Babu's Vineyard: Norfolk winery expecting bumper harvest
PUBLISHED: 11:02 23 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:02 23 October 2018
It looks like there'll be a bumper grape harvest this year. We visited a Norfolk vineyard and winery to find out more
Every plant, marshalled into long rows across a Norfolk paddock, is laden with bunches of glossy grapes. Pick one and the juice squeezes clear and sweet. Pick entire bunches, load them into crate after crate and pull them on a cart across the lane to the back-garden winery and you have the best-ever harvest for Babu’s Vineyard.
Babu himself, or Peter Ross, began planting his vineyard eight years ago. It was a retirement project, to transform an acre opposite his home in Weston Longville into a vineyard.
The name, Babu, comes from the Swahili world for grandfather – which his children called his father, who had lived in Africa, and which his four grandchildren now call him.
When we visit, just ahead of harvest, the vines of Babu’s Vineyard stand tall, grapes gloriously abundant. Each was planted by hand, is pruned and tied and sprayed and checked by hand, and every bunch of grapes will be picked by hand, cut from the vine by a harvesting party made up of friends and neighbours.
The deep red rondo grapes will make a rose wine, the green solaris grapes a crisp white, created in Peter’s tiny back-garden winery.
Peter can’t quite remember when he first decided he would love to run a vineyard, but after retiring from a career in the Royal Navy, and then Norfolk police, he began researching – and realised the paddock and pond over the lane, bought with his house, and which he had been renting out for horse-grazing, could become his vineyard.
Over the next few years he planted 35 rows of vines, in lines north to south across the field so that each plant could soak up as much sunshine as possible. He has learned how to look after them, and transform the grapes into wine, both from books and from Norfolk vineyard consultant Chris Hatto, who works with him.
Every harvest, more than 20 friends and neighbours from the village gather and after picking the grapes and towing them across to the winery are rewarded with a lavish lunch in the vineyard. Across the lane the grapes are de-stemmed, split and pressed, the juice extracted, sterilised, and poured into huge vats.
After it has settled, yeast is added for fermentation to begin and turn the fruit sugar into alcohol. As the leaves drop in the vineyard, exposing bare stems which must be cut back and tied down ready for next year’s growth, this year’s vintage takes shape.
“The critical thing about harvesting is that the sugars and the acids in the grapes should be well balanced,” said Peter. “The right moment to pick is when the acidity is enough to give the wine its body and bite and the sugars are enough to give the right level of alcohol.”
By April the results are ready to bottle. In May the vines begin to bud and in June they burst into flower and the age-old process begins again.
“This year’s harvest is going to be as good as it gets,” said Peter. “Conditions were absolutely perfect at bud-burst and flowering.”
Last year was about as bad as it gets – late frosts destroying the burgeoning crop and resulting in just 200 bottles of wine, compared to 600-700 in previous years. This year Peter is hoping for 1,000 bottles.
“It’s going to be a bumper harvest. The vines have never had so much fruit on them – although you should never count your chickens before they’re hatched! We might have more wine than we have tanks for it.”
As well as planting, picking and tending by hand, Peter also labels every bottle by hand, selling to local pubs, a deli, at food fairs and after vineyard and winery tours.
It’s a very small-scale operation and a labour of love. One year he made just £9 profit.
“At times it does take every waking moment,” he said. “It’s more intense than I thought. There is a big oak tree in the corner of the vineyard and I had this idea that I would sit under the tree with a glass of wine watching the vines grow. I have never had the chance to sit under that tree!”
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A Norfolk connection, a prince and a near miss
Peter arrived in Norfolk 20 years ago to become IT director for Norfolk police. But it was not his first connection with the county. He was previously in the Royal Navy, serving aboard HMS Norfolk as a meteorologist and oceanographer. It is a naval tradition that sailor’s babies can be baptised, using the upturned ship’s bell as a font - their names are then inscribed on the bell. Peter’s daughter Katie was baptised aboard HMS Norfolk, but when the ship was sold Peter did not know where the bell had gone – until he arrived for his first meeting at Norfolk County Hall and saw it above the entrance to the council chamber.
Peter also served on HMS Invincible during the Falklands War, alongside Prince Andrew.
He was on deck with the operations officer and Prince Andrew when a missile was launched at the ship. “We were ordered to hit the deck. I knew that any second an exocet would burst through,” said Peter. “But we had fired chaff. A missile locks on to the biggest target and when lots of aluminium goes up, the missile follows that.” It veered away from the Invincible, but the nearby Atlantic Conveyor was hit, killing 12 men and destroying 10 helicopters.
Putting Norfolk wine on the map
Babu’s Vineyard is part of a burgeoning wine industry in Norfolk. Climate and craftsmanship are helping make the county a wine-making hot-spot. Although the Romans grew grapes in Britain it is only recently that wine has flowed from Norfolk vineyards. Independent wine merchant Tanja Wright, of TFW Fine Wines, based near Cromer, said: “Norfolk wines are incredibly good. We have the climate for it and we produce quality wine, properly made. We are very good at sparkling wine but also our still wines are getting better and better each year. They hold their own against wines from around the world.”
The vineyards putting Norfolk wine on the map include:
• Winbirri Vineyard in Surlingham has won numerous wine awards, with its Winbirri Bachus last year named the world’s top white wine made from a single grape variety, plus many more national gold medals for its wines. The vineyard has more than 50,000 vines across 34 acres.
• Flint Vineyard near Bungay was planted in 2016, so the first grapes will be ready for the Flint winery next autumn. An impressive purpose-built winery is already operating, turning grapes grown nearby into some fine wines. This year Ben and Hannah Witchell launched their 15-mile lunch, sourcing cheese, charcuterie, bread and wine from within 15 miles.
• Chet and Waveney Valley Vineyard in Bergh Apton is based on a traditional family farm and produces sparkling, white and rosé wines, with a world bronze award for a white wine this year, plus an award for the best sparkling wine in East Anglia.
• Humbleyard Vineyard in Mulbarton has eight acres of vines producing white, rose and sparkling wines. The first vines were planted in 2010 on the site of an orchard. It is open to the public Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm.