A Day in the Winery at Plumpton College
Here at English Wine Lovers, we love nothing more than getting out in a vineyard. So many times we’re taken aback by the beautiful countryside we would never have found otherwise and any time of year there is something worth seeing. Right now, of course, it’s all about the harvest. With more than 50 UK vineyards welcoming help with harvest, it’s easy to get involved. But what happens to the grapes once they’ve been picked?
Earlier this year I was at the UKVA annual awards lunch and when Sarah Midgley, Winemaker at Plumpton College, Britain’s Centre of Excellence in Wine education, training and research, said I’d be welcome to help out in the winery one day, I accepted at once. Last Saturday I headed across to Plumpton, near Ditchling in Sussex and arrived at the winery at 9am and met up with Sarah and a few of her students, who were kind enough to welcome me.
The main jobs of the day were to work on the red wines that were already in tank. The first one needing attention was quite a big tank and and needed pumping over – pumping red wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must to submerge the cap of skins and seeds to keep it wet, increase the skin contact and deepen the colour of the wine, as well as to release carbon dioxide. This was my first experience of connecting pipes to the tank and a pump – nothing difficult, but fraught with possibility for mistakes and losing precious wine, particularly at the very end, when you are getting the last of the liquid out of the pipes. I worked with second year student Huw and think I was reasonably useful. The main thing I hadn’t really thought about was how much cleaning was required to get the pipes absolutely clean and tidy and put away ready for the next time they are needed.
While I was pumping over, Huw took a sample of the wine to record its temperature and alcohol level, to see how fermentation was progressing. I was reminded of Yorkshire winemaker George Bowden of Leventhorpe Vineyard, who used to teach his 6th formers by getting them to make wine – such a good way of giving a real context to maths and chemistry.
The next tank of red wine needed similar treatment, but this one being smaller, I was shown how to punch down the cap by hand. It was really interesting to contrast the two methods and, like anything else, I’ll appreciate the product so much more by knowing a little of what really goes into it.
The rest of the day involved various other wine-making tasks that needed doing, together with cleaning, washing up, more cleaning and even more washing up! Keeping tanks and pipes clean and tidy, rinsing out pumps, cleaning jugs (and the occasional glass!) that have been used for samples.
It was really interesting to talk with the students too – Joe is another second year, Peter an accountant who fancies a change of career, Radka a Biochemistry intern and Nicholas who’s doing post-grad studies and whose enthusiasm for anything wine is infectious and so strong that he loves cleaning out tanks just to be surrounded by the smell of the grapes!
I know that I was very lucky to be invited to join in the day – it’s clear that the possibility of mistakes and health & safety considerations mean that having guests in a winery isn’t always practical.
If you do fancy having a go yourself, Plumpton offer a Principles of Winemaking course, which consists of 7 discrete days, approximately 1 day a month, starting in the autumn, which takes students right through from preparing for harvest to wine stability and bottling, even producing sparkling wine. Talking with Gavin Deaville, who is half way through this year’s course, it’s clear that it’s great fun. Whether you fancy dipping a toe in the water of changing career, or whether you’re just interested to learn a bit more for pleasure or business, it looks like a great option.
Me? I’m convinced, I just can’t decide whether I should do Principles of Vinegrowing next year and Winemaking the year after, or vice-versa. Read about both of these and other full and part time courses on the website of Plumpton College’s Department of Wine & Wine Research.
I’ll let you know when I’ve chosen and you can follow my journey, or maybe I’ll see you there?
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