What extraordinary times we live in. With the country deciding on a new monetary order, swiftly pursued by the most disruptive global disease in a lifetime, businesses like Hambledon Vineyard have found themselves woefully short of skilled employment at picking time. The excellent harvest teams that have previously been responsible for bringing in Hambledon’s precious grapes for their world-beating English sparkling wines have found themselves quarantined back in their home country, after there was, naturally, little that could be done during lockdown.
These circumstances led to the folks at Hambledon taking unprecedented steps to recruit pickers by advertising locally – a step which hasn’t had to be taken at the vineyard since the days of Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in the mid-1980s!
It is with huge gratitude from Hambledon Vineyard, that these people, mostly Hampshire residents, saved the day. I began to wonder what motivated them, many of them complete novices to wine harvesting, to take the challenge, and come out in force and save Hambledon’s precious crop.
I decide to meet them…
I drive carefully in the crepuscular light down a misty country lane, peering into the gloom, looking for a sign illustrating the site of pristinely organised rows of vines, well-hidden, so I have been told, behind the trees. I find it and turn right into a large, manicured clearing, just as the sun peeks above the horizon. In moments, a vast, level field turns green in the morning light, framed by dappled emerald, ruby and gold flashes from the leaves of the trees at its perimeter.
“Over here!” shouts Nick Cran-Crombie, Hambledon’s Vineyard Manager, from behind me. There is the vineyard, in all its green and gold glory, weighed down by its bounty of clusters of dark red berries. It’s time to pick, and as Nick explained to me, not before time. Because of the challenging and erratic weather that we have experienced this year, harvest has come very late indeed. More specifically, a late, very deep frost at the cruellest point in the annual cycle of the vine has pushed the harvest back at least a month, and has significantly reduced the expected yield. Well, you can’t win them all and this is when the decision by Hambledon’s founder Ian Kellett to make a multi-vintage blend will come into its own over the coming three to four years. These grapes will produce spectacular reserve wines that will be added in increments to future bottlings of Hambledon’s wines to add fragrance, structure and complexity over the next half decade.
I am standing in rural Hampshire, a place where harvests have been reaped and brought in by local villagers for over a thousand years. It’s back-breaking work however, and not necessarily for the faint-hearted, so what motivated them to sign up and help. Was it just the extra pocket money, or did people want to be involved in one of the most unique harvests ever?
The first car pulls in. “I have just moved down to the area, because I think that the scenery overlooking the Solent is so beautiful” said Julie, a new local. “My friend and I stumbled across Hambledon and, in fact, came to one of your masterclass evenings, and thought it would be interesting. I really wanted to support Ian in his endeavours.” These pickers truly felt a real sense of loyalty and draw to a local business in need.
Edward was just here pick grapes and help out, but he ended up making more than just a few extra pounds. “It’s pretty tiring work, but the weather has been good and I’ve made a few new mates the past few days.”
“I thought it would be interesting!” exclaimed Susannah. “I run a travel business, so you can imagine what my year has been like. I saw the advert on Facebook, and thought “I like wine, I should give that a go”, and I’ve loved it!”
Well it certainly takes all sorts!
Thanks to the help of generous locals like Julie, Edward and Susannah (as well as over 150 others!), Hambledon Vineyard managed to protect their precious harvest of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes, allowing them to start their exciting journey to become the Finest English Fizz.
What a truly amazing spectacle to see so many green fingers come out in support of a local business in need. I feel very lucky to have played a small part in this historic moment and who knows, maybe next year you will have the chance to play a part too…