It’s 10th October, the last day of Gusbourne’s 2023 harvest. When we speak in mid-afternoon, Adam Foden, our Sussex vineyard manager, is just delivering chilled water to the pickers in time for their break. It’s hot. Surprisingly so. Since early September, the newspapers have been filled with “Brits bask in autumn heatwave” headlines as temperatures hover in the mid-20s.
“To be fair,” says Adam, “It’s absolutely beautiful. The fruit looks lovely; the Chardonnay especially is outstanding.”
For our grape-pickers, the vineyard team and the winemakers, it’s been a dream few weeks – more like harvest in the south of France than the south of England.
With warm and dry days, no rain to cause delays, pristine fruit and the biggest crop we’ve ever picked, harvest 2023 will go down as something pretty special. And, most importantly, the fruit’s in before the cool, wet weather blows in next week.
Testing, testing, testing
Mary Bridges, our Head Winemaker, started analysing grape bunches on 31st August across more than 100 blocks in Sussex and Kent. Never before have we had such a rigorous and complete picture of the grapes from such an early stage. With all the data to hand, Mary was able to map rising sugar and falling acidity in granular detail, preparing for a precision harvest.
Mary continued her testing regime week after week, enabling the vineyard team to begin picking in earnest on 22nd September. “That spell of warm weather got the grapes into a great spot,” says Mary. “When we started picking, we all noticed the amazing balance in the grapes when we tasted them off the vine: the sugar, the acid, the concentration of flavour, the structure and ripeness. They’re amazing.”
Aiming to hit this sweet spot with every bunch, the vineyard team used Mary’s data to dictate where to pick. This meant harvesting parcel by parcel, not vineyard by vineyard. The logistics were eyewatering, but “the team are amazing – and incredibly experienced” says Mary.
The vineyard crew were able to carefully control the timing of grapes arriving at the winery. This was especially important as harvest 2023 is Gusbourne’s largest to date.
“This really, really highlights how amazing it is to grow all your own fruit,” says Mary. “It means we can work with Jon [Pollard, Chief Vineyard Manager], Jim and Adam to control how the grapes are coming in.
“If we’re reaching capacity for the day at the winery, we’ll just call it, and we won’t have fruit waiting to be pressed the next day. It’s a luxury you just don’t have with bought-in fruit.”
As an outsider looking in, the relationship between the vineyard team and the winery seems to run like clockwork. It’s a finely tuned “just in time” process, allowing the presses to run around the clock at peak harvest.
“The harvest timing has been great,” says Alastair Benham, our Head of Wine Operations, noting the weather forecast for next week. “We’ve have pushed hard to get finished, because it’s been one of those years where everything has come together.
“Of course, this has its own challenges too – especially with an unusually large crop. But then we’ve been building up processes over the past five years which meant we were in a good place,” he says.
“Before harvest, we did a piece of work to define the maximum volume of fruit we could take in with the size of the presses, fermentation capacity, quantity of barrels and so on. There might have been a bit of luck at play, but we were pretty much bang on.”
Predicting tastes: a look at the growing season
It’s always fascinating to see how each year’s growing conditions translate into the quality and flavour profile of the grapes. And for vintage 2023, despite unusual weather, the early signs point to something magic.
“We didn't have the greatest weather during August coming into September,” says Jon Pollard, our Chief Vineyard Manager. “If anything, it probably slowed down the beginning of ripening. Which is no bad thing.
“If we’d had roasting hot weather through ripening, we’d probably have got our sugars and acidities where we wanted them. But we probably wouldn’t also have seen the same build-up of complexity and aroma compounds in the fruit.
“I’m confident in the crop,” says Jon. “It’s a heavy one this year; the largest Gusbourne harvest to date. But the vine canopies have been in good condition; the plants weren’t overloaded and so I’m happy.”
It’s not just Jon who’s happy. In Sussex, Adam comments that “the fruit’s the best we’ve generated from here.” In the winery, too, the mood is positive.
“The fruit is really exciting,” says Mary. “The Pinot for the sparkling wine especially; it was in such great condition when we brought it in. The skins were coming out really dark, which is phenomenal – it just adds so much flavour, depth and structure to the finished wine.
“Then for the English Rosé we’ve got components with different personalities which will blend together to make something beautiful; lighter fruit from Heartbreak and then darker, richer fruit from Lower Mill Hill.”
And what about the differences in the Kent and Sussex fruit this year? “I think the acid is always a little bit more pronounced in the fruit that comes over from Sussex,” says Mary. “But this year we’ve also got a really marked, really good chalky finish, especially on the Sussex Pinot which has got this wonderful texture.
“Then some of the Chardonnay over in Kent, which is on the clay, has got that real stone-fruit depth already. It’s exciting to see so early on.
“We can’t wait to blend in the New Year and find out if the vintage is really as good as we hope.”
With a record crop of pristine, flavourful fruit now in the winery, it sounds like vintage 2023 is going to be well worth the wait.