Sauvignon experiment

see copyright notice. Page created 10-Aug-2004 updated 14-Jul-2015. Use the button groups above to navigate quickly around the site.

[Harvest in the kitchen]

Some time around 1990 I decided to plant a grape vine. Had I given it some thought, I'd have sought out a variety suited to the English climate; in the event a 'Sauvignon' caught my eye in the local Woolworth store - so that's what went in. I carefully pruned and trained it on the Guyot system, and in 1994 harvested 3lb for a trial brew.

The grapes were, shall I say, a bit tart. To the extent there was no way a wine from the pure juice was ever going to be drinkable. So, being an old hand at coaxing wine from intransigent fruit, I made the mistake of adopting country wine techniques - crushing the berries, shocking them into submission with boiling water, then adding lots of sugar.

The resulting 2 bottles were not only tart, but bitter into the bargain. My notes for the brew end in mid-1995 with the words "promising range of flavours developing. Still dominated by sharp, cooking-apple taste; should be excellent in 1 year or so". The fact that there are no further entries says it all.

1996 was, as they say in the trade, a Good Year. On 7 October I spent a glorious afternoon carrying grapes to the kitchen by the bucketful. The net yield of clean fruit was 18lb, enough for several bottles of conventional wine - but it was still less than perfectly ripe. Optimistically I crushed the grapes in a 5 gallon bin, added 2lb sugar in 3pts water, and left the mash overnight to see if the bloom on the skins was capable of pretending to be a yeast. It was not. Ho hum. I strained off the juice and measured 13 pints at a gravity of 1079. So in went another 2lb sugar in 4pts water, along with a hock-style yeast. The fermentation went well, straight down to 995 and crystal clear when bottled a year later.

[Glass of '96, well chilled]

Of the original 12 bottles, a couple survived until 2004, and I really wished I'd kept it all for those 8 years. The flavour was bone dry and remarkably complex. The hallmark sauvignon gooseberryness was there in abundance, [isn't that somewhere in Essex? Sorry, I digress] but the bitterness had rounded into a smoother, almost resinous character. It was excellent with grilled mackerel and horseradish!

Some years there's been no crop because it was either too cold to ripen the grapes, or so wet that they rotted. However, I made several more gallons between 2000 and 2009, gradually refining the recipe. The main improvement was simply to dilute the grape juice (extracted in later years by means of a second-hand Vigo fruit press) with an equal volume of water. When "chaptalized" to get about 13% abv, this makes a nice straw-coloured wine, still quite sharp but lovely as an aperitif or with fish or cheese, and ready to drink in a year or two. The bonus effect is twice as much wine from the same amount of fruit!

The vine has grown to about 30ft horizontally, and was fond of climbing up a 25-foot conifer each year before I had the Tree Fellers in. Recent crops (since 2010) have been disappointing, but that's partly because I've been lazy with the pruning. Fortunately during the better years I built up a good stock of the wine (some still in bulk storage). This year, 2015, I've made an effort to revive a good pruning regime, and there's an encouraging amount of fruit forming as I write.

Who knows, climate change may yet prove my choice of vine to be a good one!

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