Freshly picked Pinot Noir at Chafor

Picking Bucks Fizz at Chafor Wine Estate

Pinot Noir ready for picking

Pinot Noir ready for picking at Chafor Wine Estate

The highlight of our year here at English Wine Lovers is harvest time. It’s a chance for Elisabeth & I to get out into the field, sharpen our snips and get our hands dirty helping, in a small way, to produce the wines we enjoy drinking and writing about. It’s also a chance to get to know the growers who put in so much effort throughout the rest of the year tending their precious vines.

Tim Chafor is one such grower, at whose Buckinghamshire vineyard we both volunteered our services in October. We’d both met Tim and his wife Stephanie earlier in the year when we were invited to visit the eponymous Chafor Wine Estate and taste their very first wines, from the 2013 vintage, and the then as yet to be released 2014s.

Tim has his roots in Lincolnshire, where earlier generations of his family were farmers; prior to planting a vineyard his previous career was in computing. He and Stephanie moved to the village of Tingewick in Buckinghamshire in 2008 and in nearby Gawcott (the birthplace in 1811 of Sir George Gilbert Scott, famous architect of London St Pancras railway station and the Albert Memorial) Tim found some land where he could plant a vineyard.

At first, just 50 experimental vines were planted. Then, in 2009, the main 4 acre vineyard was planted with 3,000 vines – 2,000 each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus 500 Pinot Meunier and 500 Bacchus. All were tirelessly planted by hand after an accident involving the planting machine meant the mechanised approach had to be abandoned in favour of the old fashioned, hard way. There is plenty of scope to enlarge the planted area, although Tim has increased capacity in other ways (perhaps to avoid any more planting mishaps!) by taking on Manor Farm vineyard in Weedon, near Aylesbury, 15 miles to the south east. There, the same varieties are grown as at Gawcott, plus some Pinot Gris and Madeleine Angevine.

Loading the grapes to take to the press

Loading the grapes to take to the press

My harvest day was spent at the main vineyard site where I was one of 8 others (friends, neighbours and a couple of staff from the local Waitrose, where the wine is sold) who had turned up on an overcast, occasionally wet morning to pick Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The grapes were healthy and plentiful but not all fully ripe so our instructions from Stephanie were to carefully select which bunches to pick and which to leave for another week or two of autumn sun.

The vineyard occupies a generally flat field with a small copse at the southern edge and ponds to the west. Red kites fly overhead, sheep graze in the neighbouring field and badgers have made themselves at home nearby. We began at 10am (well it was a Sunday!), stopped for coffee mid-morning and had delicious homemade vegetable soup for lunch. Ripe fruit from all the rows had been picked by around 3pm and everyone had put in a serious effort to get the job done. There was plenty of opportunity to strike up a conversation with fellow pickers though or, if preferred, to find your own section of vines to work in solitude and enjoy the peacefulness of the site – at least until the Tim started up the tractor!

Tim Chafor at the controls

Tim Chafor at the controls

‘My’ pinots will go into sparkling wine, to be produced at Hattingley Valley in Hampshire. Some of the Chafor grapes, however, including some  from the Weedon vineyard where Elisabeth picked Chardonnay the following week, will also produce still wines.

Since our first visit to Gawcott, Tim has set up a winery in the modern farm building housing the cellar door shop and upstairs tasting room/gallery space. For me, that meant the exciting opportunity of not only picking the grapes but later helping to load them into the wine press which Tim and Stephanie brought back from Beaune in Burgundy earlier this year. This is no easy task. First, the crates of grapes have to be weighed, so are lifted from the trailer used to collect them in the vineyard and placed on weighing scales. Then they are stacked on a pallet and hauled to the press where the crates are lifted up by hand and emptied into the press. Once it’s full, the press gently squeezes the whole bunches of grapes and the fresh juice pours out of the bottom. Of course, it would be rude not to taste it, and the pinkish juice had a real depth and earthiness to it. It was an absolute pleasure to sample taste the freshest possible result of my day’s work, even if it has a long way to go to become Buckinghamshire fizz.

Hot off the press - Pinot juice at Chafor

Hot off the press – Pinot juice at Chafor

This is the 3rd vintage for Chafor. The first wines were produced from the 2013 harvest – 800 bottles of Chardonnay plus 2,000 bottles of Bacchus made from a blend of grapes from both the Gawcott and Weedon vineyards (which won Bronze at the International Wine Challenge in 2015) and a rosé blended from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Madeleine Angevine. There are also 4,800 bottles of 2013 classic cuvée sparkling wine, bottled in July 2014, to be released in a few months’ time. A successful 2014 growing season produced a further 2,700 white and 1,000 rosé bottles of sparkling and substantial amounts of reserve wines for future blending. The 2014 Bacchus – richer and fuller than the 2013 – has also won awards this year (including the Mac Mackinnon Trophy for Best White Wine at the Thames and Chilterns Vineyard Association competition), as has the 2013 Chardonnay Reserve, earning Silver at the UK Vineyard Association awards.

All of the pickers (none of whom seemed to get quite as dirty as I did) went away with a bottle of Tim’s 2014 rosé, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Madeleine Angevine. I took the opportunity to stock up and went away with a Bacchus and a Chardonnay too. I’m now looking forward to trying the sparkling wine, and especially the 2015.