Having only just completed my first full week at The Wine Pantry, I was pretty excited when Julia asked me if I wanted to go and help with the grape harvest at Gusbourne Estate, Kent, as part of my training. My only reservation being that the majority of grape picking in English vineyards is carried out by hand and having recently watched the video below, I was envisioning a particularly tough day.
The only difficult part of the day turned out to be waking up at 6am, a time of the day I hadn’t seen for several months. Julia and I met at London St Pancras and left on a train that preceded the morning city rush. As our train meandered into the beautiful Kentish countryside we looked forward to the day ahead and got increasingly competitive as to who would pick the most grapes.
Waiting for us when we arrived at the rural setting of Appledore, was none other than Andrew Weeber, the owner of Gusbourne Estate who drove us to his vineyards bringing the local history to life and emphasizing the agricultural benefits of planting in the area. I was particularly fascinated to hear that the canal had been built to defend against the advances of Napoleon’s army. The poetic irony being that had the residents of Appledore at the time had Andrew’s foresight Napoleon could have been quoted as drinking English Sparkling Wine to celebrate and English Sparkling wine to console himslef rather than Champagne!
We were greeted at the estate by a wave of friendly faces, welcoming to join in the grape picking action. Armed with a bucket and our sets of pruners – razor sharp and powerful enough to cut through very thick and strong vine branches as well as fingers – we wrestled through the Pinot Noir leaves and got to work. These warnings were enough to make us realise we had better work with a degree of caution and I’m happy to say I’m typing this now with all 10 of my digits in place.
There was an eclectic gathering of pickers that day – there were paid professional pickers who were meticulous in their work (and in the checking of others’); there were enthusiastic and friendly locals such as Anna who had helped every day of the harvest for the last 4 years; and there were well-meaning, perhaps less professional, but still greatly appreciated, pickers such as Julia and myself. I felt we were fairly easy to spot as the two city-dwellers that day – I was inappropriately dressed in jeans and trainers and although Julia had made a greater effort to dress appropriately, she probably stood out more in her boyfriend’s Barbour jacket that reached her knees and big, baggy ski salopettes. That isn’t to say that there is a strict dress code – there was one woman wearing a bright blue fascinator to commemorate the final day of the harvest!
The process of the grape-picking is fairly meticulous in itself. Pickers work in pairs, one either side of the vine row, and work up and down the rows looking for the grapes (they are often hidden among the leaves) and cutting off the bunches for their buckets. All the grapes are then collected in larger communal buckets,which are subsequently collected by tractors when the row has been harvested. However, due to this year’s eccentric weather patterns, not all the grapes were suitable for picking and subsequently being made into wine. The best way to test this, we were told, is to eat the grapes. This is all well and good, and tasty, when the grapes are ripe and suitable but for those grapes that wouldn’t make the cut, it was more like biting into a lemon than a grape.
After 3 or 4 hours picking, Julia and I were invited to have a glass of wine with Andrew, looking out over the vineyards and countryside. We were treated to a glass of the excellent Gusbourne Estate Sparkling Rosé 2009, light and floral bursting with red fruit. We sat and enjoyed the wine and Kentish countryside on a seating area that Andrew and his son had built in the middle of the vineyard.
Andrew then led us on a small tour of the wine warehouse and surrounding area before taking us to his office where he had laid on a huge lunch for the 3 of us, including a number of breads, English cheeses, cured meats, and of course more wine (Gusbourne Estate Pinot Noir 2010 and Gusbourne Estate Chardonnay 2011). Andrew has carved a successful career in the English wine industry and it was fascinating for me to hear him and Julia discussing the industry and their respective future plans.
Having polished off almost every bit of food and wine on offer, Julia and I said our goodbyes and thank yous to Andrew before getting a lift back to Appledore train station with John the Vineyard Manager. I spent most of the journey home wondering firstly whether we had done enough work to warrant receiving such generous, and delicious, hospitality, and secondly why I had had any hesitancy in agreeing to go grape-picking in the first place.
If anyone reading this would like to help the English wine industry in any way at all, other than the clear benefits of buying and drinking the wines, I would strongly recommend helping with the harvest next year. The help to the vineyards is invaluable and it’s also great fun.
NB. Not all volunteers will receive wine and food!