The Sussex wine harvest at a prestigious Sussex vineyard like Tinwood is not only an absolute pleasure but a privilege. And if you get the opportunity to get involved in harvesting grapes, I’d urge you to seize it with both hands. The Tinwood harvest experience is sensual, educational, fun and therapeutic in equal measure. And with the harvest only just under starters orders, you’ve still got time to get involved.
The Tinwood wine harvest experience
I arrived on a fresh, bright but chilly September morning and gathered in the tasting rooms with a small group of fellow pickers for coffee and cake. We were soon joined by wine entrepreneur and owner of Tinwood, Art Tukker, who was going to be accompanying us for our Sussex wine harvest experience. As Art explained a little about the background of the farm (it used to be a lettuce farm run by his father) and the three grape varieties grown here (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meuniere), the professional pickers had been hard work for a couple of hours already. “It’s been a good year for Sussex grapes“, Art explained, “And September is an early start for the harvest, although the lack of rain in June and July (when the grapes would normally swell) means the grapes are small but packing a powerful and sweet punch of flavour owing to the warm weather. It’s turbo charged quality.”
Into the vines
Armed with secateurs, buckets, and crates, we head to the Chardonnay vines as the sun begins to warm up. I didn’t expect to be let loose on real vines, to be honest, but they do all their picking by hand here, and with 200 tons of grapes to pick in a little over two weeks, I feel like I’m making a valuable contribution to the cause (a girl can dream). Bizarrely, the vineyards don’t feel French. The air (we’re only a short distance from the sea), the soil, the atmosphere, it’s all got a distinctly Sussex stamp, which is good as Sussex now has its own PDO (Protected Designation of Origin – similar to a French appellation).
The professional pickers harvesting the nearby Pinot Noir work with great speed and skill (a single picker hand-picked one and a half tons of grapes in one day this week) and the atmosphere is buzzing with quiet but focused activity. Meanwhile, in the amateur aisles, the pace is more leisurely with the rhythmic snip, snip snip of the secateurs, and the occasional plop of grapes into an empty bucket producing a hypnotic effect. This is the therapeutic part, as phones and schedules are forgotten, and friendships are forged over the vines.
Art works with us, giving freely of his time and knowledge, and I learnt more about growing grapes and making wine in two hours than in a lifetime of drinking it. He seems remarkably relaxed bearing in mind this is a life’s work and passion and in a couple of hours he’s off to London to collect an unbelievably prestigious IWSC best sparkling wine award for the Tinwood 2017 Blanc de Blanc.
As the morning wears on, I graze on grapes that are warm, sticky and sweet, their skins tanned in the late summer sunshine, the leaves of the vines just on the cusp of golden, matching the autumn sunshine. This is the sensual part, checking the grapes are ripe and juicy, before gently lifting them from the vines. I’m surprised by how quickly the vines are stripped of their sumptuous and abundant bounty, and buckets quickly fill crates that are swept away with great care on the back of a tractor-trailer. While we pick, a lorry arrives to transport the first load of grapes to the winery at Ridgeview, near Ditchling, where they will be pressed within a few hours. This is the first of three loads a day.
The art and science that goes into knowing when the grapes are ready to harvest is a great skill in itself and involves watching the changing skins, and testing the sweetness and acidity. It takes a year to grow the grapes, two years to make the wine which will result in between 175,000 to 200,000 bottles of 2022 vintage. And every step of this journey is a labour of love and passion.
Back to the tasting room
By noon, we’re all ready for lunch … and some tasting, of course! They specialise in three sparkling wines here: their Blanc de Blanc (which is made with 100% Chardonnay), their Brut (roughly 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meuniere), and their Rosé (80% Pinot). This is a family business, and Art’s wife Jody takes over from here. She’s super charismatic and talks us through their wines, as we tuck into a three-course lunch. As someone with not a very refined palate, it’s both interesting and helpful to try each wine in succession. But I can’t decide which I prefer because they all hit a different note and emotion. I guess I’ll just have to stick to drinking all three then. It’s hard work but I’m willing.
The Sussex wine harvest is an experience in the truest sense of the word. You do not have to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy it and get lots from it. This is really accessible stuff and it’s exciting to be part of a process that will (hopefully) produce a stellar 2022 vintage. With the work of our day done, Tinwood hospitality put us all at ease and as the staff headed off to the rest of their day, us amateur pickers were left with several bottles of wine, some coffee and the sense that we’d all be quite comfortable in each others’ company spending the rest of the day on the terrace overlooking the vines.
In 2022, the Tinwood Wine Harvest Experience runs until the 3rd of October and costs £59. There are also three cabins that overlook the vineyard should you decide to stay and explore nearby Halnaker windmill and the historic ruins of Boxgrove Priory.
You can book your experience here: https://www.tinwoodestate.com/events/harvest-experience-sussex/
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