Anyone walking along the footpath by the allotments in recent months will have noticed the serried ranks of wooden poles that have appeared on the north side of the drive down to The Court House. Since the middle of May, close inspection would have shown that along the rows between these poles about 2000 vines have been planted. The object is to grow grapes for the production of champagne-type wine.
The field to the east of The Court House was known in former times as the Berry garden, and was presumably the place where soft fruit was grown. In 1912 the western half of this field was conveyed to the parish council as allotment gardens, and remained in use for that purpose until 1956. So there is a history of horticultural production. A short distance along the Petersfield road Vineyard Hole testifies to the past growing of vines.
In the last two or three years there has been some quite extensive planting of vines for the production of champagne-type wine in this area. The Hampshire chalk downs, in terms of geology and soil, are similar to the best parts of Champagne, and the climate change has made our area more favourable to the sort of grape production that is needed – warm enough for ripe grapes, but not so warm that they lose the essential acidity. Hambledon vineyard has been replanted with champagne-type grapes and a French champagne producer has planted 10 acres of vines on the south side of Old Winchester Hill.
Our enterprise is rather more modest in scale, and soil and location are probably less favourable. The first task after the ground, an acre in extent, had been ploughed and harrowed was to set out lines of posts that will, in due course, carry the wire to which the vines will be tied. The chestnut posts came from the woods at Adhurst, where the coppicing of chestnut trees is still carried on in traditional fashion.
Three-quarters of the vines are pinot noir and the rest are chardonnay, with a number of different clones of each variety, grafted onto root-stock that is of moderate vigour and tolerant of chalky soil. They came from a nursery in the foot-hills of the Alps, not far from Chamonix, and were kept chilled before being soaked and planted out into warm soil in the middle of May. Terry Louden led the planters in a prayer. Any failures or shortcomings in the crop will now incontestably be attributable to the incompetence of the growers.
For the first three years, while the vines are developing and being trained to the trellis, no grapes will be allowed to form (we are currently removing the little flower bunches that appear). The first crop will be taken in 2009 and will be sent away for the expert, and rather complex, process of making the wine, which should be available in 2010.