Posted on

In the vineyard: Budburst

Budburst

Vineyards are places of events more than dates. Where most people set their calendar by the month, our timeline is guided by the annual procession of critical stages in the lifecycle of a grapevine – such as budburst.

 

This is just as well in inclement 2021. If we were doing things by the calendar, we’d be wondering by now whether we’d gained a month (or lost six) somewhere along the line. Fortunately nature will not be stopped and we have hit the all-important first milestone in this year’s vintage. Budburst has arrived at Oxney Organic.

 

This is a time of quiet rejoicing. It means the sap has risen and the vines are once again using all those stored carbohydrates to begin pushing out the new green growth that will become this year’s shoots, leaves, inflorescences and of course grapes.

 

Just a couple of weeks ago, all of that life was tightly packed into stiff, swollen little buds. Now it’s come bursting out of those buds… hence the term in question. Miniature leaves are unfurling, tiny tendrils are reaching out for something to ensnare; the vines are starting to anchor themselves as they prepare their heliotropic ascent towards the sun.

 

Early-budding Chardonnay and Pinot Précoce came first, followed by Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and finally sleepyhead Seyval Blanc. But before long, the latter vines will have hit their stride and overtaken the others, scurrying up the trellising as if they knew they were late to the party.

 

Talking of late, this year’s budburst has been unusually delayed by the odd weather. One fairly immutable rule of English grape-growing is that budburst comes before the end of April. This year it was mid-May for us.

 

Is this a problem? It may yet be. Delayed budburst can mean a delayed harvest. Depending on how the rest of the growing season pans out, we could be looking at late October before the grapes are ready to be picked. A torrential autumn could scupper those plans, meaning reduced yields (the alternative, underripe or rot-infested grapes, would be an unacceptable compromise on quality for us).

 

But these are all questions for the future. At this point, late budburst has been a blessing, as those tender little shoots were still safely nestled in their buds during the spring frosts. None of our vines has been hit by frost so for now at least, joy of joys, the vineyard is running at full potential to produce a bumper crop of healthy grapes.

 

Whether or not it ultimately does is in the lap of the weather gods – a precarious place to be in 2021. So we will continue to do our no-rain dances among the vines and hope for a dry, gently breezy spell during flowering and fruit set, in about eight weeks’ time.

 

That’s mid-July by your calendar. For us it’s the next big event.

Posted on

The Oxney view on SO2

One of the hottest – and certainly loudest – conversations taking place in modern winemaking concerns the use of sulphur dioxide, or SO2. There are vociferous opinions on either side of the debate over how much is too much, whether it should be used at all, and what effects SO2 has on wine and the people who drink it. So, in typical Oxney style, we wanted to offer our quieter and hopefully more measured view on the topic and how it impacts on the decisions we make in the winery.

 

What is the role of SO2 in winemaking?

SO2 has been used as a preservative in winemaking for centuries. Although it’s frequently claimed that the ancient Romans burned sulphur candles in their wineries, the first explicit mention in fact dates back to 1487, in a German decree authorising the burning of sulphured wood chips in empty wine barrels as a method of preservation. This is still a common practice that we still perform.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the role of SO2 in winemaking. It guards against the effects of oxygen and the risk of microbial spoilage through the journey from freshly-picked grapes to bottled wine. These safeguards are vital in the production of quality wine. From the moment a grape is picked, oxygen and microbes will begin to swarm on any drop of juice that escapes, kickstarting some chemical reactions that might drive to unwanted consequences. Even more dangerously, those reactions also happen in wine, (after the juice is fermented), and can drastically and irreversibly change the characteristics of a wine.

 

Hence winemakers have spent the last few hundred years treasuring the anti-oxidant and anti-microbial qualities of SO2, and merrily sprinkling it around the winery to preserve against spoilage.

 

Where did the backlash against SO2 come from?

There are several drivers behind emerging suspicions around the use of SO2 in winemaking. First was the discovery of the link between exposure to SO2 and asthma, which ultimately led to the ‘contains sulphites’ warning featured on virtually every wine bottle sold in the U.S. and EU today. Second was the growth of the natural wine movement, which has questioned the necessity of this winemaking intervention and the effects of SO2 on the wines it’s introduced to.

 

As a result, many people now express concerns about SO2 from a health perspective as well as a winemaking one. The next reasonable question is whether either of these concerns is legitimate.

 

Are sulphites in wine bad for your health?

Sulphites are compounds naturally present in food, wine and other drinks. When SO2 is used in winemaking, it reacts with certain chemical components in the wine, leading to increased sulphite levels. And as the study above shows, there is evidence that sulphite intolerance can affect asthmatics, albeit in very rare cases.

 

However, there is a growing anecdotal line that sulphites in wine are the cause of hangovers. This is where the science is more forthright. There is zero evidence to support this claim, and when it is interrogated more closely, it’s clear why.

 

A producer can only avoid appending ‘contains sulphites’ to their label if the wine in the bottle contains less than 10 parts per million (ppm). The trouble is that even with no additions from the winemaker, the fermentation process naturally produces levels of SO2 higher than this. Even most natural wines are not exempt from the declaration, meaning that if you go by the label alone, you will never find the fabled zero-sulfur wine.

 

What’s more, when you compare the concentrations of SO2 in wines with other preserved foodstuffs, it’s clear that the culprit for your headaches lies elsewhere. Modern wines typically contain 20-200 ppm of sulphites. By contrast, dried fruit can see sulphite levels at the upper end of the UK government limit of 2000 ppm.

 

Even in water, it’s easy to find sulphite levels of 3-10 ppm or more. So if you drink moderately – say a glass or two of wine a day – you will probably take in more sulphites from drinking water than from wine. No one ever suffered a water hangover, not even athletes who can easily drink 5-15 litres a day during their exertions.

 

Likewise, we’ve yet to hear of any campaigns against dried apricots as the cause of hangovers. In the meantime, we would discreetly point to the 11-15% of a bottle of wine comprising alcohol, not the 0.002% made up of sulphites!

 

Is SO2 bad for your wine?

As so often, the answer to this second question is a matter of taste. SO2 is used by winemakers to deliver consistency as much as quality. If you like identikit wines that deliver the same experience bottle after bottle, you should have no problem with liberal doses of SO2 in the winery.

 

Then again if you, like us, feel that the best quality wines express a sense of place and time, you may find that low-sulphite wines are more suited to your palate. After all, SO2 is like many winemaking interventions in that it has unintended consequences as well as the intended ones.

 

First of all, SO2 doesn’t just interact with the oxygen and undesirable yeast and bacteria it’s employed to target. Its presence before, during and after fermentation also affects everything from tannins and anthrocyanins to esters, thiols, peptides and aldehydes. In layman’s terms, SO2 influences the way the wine looks, smells, tastes and feels in the mouth.

 

What’s more, SO2 seems to affect a wine’s ability to age. No-sulphur winemakers such as Burgundy icon Claire Naudin are unanimous in their view that wines without added SO2 remain more aromatically stable over time. This view is supported by research suggesting that SO2 doesn’t actually eliminate the threat of oxidation in wine; it merely delays it.

 

In effect, if a must or wine is allowed a certain degree of controlled oxidation at the start of its journey, it is inoculated against oxidation further down the line. By contrast, wines that have been coddled with SO2 in the winery are more at the mercy of premature ageing after bottling.

 

We see a parallel with organic viticulture here. Just as chemical interventions in the vineyard weaken a vine’s natural resistance to disease, SO2 in the winery is a crutch that may compromise a young wine’s chemical defences against future oxidation.

 

The demonising of oxygen in modern winemaking is problematic in itself. Overall, oxygen plays an essential role at several stages. Yeasts need oxygen to multiply during the alcoholic fermentation, while a lack of oxygen can lead to slightly eggy ‘reductive’ aromas and off-flavours.

 

Both barrel and bottle ageing also rely on the controlled ingress of oxygen into a wine. There would be no good sherries, ports, madeiras or any other style of deliberately oxidised wines without the presence of oxygen. The trick is knowing when, how much and for how long – all of which are critical tools in a good winemaker’s toolkit.

 

Where does Oxney stand on SO2?

The answer to this one is probably relatively clear from everything you’ve just read! As we wrote in our last blog, we subscribe to a minimal intervention approach in our winery. By taking the necessary precautions in terms of hygiene and employing other natural antioxidants like tannins, lees contact and minimal filtration, we aren’t forced into over-reliance on SO2 and its potentially deleterious effects on our wines. We never say never, but ‘just in case’ is not a phrase in our vocabulary when it comes to SO2.

 

Ultimately, we’re pragmatists, making oenological decisions not out of any ideological purity, but in service the unique character and quality of our wines. For us, this character and quality are what’s worth preserving.

 

 

Posted on

What low-intervention winemaking means to us

What do you call a winemaker who doesn’t put unnecessary gubbins in their wines? This is a genuine question rather than the set-up to a bad oenologist joke.

We pose it because the answer is slightly unclear (no pun intended). There are a couple of terms now bandied around for winemakers who eschew extraneous additives on the journey from grape to wine. ‘Natural’ is the most common, but ‘low intervention’ or ‘minimal intervention’ are also frequently used.

Are these terms interchangeable? Do they even describe the same philosophy? We’re going to use this post to delve into these matters and look for some clarity (without recourse to fining or filtering, naturally).

What is natural wine?

In its purest form, natural wine is wine made from grapes and nothing else. It’s hard to provide a more stringent definition. Unlike The Soil Association for organic wines or Demeter for biodynamics, there is no certifying body or agreed set of rules for natural winemaking. But the principles of natural winemaking typically include:

Uncontaminated grapes – Organic as a bare minimum; often biodynamic.

Wild fermentations – Grape juice converted into wine entirely by the action of yeasts already present on the grapes/in the winery. No cultured yeasts allowed.

Pre-industrial winemaking – Fermentation typically takes place untouched by modern winery technology like pneumatic presses or temperature-controlled stainless steel vessels.

Nothing added, nothing stripped out – Must adjustments, fining, filtration and SO2 eschewed.

As a result of these choices, natural wines very often tread a fine line between character and consistency. The best examples can be uniquely memorable expressions of the land and the year they came from, and unlike any other wines you’ve ever tasted.

The downside is that this isn’t always meant as a compliment. Rejecting unnecessary interventions in the vineyard and winery is a noble aim: one to which we at Oxney Organic subscribe. However, the risk of natural winemaking is that it can lead to avoidable faults from one bottle to the next – off-flavours, tangy cider notes, oxidisation, unwanted bubbles and the like.

For us, sacrificing quality and consistency in service of ideological purity is a compromise we’re unwilling to make. That’s why we believe it’s important to make the distinction between natural and low-intervention winemaking.

What is low-intervention winemaking?

At Oxney, we would define ourselves as low interventionists. Arguably, where we differ from the natural wine movement is by acknowledging that wine is necessarily a product of human intervention. It cannot be made without someone to train grapevines to produce wine-quality fruit; someone to process and contain that fruit for fermentation; someone to bottle the resulting wine at just the right time; and so on.

In simplest terms, wine is the sweet spot between grapes and vinegar. Our job as producers is to nudge the process on to this sweet spot, then stop it the moment it gets there.

It doesn’t take an entire chemistry lab of interventions to reach that critical moment, but it does require judicious decision-making. Our belief, to paraphrase Caroline Gilby MW, is to use the minimum interference we need, not plump for the maximum just in case.

What makes Oxney Organic low-intervention?

As we’ve said previously, it would be odd for us to spend so much time and effort nurturing our organic grapes to their apex of quality and ripeness, only to tinker around with their character in the winery. This is our maxim of low intervention.

Wild fermentations

We are firmly with our natural wine colleagues on native yeasts. They just make things more interesting.  Lab-grown cultured yeasts are chosen for the convenience of making winemaking a predictable science, especially in terms of how long a fermentation will last. But anyone can buy the same cultured yeasts, which means they lower the sense of terroir in the wines. Wild ferments, on the other hand, are a one-off celebration of their terroir, loaded with their own unique character and personality.

Managed fermentations

Certainly for white wines, rosé and sparkling wines, we believe that some control is vital to maximise quality without compromising character. This is why we use modern presses and stainless-steel vessels in much of our winemaking. If you want to minimise or eliminate the use of SO2, there are other measures that can be taken to avoid the threat of oxidation and microbial spoilage.  Hence temperature control, use of tannins, oak, lees contact, gas blanketing are modern winemaking techniques we have no hesitation in embracing.

Minimal SO2

We have a lot to say about SO2. So much, in fact, that we’re going to dedicate an entire blog post to the topic. Suffice to say, this is one of our tread-lightly choices. It’s a matter of dedication as much as a matter of principle. SO2 becomes more necessary the less care you take in your winery. Like any attentive winemaker, hygiene and rigour are high on our priority list – which is why we’ve been able to experiment with zero SO2 additions in some of our recent winemaking.

Practically no fining or filtering

To our mind, there is no doubt that you cannot remove things you don’t want in a wine without removing some that you do want in there. So we don’t fine or filter lightly (which is to say we don’t fine or filter heavily). ‘Sterile’ filtration is absolutely out of the question. Passing a young wine through a filtration membrane with holes less than 0.00045mm across is a recipe for… well, any old wine. So much of what makes it uniquely ours would left in the filter, there would be little point in putting our label on the bottle.

How about ‘honest wine’?

Ultimately, low-intervention winemaking, like natural winemaking, is an attempt to produce authentic wines that make an honest statement about the health of the vineyard they originate in. These wines are an expression of the land, climate and year the grapes were grown in, and the gentle care taken by human hands to ripen them.

Yes, they come with variations, but we see that as something to celebrate, not obliterate. Every vintage comes with a thrill of the unknown, because every passing year tells a new story in the Oxney vineyards.

We’ll leave the convenience producers to their reprints. We prefer to do new editions every year.

 

 

Posted on

In the vineyard: Getting into the Spring of things

vineyard

With the Spring equinox almost upon us, this is a good time to sit back and reflect on the busy winter months in the Oxney Organic vineyard. No hibernation for us: we’ve spent the cold short days outside, often starting and finishing in the dark, getting the vines in pristine condition for the growing season ahead.

 

As we mentioned in our recent blog on pruning, the work we do over the winter is critical – it underpins the success of the vintage and the wines to come. And being organic means we have to work a little harder than most.

 

We literally leave no stone unturned in our ceaseless quest for perfectly ripe, perfectly healthy grapes – the essential ingredient of our sparkling and still organic English wines. Winter has been the time for heavy composting and mulching, to lock into the soil all the nutrients the vines will need for the season ahead. Where convenience producers spend their summers targeting nutritional deficiencies in their soils with a cocktail of synthetic fertilizers, we spend our winters restoring our soils to a state of natural balance, in order to avoid these ‘magic bullet’ interventions.

 

In recent weeks, we’ve spread tonnes of farmyard manure in some fields, as well as planning to scatter chicken pellets and compost under the vines in others. This year we’re mulching all of the prunings from the 2020 harvest directly back into the soils as well. This measure is a valuable one indeed, as it helps to create a ‘closed loop’ system of nutrition in the vineyard.

 

Over the course of the growing season, a vine takes up large quantities of nutrients from the soil and many of these end up stored in the canes removed during pruning. Multiply this effect by 57,000 vines and suddenly you have tonnes of nutrients leaving the vineyard soil every season. Chipping and mulching those pruned canes back in over the winter is the most efficient way to return them to the soil. As usual, the natural method is the most elegant solution.

 

Weeding is another spring job we undertake mechanically not chemically. Our German manufactured weeder will be hard at work among the vines, lifting weeds, rotatating and aerating the soil as it goes. This aeration introduces subterranean oxygen essential to the growth of aerobic organisms and the suppression of harmful anaerobic ones. Just as importantly, it removes waste gases arising from the breakdown of all that lovely organic matter.

 

We allow grass to grow between our vines as it helps to maintain soil structure, locks in nitrogen and stops the vineyard turning into a mudbath. However, winter is the time to get the grass in check. Long grass in spring can be a real problem, as it tends to catch frost, especially at the bottom of a slope.

 

Frost is the biggest nightmare for most English producers. If it catches your vines after the buds have burst, they freeze and die overnight… and with them can go a large percentage of your harvest – we lost around 70% of our crop to frost in 2017. To guard against this hazard, we employ our team of mowers – a flock of Romney sheep – to munch the grass down to size over winter.

 

So these are the measures we take to prepare the ground, but there’s plenty to be done to the vines themselves ahead of budburst. Following pruning in Jan/Feb, the remaining canes must be secured to the fruiting wire for the growing season; a job known as tying down. Plus the trellising must be checked and organised – some wires tightened, some replaced, and the fruiting and foliage catch wires positioned at just the right heights.

 

With all of these early-season jobs carried out, we can approach the equinox ready and relatively relaxed about the growing season ahead. The carefully counted buds on the vines should burst in April, after which we spent the next few weeks nervously checking the weather stations every night for frost warnings. Spring is a wonderful time of year, but until the risk of frost has passed, no fingernail is left unchewed in the viticultural community.

 

In the meantime, all is well and we’re enjoying the explosion of life returning to the vineyard. It won’t be long before you can join us and see it for yourself – our vineyard tours will be up and running again every Saturday from 17th April. Follow this link to check availability and book your place!

 

Posted on

The Oxney Case For Organic English Wines

organic English wine

“We’re not standing on dirt, but the rooftop of another Kingdom.”
James Millton

The Oxney Case For Organic English Wines

There is an assumption that has taken root in English winemaking. It comes almost in the form of an apology. We’ve heard it many times and it goes something like this:

“We’d love to go fully organic in our vineyard. We’re spraying less and less every year, and we only spray when we absolutely have to. But with the climate and disease pressure, it just isn’t possible to make organic wines in this country.”

Every time we hear the latest version of this, our eyebrows rise a little higher. After all, we’ve been making wines organically, certified by the Soil Association, ever since we planted our first vines in 2012. A decade later, our vines are healthier than ever and our wines seem to be gathering more attention and accolades with every passing year.

We don’t say that to brag (not really our style). But as the UK’s largest organic wine estate, we feel compelled to push back on this assumption before it reaches many more ears and turns any more wine lovers against organic English wines. Because while we’re all for free debate, we’re also for informed debate.

With that in mind, here’s our attempt to redress the balance of the argument: our case for why we make our wines organically – and why many more English producers should too.

What is organic winemaking?
Organic viticulture is ultimately like any other form of organic farming. It’s an agricultural system that emphasises the need for naturally healthy soils and a balanced vineyard ecosystem to produce strong vines and high-quality grapes. In the winery, organic standards also set restrictive limits on the use of SO2.

There are strict rules on what you mustn’t use in the vineyard. No synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Copper and sulphur treatments can be used in highly regulated ways to combat downy mildew and powdery mildew respectively (our own spraying regime is so miniscule it was described by one viticultural consultant as homeopathic).

The challenge of growing organically in England
The question that inevitably follows is: What do you do to combat the moulds, rots and mildews that are a perennial threat in the cool, damp English climate? Our answer is simple. An open mind, lots of hard work and a healthy dose of inspiration.

We originally chose the organic path for ethical reasons: we couldn’t bear the idea of contributing to the destruction of habitat, wildlife and soil health caused by conventional agriculture. So we did our research and quickly found that there are many natural methods for overcoming disease pressure in England’s vineyards.

Careful canopy management is key – training and trimming our vines to disperse those humid little pockets in the foliage that moulds and mildews love to congregate in. And yes, we do spray our vines. But we use bio-defences like garlic, baking powder (organic of course) and a harmless fungus called Bacillus subtilis, which basically wins the fungal battle for resources by muscling any grey-rot-inducing botrytis cinerea off the vines.

Redefining conventions
If this all sounds a little kooky, it may simply be time to recalibrate your expectations. There is a weight of scientific literature to support all of these treatments. Anecdotally, the successes we’ve seen in our vineyard are all the proof we need.

What’s more, the contrast between organic and conventionally grown vines is stark indeed. Year on year, our vines get stronger, nourished by fertile soils, surrounded by pest-controlling biodiversity and tended with observant care and attention. In contrast, conventionally grown vines lose their natural ability to fend for themselves, requiring ever more interventions to survive, let alone thrive.

In fact, we’re not entirely sure why the term ‘conventional viticulture’ is used. To us, it seems terribly unconventional to treat your vineyards as a giant game of agricultural whack-a-mole, stamping out each new problem as it crops up, often as a result of previous vine-weakening interventions. It’s reactive certainly, more convenient perhaps. Maybe ‘convenience viticulture’ is a better name.

Winning in the long run
Defeating vineyard diseases naturally is only one element of organic viticulture, albeit one that contributes to the overall aim of the organic system. The overarching idea is that the less you interfere with a vine’s natural defences and surroundings, the better it will grow in the long run, and the better the resulting fruit will be. If the vine is rooted in healthy soils, it too will be healthier. Of course, this means it requires sufficient nutrients, which A) must be in the soil in the first place, and B) must be available to the vine.

Rather than keeping our vines on life support with a cocktail of synthetic fertilizers to remedy specific nutritional deficiencies, organic farmers literally muck in with natural fertilizers and composts to sustain the microbial balance of our soils. We use farmyard manure from cattle grazing on our pastureland and mulch in the previous harvest’s cuttings, returning tons of locked-in nutrients back to the earth.

Weed control is critical as well, to ensure the vines don’t have to compete too hard for the nutrients they need. But rather than exposing the environment or our people to the indefensible hazards of herbicides such as glyphosate, we weed mechanically. This not only uproots unwanted vegetation but also aerates the soil – another vital component for teeming microbial life.

All of these methods help to maintain the biodiversity of our soils and the surrounding landscape. We manage our vines to coexist with, not dominate or replace, the biome. And it’s working. The quality of fruit we bring in at harvest, not to mention the wildlife we see in the countryside around us, shows us how well.

No apologies please, we’re organic
Perhaps the oddest idea to spring up around organic English wines is that it’s a choice made not in service of quality, but at the expense of it. The belief is that England is a hard enough place to grow wine grapes at the best of times. If you take away the crutches of convenience viticulture, everything collapses into a mess of underripe, rot-infested fruit.

Where this belief originates from is anyone’s guess. Globally, the roll call of major organic producers includes the likes of Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Château Beaucastel in the Rhone, Bodegas Muga in Rioja, Albet i Noya in Catalunya, Avignonesi in Tuscany, Yalumba in the Barossa Valley and Frog’s Leap in California.

Reputations aside, organic wines have long been shown to outperform convenience wines in taste tests. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Wine Economics found that ecocertified Californian wines were consistently rated as higher quality than their convenience counterparts.

Meanwhile, back here in England, Will Davenport has been quietly astonishing people with his organic wines for nearly two decades. And again, much as we hate to burnish our own medals, we’re phenomenally proud of the many awards and glowing reviews we continue to receive for our wines.

With this knowledge in mind, maybe the embarrassed silence that so often surrounds organic wines – certainly English ones – isn’t embarrassment on our behalf at all. It’s every bit as common for people to feel sheepish about something they know they could and should be doing themselves, but aren’t.

If you want to read more about the ecological benefits of organic viticulture, and organic farming in general, the Soil Association website is well worth a look.

Posted on

This week in our Organic Vineyard: Winter pruning

organic vineyard

Work on the 2021 vintage began at Oxney in our organic vineyard this week. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll take to the vineyard with gloves and secateurs to start winter pruning, removing last year’s growth from the vines and leaving only the buds that will ultimately provide this year’s fruit.

We’ll assess each individual vine in the vineyard one at a time, choosing the healthiest cane to support this year’s growth, then prune it down hard. Our aim is to leave just enough buds to produce just enough shoots to produce just enough fruit, so that the vines across the vineyard will spend the final weeks of summer putting its energy into ripening grapes not growing leaves.

As usual, the potential for quality is the main driver in our decision-making around pruning the vineyard and there is a wealth of expertise out there we lean on – for instance Simonit & Sirch. We’re firm believers in the old adage that you can’t make a good-quality wine from poor-quality grapes. So where others will maybe leave an extra bud on their canes, hoping to nudge up their yield when harvest comes round, our focus is purely on giving our grapes the best chance to concentrate their flavours to their fullest potential. We prune hard to grow better.

So, while you’re safely tucked up at home against the worst of the February cold, do spare a thought for us clipping away at our vines in our organic vineyard, all 57,000 of them, whatever the weather throws at us. It’s one of the most arduous tasks in the vineyard, but undoubtedly one of the most important.

The quality of the coming harvest rests on the work we do over the next weeks in the vineyard. We’ll finish up the frozen feet, aching arms and stiff fingers, but very content in the knowledge that the 2021 vintage is officially up and running and we have started the process towards making this year’s wine.

Posted on

What puts the pink in sparkling rosé?

Sparkling Rosé

Is there any other occasion wine quite like sparkling rosé on Valentine’s Day? Your answer probably depends on how you feel about Valentine’s Day, of course. For us, a good sparkling rosé chilling in an ice bucket is a vital precursor to a romantic night in.

The colour of the wine inside that bottle is clearly a big factor in its appeal. So we thought we’d use our pre Valentine’s Day blog to write about where this colour comes from, and the lengths to which we go to achieve the perfect wooing hue.

There are actually a few different ways to turn a wine pink, but there is one common factor in them all. Red grapes. The colour comes from anthocyanins in red grape skins. Leave your juice soaking in those skins for a few days and you have a red wine. Shorten that time to a few hours (or squeeze the grapes a bit harder when you’re pressing the juice out of them in the first place) and you end up with rosé.

For sparkling wines, all of the above are options in the winemaker’s toolkit. Which ones are used largely depends on the fruit that comes in at harvest.

In warm years, where ripe red grapes are rich in anthocyanins, it’s possible to extract enough colour during pressing to achieve the right shade of pink. In cooler vintages, some time on the skins may be needed to draw more colour out. Even then, it may be necessary to add 1-3% of red wine to the blend to nudge things along.

Interestingly, a degree of calculated judgement is always required to get the tone just right. As our winemaker Salvatore puts it, young wines are like teenagers, changing in character all the time. As they ferment and mature, various chemical reactions devour anthocyanins, meaning the final sparkling wine will always be slightly paler than the blend that goes into the bottle for the second fermentation.

This is another area of winemaking where science meets art, and a winemaker’s finely-honed instincts are vital. But there is a crucial maxim for these decisions: you can always add colour but you can’t take it away.

Specifically, there is one last window of colour-adjusting opportunity when the wine is disgorged and topped up with a dosage. A splash of red wine can be added at this stage if a final tweak is needed before the cork goes in.

And there, little by little, decision by decision, is the process that leaves you with a frothing glass of delicate salmon-pink wine to toast your devotion, in time-honoured fashion, on February 14th. Whether you use this information to serenade your Valentine is entirely up to you. We just hope our own passion for pink wine shines through.

Posted on

This week in the winery: Disgorging

2021 begins in earnest this week in the Oxney winery. Disgorging is one of the most enjoyable stages of the winemaking process, as well as one of the messiest. It’s the final step in the long journey from beautiful organically-grown grapes to beautiful traditional-method sparkling wine.

Right now, our bottling room is packed with pallets of upside-down sealed bottles, each containing a little cluster of dead yeast cells (or lees) resting on the inside of a crown cap. Those yeast cells have been the agents of the fizz-producing second fermentation, having been added to it months and years ago.

Over that time the yeast has consumed the sugar and emitted just the right amount of CO2 to create the frothy delights lurking in every bottle of sparkling Oxney. But this fermentation only took a matter of weeks. So why did we leave those expired yeast cells floating around in the wine for all this time?

The answer is one of the most important words in the world of sparkling wine: autolysis. This is the process that sees dead yeast cells break down and impart the delicious bakery-shop flavours that elevate traditional-method fizz above its hastily-carbonated counterparts. Whenever you get a whiff of bread or brioche or pastry in your glass, that’s autolysis.

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re slightly in awe of the capabilities of the winemaker’s miraculous microbial helper. Autolysis is the final proof that there is alchemy at work when yeast meets humble grape juice. Those lees deserve the celebratory send-off provided by disgorging.

So, back to all those upside-down bottles in our bottling room. One by one, we take those bottles and pop off the crown cap. Under six atmospheres of pressure, the yeast launches on one last glorious arc out of the bottle, along with a small quantity of wine.

This loss gives us one final opportunity to finesse the wine with a dosage of organic beet sugar and a small but perfectly prepared draught of base wine. Then we seal the bottle under cork and a wire cage, before leaving it to rest for a final few months.

Sounds simple? In practice, there are many disgorging choices that complicate things. There are a few different methods (à la volée is our favourite), while many producers flat-out refuse to disgorge before a set period of time on lees. But once again, we’re more interested in making wines that express their origins than sticking to a self-imposed timeframe. So when we decided this week to disgorge our 2017 Classic, Estate NV Rosé and cider, it’s because we know this moment is the culmination of the fruit’s epic journey, when everything inside the bottle is in perfect balance, ready to proudly don the Oxney label. You’ll be able to taste the results for yourself later this year!

And thanks to Mark and Julie for posing for our photo!

Posted on

2020: Oxney in numbers

As an Oxney team member has pointed out on more than one occasion, 2020 felt more like a decade than a year. There have been many unwanted numbers on the world stage (306-232 notwithstanding). But in our little corner of the High Weald, a numerical review of the year offers far more gratifying reading.

Here’s a light-hearted recap of our 2020 in numbers:

56913 total vines tended
1304 tasting glasses filled (and washed!)
520 ‘sleeps’ in our guest accommodation
326 picnic lunches prepped
101 days closed due to Covid-19
60 tonnes of farmyard manure spread
22 tonnes of grapes harvested
20 batches pressed
18 speakers rigged up in the vineyard to deter hungry birds
8 wines now in the Oxney range (+1 traditional method cider)
6 awards won (3 GOLD!)
1 full-time staff member (tired) + 12 part time colleagues (indispensable!)
0mg SO2 added to 2020 vintage
0 dosage in 2017 Classic Magnums
0 herbicides sprayed
1sts:
– Mechanical harvester in the vineyard (thanks Sam Barnes)
– Oxney vintage for wonder winemaker Salvatore Leone
– Release of our extraordinary Classic Pinot Meunier
– English wine to receive a perfect score from Matthew Jukes (our Chardonnay 2018)

Posted on

Vegan wines for vegan times

Two weeks into 2021 and we’re hearing fewer and fewer people talking about Dry January this year. However, as Veganuary goes from strength to strength, we thought we’d take the time to delve into vegan wines and explain why every wine you buy from Oxney comes with a full vegan seal of approval.

Probably the best way to explain what makes wines vegan is by talking about what makes them non-vegan. It’s all to do with fining – the process of removing tiny protein particles called colloids from newly made wines. These particles are too small to be filtered out in their colloid state, but if left in they may cause problems later on.

Many colloids have a very antisocial habit of clumping together over time, until they’re large enough to form a visible haze in the wine. Others contribute harsh tannic flavours or unwanted colours. All of these issues can be eliminated by the process of fining.

In simplest terms, this involves mixing into the wine a fining agent, which bonds to the colloids to form particles large enough to be filtered out of the wine. Traditionally these have been things like egg white, gelatine, ox blood and isinglass (derived from the swim bladder of sturgeons – we’ve always been intrigued to know who first decided to give that one a try).

Therein lies the vegan problem. Technically, these substances are processing agents not ingredients, as they bond entirely with the colloids, leaving none behind in the finished wine. But from an ethical perspective, we agree that no self-respecting vegan would countenance buying a wine made in this way.

For us, there is a further practical issue with fining. It’s an unnecessary winemaking process that can strip out some of the character of the wine alongside the colloids. And it can be easily avoided by a conscientious winemaker willing to give their wines the opportunity to stabilise in their own time.

Our ethos is to avoid fining and filtering altogether to preserve as much of the essence of our gorgeous organic grapes as possible. As with so much else, we’re happy to let nature take its course. On the very rare occasions when fining is necessary, we use a clay-based agent called bentonite, 100% free of any animal-derived products.

All of which makes Oxney the perfect English fizz to celebrate Veganuary. You can drink it safe in the knowledge that the only animal-based agent to come anywhere near our winery is Freda, the vineyard dog.

Posted on

Christmas is all wrapped up

CHRISTMAS IS ALL WRAPPED UP

Like you, we’re looking forward to a relaxing Christmas break – we certainly all deserve one this year. .

We’ll be sending out festive Oxney voucher offerings for a few more days and are organising some click and collect pick-ups (our last pick up day is 23rd December) before we put our feet up and open a well-earned bottle for ourselves. So there’s still time to get a last minute gift in for Christmas.

After that, we’ll be raising a glass to the turning of a year that many of us will be glad to see the end of. But we’ll also look back on a lot of positives for the Oxney project: a new winemaker, new website, some terrific new wines, more awards and rave reviews, but above all the growing number of people joining us on our journey.

We’re immensely grateful for your support and have been particularly thrilled to meet so many of you here at the vineyard. It means a lot for a small, family-owned venture like ours to be able to share our story and spread the love for organic English wine.

From our family to all friends of Oxney, we’d like to wish you a happy, healthy and peaceful Christmas. Cheers!

Posted on

2020 Report

The wine is in barrels and tanks and we’re breathing a small sigh of relief and there is time to reflect how the year has gone at Oxney. 2020 will, for many reasons, be remembered by us all. Today we’re celebrating a new US president in this household. But let’s not get political… back to vineyard and wine – much more interesting.

The spring was gorgeous. We bottled the 2019 vintage in shorts and t-shirts (and gloves and face masks) and with the rest of the UK wine industry we were talking about a brilliant 2020 vintage. In the middle of May frost hit the vineyard and unfortunately the well developed buds were hit by several nights of minus temperatures. But running a vineyard and winery we’re masters at picking ourselves off the floor and we reflected that a year of a global pandemic with low sales of sparkling wine is probably not a bad year to have a frost.

A Bordeaux-based vineyard experts visiting us recently compared our yields with the top French chateaux which is a wonderful way of looking at it. Low yields equal top quality.

The summer was massively fun here at Oxney. With the UK population opting for staycations we had huge success running tours, tastings, preparing picnic baskets with gorgeous organic food, filling our accommodation on the estate to the brim and having hugely enjoyable conversations with wine fans from across the UK on missions to discover the UK wine scene.

Preparing for harvest was equally enjoyable. With a small harvest and a new winemaker in Salvatore Leone we put our thinking caps on and made 2020 the year of experimentation. Discovering the vineyard and wild ferments continue to be a top priority and so does minimal SO2 and as I write this we haven’t added SO2 at all to the juice or wine.

Harvest was, as expected, small. We picked 22 tonnes using, for the first time, the UK’s second picking machine and of course hand pickers for the sparkling. `Intense days and evenings followed with the team and volunteers putting in huge amount of work and it went swimmingly. More of the spectacularly popular Chardonnay is in barrels, we’re for the first time making a small amount of red wine and other thoughts are on the drawing board and we hope to let you all know about it after blending in the spring.

2020 has been quite a roller coaster but the peaks have dominated the ‘drive’. Luckily!

Kristin

Posted on

Oxney is in the news – the top 10

Happy new year everyone! We here at Oxney are back and putting plans in place for the year ahead. Inevitably this leads to some reflection and revisiting 2019. And (this is hard for a Scandinavian who has lived in England such a long time to say…) 2019 was a great year and a lot of people in the UK, US and rest of Europe seemed to agree we did an amazing job. Ok, that’s over and I am not quite blushing!

Here is a list of our top ten articles, reviews and gongs last year:

May: Merete Bø, one of Norway’s top wine writers, put the Oxney wines (Classic 2015 and Estate NV Rosé) down in the top 5 new sparkling wines to arrive in Norway spring 2019. Dagens Næringsliv. 89 points.

May: Ingvild Tennfjord, writing in the Aftenposten week-end supplement (Norway’s top newspaper), included the Oxney Estate NV Rosé in a list of six rosé wines must buys.

July: Organic Masters: The Classic 2016 wins a silver medal. Commenting on the awards in The Drinks Business Patrick Schmitt said: “…it’s always pleasing to debunk a commonly held belief that challenging climates for viticulture, particularly cooler, damper areas, cannot product great results employing organics. While there may be relatively high cost implications of being organic in maritime and marginal wine regions such as England, it’s still possible to grow high quality grapes – as evidenced again this year by the lovely fizz from the organic Oxney Estate in Sussex.”

July: Wines of Great Britain results are out and Oxney is awarded 3 silvers which we are happy about! Classic 2016 sparkling, English Pinot Noir 2018 and Chardonnay 2018. Chardonnay not launched yet but we are excited about it and looking forward to sharing it with you in the Spring.

July: Matthew Jukes writing for Vineyard Magazine penned a glowing review of the Classic and The Estate NV Rosé. “Oxney ticks every single box there is and a few more than I am probably unaware of too,” he writes. “The entire portfolio of new releases this summer is amazing and these wines are made with unmistakable care and attention.”

September: The most famous person in wine in the UK, Jancis Robinson, visits the wine tasting organised by Wines of Great Britain and tastes all the still wines. The Oxney English Rosé is one of only two rosé wines she loves: “Good fruit intensity and pretty pungent. Some hint of Pinot fruit. Certainly mouth-filling. A pretty good effort. Long too.” JancisRobinson.com

September: Falstaff Magazine & Competition: The famous competition and magazine for Germany and Austria included the Classic and Estate NV Rosé and awarded the wines an impressive 90 and 89 points respectively: “Light golden yellow, silver reflexes, delicately integrated mousse, juicy, round and fruity.”

October: Fiona Becket writing in The Guardian does a column on British booze and includes the Oxney English Rosé: “2018 was such a great year for still English wine: you should take advantage of this deliciously fruity rosé to evoke memories of summer.”

November: Wine Enthusiast, the US consumer magazine, in a review by Anne Kreibiehl MW awards the Classic 90 points: “Creaminess, green apple and subtle notions of wet chalk combine into a nose of vivid freshness. That lively sense of freshness continues on the palate with a frothy mousse and gentle notes of green and yellow apple. The finish is vivid, dry and appetizing with its energetic, harmonious apple note.”

December: The Classic wins an IWC Gold with a top score of 95. The sparkling golds handed out includes two for England and three for France. Panel Chair Joe Wadsack and Co-Chair Tim Atkin MW say: “Lovely toasty autolytic nose of russet apple and pear. Broad, nutty and bright with a long, creamy finish. Built to last.”

Happy new year!
Kristin

Posted on

2019 Harvest Report – The year of two halves

2019 was our fifth harvest here at Oxney and with the grapes off the vines, pressed and in barrels and tanks becoming wine we have time to reflect.

The 2019 vintage was without doubt a year to remember for our vineyard manager. The year started well with no frost and great flowering. 2018 was wonderful so we had good bud development. The summer hit and this dry and sunny corner of East Sussex got some great weather. Then the weather pattern changed and it started raining… and did not stop. With less protection than conventional growers, our by now fabulous crop was starting to get a hint of botrytis. We have not harvested in such rainy conditions before and have so far never had to use the lids to our picking bins. Until 2019!

However, the crop was overall really good and with a good picking crew instructed to go slow and three stages of quality control before the grapes hit the press, we have now some wonderful fermenting wines in the tanks and barrels.

After a trial last year we have this year moved on to wild ferments and it has gone well. We are now, as we speak, putting the wines through malolactic fermentation. Not only does this naturally reduce the acid but also helps round out and give more depth to the wines.

All in we harvested just over 39 tonnes this autumn here at Oxney. This (a frequent question) translates into 21,000 litres of finished wine at around 550 litres per tonne. And, eventually, 28,000 bottles. We have developed a library of reserve wine over the years and some of this year’s harvest will go into the reserve library too.

When I started the vineyard in 2012 my most frequent question was ‘what makes great wine’ and as with most things in life there is not one answer. The most important aspect is, of course, the grapes. First, our natural approach to our organic and environmentally friendly vineyard leads to flavoursome grapes. The meticulous harvest strategy, picking at the right time with quality control at every corner, is the second step. And, thirdly, gentle whole bunch pressing, wild ferments and a care for all the details in the winery. Making excellent organic wines here in England is no laughing matter but it is absolutely possible.

Kristin

Posted on

England – The Edge of the World Wine Map

We are writing this as the 2019 harvest is a day away. And it is, literally, chucking it down outside. We’re cleaning, getting tractors and picking boxes lined up. Sending too many text messages to the chap in charge of the 15 Romanian pickers we are expecting.

2019 has been a challenging year for us who grow and make our own wine. The spring was cold and the summer was, in part, wet. But, we avoided the spring frost and we had a very good flowering. So not all bad!

My favourite story when talking to wine lovers at the winery is the chap from a very well-known champagne house who visited as part of a Defra sponsored mentoring scheme when we were starting out. He told me how lucky we are here in England for having such great weather! He meant suitable weather for making top end sparkling wine. The Champagne region, he said, is too hot.

We have all read the stories about the harvest in Champagne this year which was incredibly early after a summer of often 40C temperatures which is too hot for the grapes. So maybe we should be happy with the 2019 vintage! While the yields won’t be as plentiful as 2018, the quality, in terms of the right amount of sugars, acids and flavour, will absolutely be there.

Can’t wait to start the 2019 harvest!

Kristin (founder, owner and harvest tractor driver)

Posted on

2019 is looking good in the vineyard

The vineyard looks amazing and we are greatly relieved. To have a good grape harvest there are five plus things that all have to go right in a vineyard over the year. Two of them are good buds (from the previous year) and no late frost. We have great buds (2018 was an amazing year) and brilliantly no frost this year.

We started the year pruning. We left it as late as we could and started mid February. Pruning late is meant to delay bud burst – and with the frost of 2017 in mind we threw every frost protection strategy and tools at the vineyard this spring. For instance we also included a sacrificial cane when we pruned every vine. This is a cane that’s not tied down to the fruiting wire and as it is vertical the sap will have a harder job and the buds as a result will develop slower and maybe avoid the frost.

Having survived the frost, the year kicks off with a lot of work keeping the vines in order. The best quality grapes with the most flavour are essential for making our high quality organic wines. Everything we do in the vineyard is similar to natural, old fashioned farming. We fit a side cultivator and hoe on our small Fendt tractor to keep the strip under the vines free from weeds and grasses. Conventional vineyards will use weed killers for this which we as organic growers obviously can’t. We have been lucky to be gifted a very large quantity of turkey manure which we spread with a pile of farm yard manure we had been saving for a couple of years. It did smell a little, but to us it was lovely! Growing natural and organic grapes takes more care and more time but even here in rainy England it is possible. Obviously we don’t know exactly what the 2019 season will be like yet but so far, so good. We are crossing everything!

Not only is the new season kicking off, Spring is exciting because we are bringing out new vintages and new wines. We have re-introduced the hugely popular Pinot Noir still rosé and now hope to keep that in the portfolio ongoing. Last summer we made a small batch of non vintage sparkling rosé – Estate NV Rosé we called it. It went down so well which was exciting. Now we are releasing more and we have already seen good pick up from the trade and consumers. We have also made a white sparkling non vintage called Estate NV which we are releasing now too. And, we have moved on to the 2016 vintage with the Classic. This vintage is different to the 2015 vintage – clearly the same vineyard and approach but different and exciting.

Posted on

Oxney is now the UK’s Largest Organic Vineyard

We are really excited. After planting another 22,000 vines last week Oxney is now the largest organic vineyard in the UK with a total of 14 hectares. Hurrah! It is a small and exclusive club: There are 75 hectares of organic vines now (we are over 18% of that). Organic makes up 2.6% of all planted vines in the UK – which now stands at a total of 2,900 hectares.

The two newly planted fields, Isak and Knut – named after Kristin’s and Paul’s son – adjoin the existing vineyard in the village of Beckley. The site has ideal conditions for growing grapes – it is 17 meters above sea level in the Rother river valley and has fine sand and silt loam soil on clay subsoil. The vines planted are a mixture of Pinot Noir, Pinot Précoce and Chardonnay.