is no recipe book for success in taking this approach – lots of trial and error will be necessary. Over the years, the team at The Grange have experimented with clover, various species of grass, phacelia, buckwheat and oxeye daisy – one of the ongoing issues being that as you mow so the wildflowers die down and the perennial grasses assert their dominance. As they themselves admit, there was a great deal of experimentation with this and, so far, they have yet to find the perfect mix.

Another principle of regenerative agriculture is to minimise the disturbance of the soil and thereby the communities of bugs, fungi and microbes that make it all work. The Grange’s next trial was to stop any cultivation underneath 20 rows of pinot noir down the centre of the vineyard. After four years the yields from the trial plot had dropped significantly with current vines only able to produce one cane from which new grapes can grow – as opposed to the two canes in the rest of the vineyard. While some drop in yield would have been acceptable to the team, in exchange for healthier vines and more consistent volumes, this was too much and so the trial plot has been reduced in size and the rest of the vines are being cultivated back to health.

Zam and Samuel believe the thin chalk soils are going to need a lot more activation before zero-disturbance will work here. That said, Zam was quite happy with some aspects of the trial plot. In the very difficult, wet 2021 vintage, the reduced vigour of the canopy leaves meant that there was more airflow through the vines and therefore no mildew, which was a big problem on the conventionally farmed plots. The quality of fruit was also excellent.

To build on the work so far, Zam and Samuel are putting together a more structured programme both in the trial plot and across the vineyard. From this year, a cover crop mix of vetches, oats, radish, buckwheat, clover, sunflower, linseed and native wild flowers will be applied. Intended to be self-seeding, this should only need resowing every three or four years, with the cover crop mown or crimped to help return the nutrients to the soil. With plants of differing heights growing at different rates, there is definitely a concern about airflow reduction.

Fauna and flora

 

Alongside cover crops, the team hopes to make more use of sheep in the vineyard. Winter grazing adds valuable nutrients back to the soil via manure and they can also help with ‘bud rubbing’ – the removal of unwanted buds on the lower parts of vines, sending all the energy into the shoots. This is already practised in other English vineyards, but the low height of The Grange’s vines means that the Ouessant sheep used elsewhere might do more harm than good. Samuel also plans to use fleeces on the ground to help with weed prevention.

Around the back of their brand-new winery, Samuel is developing another vital but less glamorous piece of the regenerative jigsaw – the compost heap. Horse manure and marc, the grape skins leftover after pressing, will be supplemented with mulched cuttings. The aim is to create a high-potency super compost that can be applied more thinly, resulting in fewer tractor passes through the vineyard and helping reduce both carbon emissions and soil compaction.

Does it work?

"As those in regenerative agriculture are at pains to point out, there is no recipe book for success in taking this approach – lots of trial and error will be necessary" - Simon Mason

The team will be taking frequent soil measurements across 40 sample plots identified by GPS, testing things like earthworm count, rooting depth, presence of rhizosheaths and nodulation of legumes – all signs of healthy soil.

Speaking to Zam and Samuel, it is clear that they are committed to a regenerative approach and that it is likely to take many years to show progress. Given that five years is only five chances to see the results of change on the finished fruit and that every vintage brings many variables of its own, the challenges are obvious. “It’s very slow but it’s a direction of travel” says Zam, who plans to do the most he can without affecting the quality of his wines which is great news for our members. We look forward to updating on his progress.

We try to warn overnight guests about the crows but the invariable opener at breakfast is “Oh my god, the CROWS” as though the guests didn’t hear/believe us. They’ve been woken by a pair of birds who attack a particular set of windows, pecking at the glass with such ferocity it sounds exactly like someone knocking loudly at the door.  It’s impossible to sleep through and usually begins around dawn.   

Many studies have been made of corvids and their intelligence:  In one, seven birds were captured and then released by researchers. The following year the same birds “scolded and harassed” the researchers – picking them out in a crowd. The study is in its 14th year and the birds still spot the original team, with 30 birds now joining in.  Corvids, in other words,  have long memories, hold a grudge and spread the word. 

This, I think, affects my options.

Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, chaffinch, white throat, garden warbler...

It has been suggested that I stick a huge picture of an owl in the window to intimidate them so I am googling posters (most of which make owls look cuddly and wise and not at all intimidating) when I hear Zam swearing loudly.  I tend to ignore this having learnt over the years that the violence of his expletive bears no correlation to the subject - could be imminent nuclear war or it could be we’re low on milk.  Often it means he’s lost his phone.  But I know that on this occasion he can’t have because I, very considerately, brought it in from the table near the Corvid window where he had obviously forgotten it.

Turns out he was recording birdsong on his favourite app and I have disturbed it before it could add Eurasian Treecreeper (recorded later) to the impressively long list.  A couple of days later I find myself home alone listening to birdsong and the next thing I know I’m downloading the same app and transfixed by the sounds around me.

We are woken by the crows again and I can’t help wondering if they’re all THAT intelligent given that they seem to be either attacking or trying to mate with their own reflections.  But what do I know.  I sit on a bench watching the app tell me what is singing around me.    Minutes later I can’t tell a blackbird from a wren, having a much shorter memory than a Corvid.

Birds recorded at the winery on 13th June: Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, great tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, magpie, white throat, wren, blackbird, song thrush, collared dove, wood pigeon and garden warbler.