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Somerset Wine

Viticulture is no new thing in this country. Grape vines were first planted by the Romans, for they regarded wine an essential item in their legionaries’ rations. The Domesday Book recorded twelve vineyards in Somerset alone. But, a decline started in 1152 because the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Acquitaine brought Bordeaux to the English Crown as a dowry. This resulted in the availability of more and cheaper imported wine …….. a situation not dissimilar to that facing English wine producers today!

Most wine production continued in the monasteries, and virtually stopped after the Dissolution. Some grapes were still grown, and small quantities of wine produced. This, but, was mainly by individuals, for personal consumption or purely local sale. For many years, English wine alternated, for most people, between an amusing novelty and a joke.

A slow revival started about the early 1980s. By 1997, over 400 vineyards had been established in England and Wales, producing 0.2% of the wine bought in Britain.

The growers have had an uphill struggle against prejudices against British wine. Indeed, it’s only five years ago since I met Stephen Brooksbank at the Bath and West Show, and tried his Bagborough Medium Dry.

I liked what I tried, and recently visited the Bagborough vineyard and winery to find out more, during the grape harvest, when there would be something happening to photograph. Stephen told me they usually picked the grapes around mid-October, but the actual timing depended upon the sugar levels, which, in turn depended upon the weather.

A late Spring frost would kill off the young vine shoots, I learnt. They would be replaced, but would not generate sufficient sugar before winter set in. Contrary to well loved belief, though, you don’t need a Mediterranean summer to grow the best grapes. Just the average Southern English summer sun will do it …….. providing you don’t have a late frost.

Any kind of soil will do, as long as it’s well-drained. A south-facing slope is ideal, and this is the situation at the North Wootton vineyard, near Shepton Mallet, where I drove one sunny October afternoon, to meet George Martin and his gang of grape-pickers.

The first thing I noticed was the complete absence of anything mechanical. Picking grapes properly still calls for the human eye and touch, which no machine can come anywhere near. I noticed that the pickers were wearing surgical gloves. Wouldn’t gardening gloves be better, I questioned.

George clarified that a thick glove would take away the tactile sense necessary to handle the grapes properly. For the same reason, he said, the pickers were paid a daily rate. Piece-work wasn’t on; it would lead to the fruit being mishandled and hurt, or possibly being left on the vine.

Picking a grape to taste demonstrated the reason for the care. If these grapes were offered for the table in the supermarket, I’d reject them straight away, for being over-ripe. The slightest pressure produces juice, and every drop spilt on the way to the winery is a drop less wine in the Spring.

‘We’ll just end these few rows’ said George ‘then we’ll go down to Bagborough to pick. The rest of the grapes here aren’t quite ready yet’. I questioned how they chose that, with a romantic vision of an elderly, vastly experienced gentleman doing the ‘taste test’.. I was told, but, that, although you can get a rough thought by tasting the grapes, Stephen would do a simple chemical test, which would measure the sugar level with considerably more accuracy.

I was told that Stephen Brooksbank doesn’t own the land at North Wooton, but he does own the vines. It’s similar to the traditional ‘métayage’ of France … readers of ‘A Year in Provence’ may recall that Peter Mayle had such an arrangement with his neighbour, Faustin.

Presently, Stephen arrived with a pick-up truck and trailer, to carry the crates of grapes to Bagborough. I followed, to see what happened next. Of course, I wasn’t expecting Bagborough to be a castle on a hill-side, looking down a valley, planted with vines as far as the eye could see. Not in Somerset, anyway. But, the house and the winery were built in the same pleasant, mellow stone as my imaginary castle. Would the wine taste any different if it was made on an anonymous trading estate? Probably not ……… but something would be missing.

A long, trough-like hopper on wheels, hitched to a tractor stood in the yard. Into this, the grapes were loaded, and were chopped up by a screw-like rotary blade, driven by the tractor’s power take-off, at the bottom of the hopper.

The arrangement was on wheels so that it could be driven up to the vineyard, and the grapes loaded directly into it. That way, there’s no loss of juice in the trailer, as there is when they are transported from vineyards further afield. The trailer is then driven down to the winery, and the chopped-up contents pumped into the pressing machine.

There went another illusion. No sturdy, barefoot peasant girls to hike up their skirts, and jump into the pressing vat to trample the grapes! The Public Health people probably wouldn’t like it, and the machine does a far more efficient job, anyway.

The grape juice is pumped into vats to start a long process of filtering and fermenting. It’s going to be five to six months before we see any wine. But, they did have several bottles from previous years to hand, and offered me a taste.

They have the courage to place Bagborough Medium Dry into a clear glass bottle. The colour brings visions of many things English … sunlight on a newly thatched roof, even the stone of Bagborough itself. But, this is only one of the wines they produce. The most noted is ‘Leveret’, a sparkling wine made ‘using the traditional champagne method’.

In fact, they could call it ‘champagne’ … if they wanted a lifetime of grief from a whole slew of French lawyers!

And, that’s not all. Anyone who has a small vineyard, but no winery, could bring their grapes to Bagborough, and have their wine made for them.

Now, there’s an thought! I wonder if our local Council has any south-facing allotments available?

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