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Memorable Harvest from 2014



An update for VinCE readers who were wondering how Chris Boiling, the Englishman ‘living the dream’ of making wine in Central Europe, is getting on…

The worst summer in 20 years

The dream lives on. 2014 was another memorable harvest. But not for the right reasons. Spring 2014 was so warm and wonderful that the vines got off to a flying start. I calculated the grapes would be ripe for harvesting in early to mid-September. EasyJet’s pricing structure suggested mid-September would be the preferred period. We left sunny (yes, sunny!) England and arrived in sodden Slovenia with one harvest helper, sister-in-law Viv, who admired the abundance of lakes in the valleys between the rolling hills of the Jeruzalem-Ormož wine region. We didn’t tell her they are usually cornfields.

On the way to the house we passed firemen pumping water from basements. Fortunately our house is on a hill so we weren’t expecting any flooding… however there was a leak in the roof and water was running down the wooden beams onto our basket press. We awoke every day of this short visit to sheets of rain. Local winemakers grumbled about the worst summer in 20 years; some were even said to be ‘panicking’ over the atrocious conditions. Good grapes were down by as much as 50% in some vineyards.

Tested New Knowledge

It would be a challenging year to make quality wine, for sure, but I was excited about putting my newly-gained winemaking knowledge to the test. I came armed with a recipe for making wine in such conditions: highly selective grape-picking, minimal skin contact, early doses of SO2 and citric acid, some pectin enzymes to make the pressing easier, minimal maceration, light pressing, accelerated settling, racking off the gross lees and a cool fermentation.

Simple. But I was under extra pressure to get it right this year, as my youngest daughter wants the wine for her wedding in February 2016. As we watched the rain snake down the windowpanes and drip down the beams, my excitement turned to anxiety. Even if we wanted to harvest in the rain and risk watered-down juice, the berries had not seen enough sunshine to ripen yet; their change of colour was due to mould rather than veraison.

So, we stared out the window, watching wave after wave of heavy, dark, ominous clouds gather overhead. To pick or not to pick, that was the question? To have unripe grapes with high acidity, or risk losing everything to mould? We had booked flights to return to Slovenia (to rack the wine and add sulphur dioxide) in ten days’ time. Dare we postpone the harvest until then?

As we were after half-decent wine (and we didn’t want to shatter Viv’s romantic view of harvesting), we decided to leave the grape-gathering/mouldy-grape-discarding until our next visit. But, just as we made this decision, our neighbour’s picking crew turned up to save his grapes. Did he know something we didn’t? After the harvest, he told us his juice was only 12 KMW (about 57 Oechsle) and his acidity levels were 12g/L.

On our return, ten days later, the sun was shining, the grapes tasted less sour, the reading on the refractometer had gone up to 13.5 KMW (about 65 Oechsle), and the acidity level in our grapes was down to a more acceptable 8.6g/L, meaning I wouldn’t have to deacidify before starting the fermentation.

Postponing the Harvest

Our eldest daughter and her new husband were due to fly out in a few days, when more rain was forecast. Dare we leave the harvest a little longer? This time we chickened out and decided to pick our 700 vines on our own. Equipment washed, secateurs in hand – we were just about to start the harvest when Robi the Plumber turned up to fix our leak. We thought something had got lost in translation again but, we were told, Robi was a roofer before he became a plumber and now he makes motorhomes. That’s why he was free on a Sunday morning. “For a professional you would have to wait a month,” I was told.

Postponing the harvest again, I became Robi’s roofing assistant for the morning. It seems to be quite a common thing here – or is it just because we don’t use ‘professionals’? – that the workmen who turn up to do a job never come equipped with the tools they need. Robi’s first question was: “Do you have a ladder?”

I fetched the ladder, then some pliers, then some wood, then a saw, then some screws. It turned out that Robi wasn’t totally unprepared for the task in hand – he had brought his own hammer, silicone gun and angle grinder… which he left behind. But he took my pliers.

With the flashing around the chimney fixed, we retired to the next-door neighbour’s cellar for some well-earned ‘moste’ (his still-fermenting wine). For some reason, no one ever suggests retiring to my cellar for wine!

We finally started our harvest at about 4pm on a Sunday afternoon at the end of September. It took even longer this year to complete as very few bunches were unaffected by rot and we didn’t want any diseased grapes to reach the crusher (if possible). We finished the harvest the following day. Over the past few years my volume of must has gone from 700L, 700L, 500L, 350L to this year’s dismal 100L.

“Not much of a party”

When I told our unofficial consultant in the local wine shop that we didn’t want to make spritzer wine, that we wanted to get 70 bottles for our daughter’s wedding, he stared back in silence… then uttered a well considered: “Not much of a party.”

Most years I don’t tinker too much with our wine. In the beginning this was because I didn’t know I should be doing something to improve it or to prevent off-flavours. Then it was a conscious choice – I’m lazy, I don’t really have the time to fuss over it and I actually want my wine to be as natural as possible. If there are imperfections, I make a virtue of them. I tell our friends that our Motna Bela (‘Cloudy White’) is ideal for darkened, romantic settings. Our Hlevskega Fermentirati (‘Farmyard Ferment’) is best reserved for picnics… near cowsheds.

I’m proud of my 2012, though. I tasted some recently on the shores of Lake Bled. It is still very fresh and fruity and my new son-in-law declared it to be the best white wine he has ever tasted. I’m growing fonder of the lad each day.

The 2012 is the one I’d open for the neighbours if they ever did decide to visit my cellar… even though there are only 30 bottles left now. My high hopes for 2014 began to fade when I saw the state of the grapes and discovered I had to add 6.5kg of sugar to boost the alcohol level to about 11.5% and add calcium carbonate to combat the sour apple taste (the first time I have had to deacidify my wine). On a positive note, the quantities were too small for my rain-washed basket press, so I used the ancient – and possibly gentler – technique of pigeage à pied (foot stomping) to press the grapes and I also left the pump unplugged, using buckets instead to transfer the must and wine.

Every step of the way, my daughter in England asked how her wine was developing. “Well, darling,” I’d say, “it’s not on a par with the 2012 yet or even the 2011 Motna Bela. But it’s still early days.” When I heard the disappointment in her voice, I told her each bottle of Kredasta Bela (‘Chalky White’) was worth about €75 – neglecting to tell her that’s what I’d have to charge to break even this year, not what people would actually pay for it.

That figure is a sobering one. It hit me twice: firstly, when I cut off the vast number of rotten bunches (‘Oh, what might have been’) and then again when I visited the local Lidl and Hofer supermarkets and discovered decent bottles of local wine for €3-5 and 2.5L plastic containers of Italian wine – that would be perfect for a wedding – for about €6.

And to top off the 2014 harvest, when I arrived home in England, I was greeted with the news that English winemakers have had an “epic” year – a “vintage of dreams”.