Young winemaker adds to maturity of Devon bubbly
Winemaking is not just a passion but a science that needs meticulous attention to detail and Alex Mills, from Mid Devon, is among the youngest across the country to be an expert in his field.
The 21-year-old from Huntsham, near Tiverton, only graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in May last year. But, the next month, he was taken on as a viticultural and oenological consultant by Devon's largest vineyard – Pebblebed, at Clyst St George, Exeter.
"I'm probably the youngest qualified winemaker in the country, and I suppose it all started when I was 14," said Alex, who explained that his main role surrounds the care and management of vineyards as well as the science of winemaking.
His winemaking career effectively began as a teenager, when he would help run the cafe and tend to the grapes at Yearlstone Vineyard, Bickleigh, which is run by Roger and Juliet White, friends of Alex's parents.
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"Roger and Juliet were fantastic in spending time talking to me about various things, and they really developed my interest in winemaking and vineyards. Then, seven years later I ended up having completed a bachelor of science degree in viticulture and oenology, which is wine making and the scientific management of vineyards," added the former Tiverton High and Exeter College pupil, who completed the course at Plumpton College, Sussex.
At Pebblebed, Alex helps tend the two south-facing vineyards, near to the River Exe Estuary.
Alex, whose expertise lies with the rosé variety of wines, said: "Weather is the biggest challenge, like this year, but on the whole it is reasonably dry – not as dry as the south east, but it is very good for growing crops.
"Historically, there have been a lot of orchards in Devon and the county is known for its good fruit growing and we are very good at producing crisp, dry wines and sparkling varieties, in particular rosés, which Pebblebed prides itself on.
"We are particularly proud of our pink fizz, which we think rivals champagne."
Pebblebed is spread over 22 acres on two sites at Ebford and Clyst St George, near Topsham, where its wine cellar is based. Each of the slopes are south-facing and the terroir, they believe, is the best in Devon, boasting good sandy loam soils with high sunshine hours and low rainfall.
Alex, who is part of a team that cares for 22,000 vines, said a normal day would consist of making sure the wines have been fermenting well, that the right flavours are coming through and how best they can be managed.
Then, over the winter months, the vines go into dormancy and are pruned right back. "You can't make a good-quality wine out of poor grapes, so you have really got to tend to the vines and nurture them throughout the summer," he said. "But this tends to start in the spring, when we are keeping an eye out for the buds starting to burst out in late-April or the start of May.
"We would also be keen to keep an eye out for any late frosts and hope the weather will be nice and warm and will not kill off any of the buds."
The vines will start offering "what looks like a typical bunch of grapes" in July and early August, Alex said, and at this point his team will do everything it can to manage the canopy and to ensure the vines receive as much sunlight as possible. "We also don't want them going wild and becoming like hedgerows, so we have got to meticulously tend to the vines to make sure they have got enough nutrients to produce a good healthy canopy and therefore a good vine and quality grapes," he said.
"And then the most exciting bit really starts in September, when the grapes are about to be harvested. The early ones tend to be ready about the middle of September so a couple of weeks prior to this we are out in the vineyard, checking every few days to see how they are ripening up, and we check the sugar and acidity levels which is very important depending on what style of wine you are looking to make."
Once the grapes are ready for harvest, members of the community, friends and family members of staff at the vineyard are invited to pick them ahead of the fermentation process. "This is a lovely event, and something you would get at a French chateau."
Fermentation, which starts after a few late nights pressing the grapes, takes around six weeks.
Alex said: "It's about a nine-month process in all, and then with the sparkling wines it is even longer than that, unfortunately, and you have got to resist drinking them too soon. These will be bottled around February to March time and then they will go in dark cellars here at Pebblebed Winery, where they will sit for about 18 months where they go through a second fermentation.
"This is exactly the same way champagne is made and, of course, English sparkling wines are beating the French at their own game nowadays," he added.
The vineyard came to fruition as a community project in 1999. David and Gail Leeder bought their home at Ebford where vineyard founder Geoff Bowen later planted dozens of vines in an eight-acre field with the help of 11 families.
Now, 20 families help tend the vines throughout the year, harvest the grapes and reap the benefits in wine and social experiences.
In 2010, Geoff pitched his idea for a new community vineyard (Partner Vineyards) on the BBC Dragon's Den programme which won support from Duncan Bannatyne. This new vineyard was planted in May 2011 with 30 new individuals and partners joining the ten-year long project.