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Hale Valley Vineyard at Wendover

PUBLISHED: 10:59 09 November 2015 | UPDATED: 17:06 09 November 2015

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We'll always raise a glass to our local wine producers - Sandra Smith has been to visit the Hale Valley Vineyard at Wendover

Fancy finding this in the hills above WendoverFancy finding this in the hills above Wendover

A small allotment at The Lee in Bucks over 600ft above sea level, is both an unlikely and less than idyllic setting for growing vines. First of all, it would seem something of a miracle for grapes in this country to survive at such a height. And given the lack of wine knowledge – apart from uncorking a bottle for dinner - the two friends renting the allotment for a modest £10 per annum originally shared, the chances of producing a credible crop would always be limited.

Yet when Chris Dann and Patrick Hurd met the creator of Wendover’s Hale Valley Vineyard for advice the duo ended up taking on this nearby two acre plot from where they are about to harvest Bacchus and Findling grapes.

“We’re doing this for education and fun,” Chris smiles. “There aren’t many people who run a vineyard. We are a privileged few. Anthony Chapman established Hale Valley Vineyard but was about to plough it up because he no longer wanted the onerous work, such as pruning. We thought that was sad, so a neighbour who is a member of the same wine club suggested we could help. Anthony said he’d rather we just took it over. We agreed! It’s on an ad hoc basis and Anthony gives us advice. He likes us being here as the fruits of his labours are still being used. We were mightily impressed when we first visited his vines. They grow on one wire at shoulder height – a gentleman’s vineyard.”

With harvest imminent, Chris explains the seasonal duties involved, beginning with the first pruning in February to get rid of last year’s growth. This is followed by a quiet period until April or May when bud burst prompts regular spraying to prevent downy mildew.

As roses are susceptible to mildew, they are planted at the ends of a few rows, offering an early indication of potential problems.

“We do the proper prune in July, thinning things out so air can get through and blow away the mildew and spores. We don’t want too much greenery. Ends are pruned to stop them growing too long, and also elbows, where there is the most vigorous growth. Some people suggest leaving five leaves but you have to have balance; it’s important to remove the chance of any other leaf growth so that all the growth goes into the grape. It can take two people four hours to prune one row. The Bacchus has more leaf so we start with those vines, then we’re on the home straight when it comes to the Findling grapes. We spray every 10-12 days until a few weeks before picking in order to avoid chemicals on the grapes. I’m a bit of a landscaper so I also mow, because a happy looking vineyard produces happy looking grapes!”

Chris and Patrick share the hard work, though the timing of when to pick the grapes remains their most challenging decision.

“You need to leave it as late as possible so the sugar content is high,” Chris continues, “at the same time as avoiding frost which could wipe out the whole crop. From September we use a refractometer to check the sugar level. This varies from row to row, even bunch to bunch.”

Chris and Patrick’s organisation of harvesting is akin to a military operation. Colour coded crates are first sterilised prior to the arrival of 20 people – friends and fellow wine lovers – who turn up at 10am one Saturday morning, are instructed how to pick and given buckets and secateurs before lining up by the rows. Every person begins with a new row then works their way through an adjacent, previously picked, row to cut any grapes that may have been missed. Once a bucket is full the contents are emptied into a crate. Full crates are transferred to a tractor before being weighed and measured. Such details are recorded in order to help build an education, and to anticipate how many bottles may be expected.

Picking time at Hale ValleyPicking time at Hale Valley

Despite 250 vines to work through, the harvesting process takes less than a couple of hours, not only because everyone works quickly but, as Chris laughs: “The incentive is to finish then go up to Anthony’s house for lunch accompanied by plenty of wine from a previous harvest.”

That same afternoon the grapes are transported to Stanlake Park Wine Estate in Twyford, Berkshire, where they are first put on a conveyor belt which carries them into an agitating machine in order to separate the grapes from their stalks, before pressing. White wine spends up to nine months in a tank before bottling. Clay may be added in order to clarify the wine. The wine isn’t opened for at least one year.

“Vince at Stanlake Park knows our grapes and keeps records galore. He asks what sort of wine we’d like him to produce for us.”

The plan is to produce both white and sparkling wines, retaining some for personal consumption, but hopefully selling bottles locally. The sparkling varieties are made in the bottles in order to maximise flavour and quality. With the last of the sugar absorbed in the bottle there is greater pressure and hence more fizz.

Chris, who lives in Swan Bottom, confesses a preference for red wine but is: “Trying to tune my palate to white.” He is clearly revelling in every moment, every detail.

“We went into this in 2013 this thinking it would be fun. Actually it’s very complex, but interesting. This year we’re hoping to create 1,000 bottles.”

From answering an advert in a village newsletter for a budding vineyard owner, which brought Chris and Patrick to an ageing allotment left to rack and ruin, the friends, who are members of Thames and Chilterns Vineyards Association, have now rescued a vineyard that was at risk of closure, and eagerly await their first batch of wine.

But let’s hope they don’t keep it all to themselves. The Hale Valley Vineyard label is one not to be missed, nor is the opportunity to savour some of Buckinghamshire’s home grown wine.

The vineyard in June after bud burst, next stop flowering and then fruitThe vineyard in June after bud burst, next stop flowering and then fruit

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