Joe: Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Nick Cran Crombie, Vineyard Manager at Hambledon. So Nick, my last piece was on how locals rallied round to help you get the harvest in. I know there were many problems across the country for harvest this year. How do you feel post-harvest, have you recovered yet?!
Nick: Well the whole season this year has been so testing, right from April onwards, when we had very cold temperatures, and then every parameter in the growing season - budburst, flowering, fruit set, veraison - was either protracted, delayed or affected by weather, so a tricky harvest just seemed like the natural progression! On top of nationwide labour supply issues, there were reduced fruit yields which meant that usual pickers weren’t willing to make the journey due to insufficient workload, so it all fell apart, as it did for a lot of vineyards, in the last couple of weeks pre-harvest. We then had to come up with a rallying call for local pickers, uncharted territory really.
Joe: So despite all that, are there any positives to be taken from this year?!
Nick: Well, the yield reduction ended up nowhere near as bad as feared… And in October the good weather meant that the fruit we got in was in very clean, good quality condition – that’s a positive! There are always silver linings to every cloud.
Joe: To those who are less familiar with the ins and outs of viticulture, I know it’s been a very late and cold vintage - how does that affect the wine?
Nick: I think the French saying is that some seasons it’s the viticulturist’s (the grower’s) season, and others it’s the winemaker’s season - and I think this has very much been a winemaker’s season, where it’s up to them to work their magic. Fortunately we’ve got very good winemakers who can do that. My job however is dictated by the weather pure and simple; I work on a 3-5 day ahead window and deal with whatever’s coming down the pipe! That’s why this year has been so trying.
Joe: So let’s break your job down into pre-harvest, harvest, post-harvest, what’s your year like?
Nick: My job is primarily to produce the best fruit possible and get that into the winery. So we start in late December-January, depending on weather, and we prune all the vines of which we now have 300,000+. When I first started at Hambledon we only had about 20 hectares, so me and a team of three others would prune all of that ourselves, 500-700 plants a day, 3-4 weeks – done! You get into a real groove with it and yes it can be cold, but nowadays it’s all electric pruners so you’re not getting the same fatigue in your hands. So we get that pruned, then we get all the canes, last year’s wood, pulled out. We use these to fuel the biomass boiler for the winery and the offices, something we started doing last year. Once that’s done we tie down, again by hand, the canes for the coming season. And then we await budburst! And that is when the real nail biting starts. This year from April onwards, pretty much all season, it’s been one long sleepless night. I think we had 18 sub-zero mornings in a row, and once the buds are out on the plants they are so susceptible to frosts, as we saw in France in April this year. So we wait for budburst then we are essentially nurturing up the plant to full canopy, which is basically like creating a 1.5 metre hedge and trying to keep that in tip-top condition until the fruit starts to grow, usually towards the end of June. Then we have the flowering, which is another very precarious time of the year. If we have heavy rains or high winds, like this year, the flowering won’t take place or won’t have time to set, which can cause various problems. Then we have fruit set, then we keep that fruit as clean as possible until harvest.
Joe: So Nick, let’s wind the clock right back now. So anyone who saw you might think “he’s not a viticultural manager, he looks like he might be an Ibiza DJ!”
Nick: (Laughs) Well I’m from Manchester originally, and when I finished school it was the early 1990s and I got caught up in the whole Manchester music scene, then ended up working in the music business in London for 15 odd years. By my early 40s it was time for a change, and someone suggested to me the WSET qualifications. So I did intermediate and advanced, then got a job managing Jeroboams wine merchant in Notting Hill for 4 years, which was an amazing learning curve for all things wine. We went on producer visits, and once I started going out to vineyards I felt that perhaps I’d rather be at that end of the process rather than the customer bit. I’ve always liked plants and horticulture, it’s just something I’ve always enjoyed. My last apartment that I had in London I had a balcony and used to grow all my own veg and tomatoes.
Joe: For those who don’t know, you also come as a power couple with Katrina, head of everything educational at Hambledon, who is also studying for a Master of Wine. While I think, for those people who have any shadow of a doubt, you are responsible for the quality of the wine, no-one else is.
Nick: I’m just that first link in a complicated chain, but producing the fruit is obviously integral to each vintage and harvest. So the reason that we moved out of London is that Katrina got a job in Petersfield for a wine tour business. And after 18 years in London, I was so blown away by the air quality and the scenery here, that I decided I wanted to work outdoors. So I went back to school again and did some horticultural qualifications at Merrist Wood, and at the same time I did some local landscaping work - outdoors on my own in the van, loved it. And then Peter Crabtree, the previous Vineyard Manager, was retiring from Hambledon. I think there have only been three vignerons in Hambledon’s history including me, so I’ve got quite some shoes to step into.
Joe: So in terms of being at Hambledon, do you feel very much part of the team going forward in a long term vision?
Nick: I think I’m motivated by progression, and also it’s just a very exciting business to be involved in. For the near and middle future I don’t see anything but being involved in English wine viticulture because of how the machinery and processes are constantly improving and how the weather (not this year, but!) is also starting to come on side for ripening fruit in this country. Plumpton College has just started a fantastic viticultural course, and we’ve now got two of their apprentices on board. It seems like it’s now starting to seep out that actually vineyards in the south of England are a very good prospect for a career.
Joe: I can’t think of any horticultural or agricultural business in the world right now where you get to see such large incremental gains year on year in terms of knowledge. I think it’s very exciting also how Hambledon is embracing tourism and you’ve got that incredible restaurant to look forward to.
Nick: Absolutely. The actual framework is so stunning, it was hand-built from oak. It’s going to be fantastic. As we’ve seen with lots of other vineyards, the whole tourism side of things, people putting up these incredible visitor centres, I think collectively that just strengthens up the whole industry.
Joe: It really does. As my little blog post on harvest interviewing the local pickers this year showed. I think that sense of place and identity, rather like in Germany where everyone has an association with their local brewery, and that sense of community has been brought back in such a positive way in this country through microbreweries and wineries. Well listen, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
Joe: I really feel whenever we have a chat that Hambledon is in really safe hands and the same with Katrina, and my wife and I look forward to having a drink with you both very soon!