A Beginner’s Guide to Soil Science

About a month ago, our local – and extremely helpful – proper farmer arrived with an enormous trailer attached to his enormous tractor with lots of enormous bags of fertiliser and lime on the back of it. I watched in awe as he picked them effortlessly up off the back of his trailer with the tractor’s forks as if they weren’t each the weight of six well fed chaps and just about managed to get it together in time to ask him to drag half of them to the other vineyard. Which is as well, because it’s about a quarter of a mile away, and to the best of my knowledge, I can’t, ahem, pick up six well fed men. Once I had profusely thanked our occasional hero and sent him on his way full of biscuits and coffee, I went for a walk to look at our huge bags of fertiliser and devise a plan of action.

If you are unfamiliar with lime, it is used in agriculture – and in gardens – to raise the pH of soil from more acidic to more alkaline. It is important to monitor the pH of soil as it has a habit of becoming more acidic over time – usually because intensive farming requires the addition of lots and lots of nitrogen, which is essential but makes acidic compounds in the soil – and that acidic soil prevents the vines from picking up some of the nutrients whether they are in the soil or not. Soils that have lots of chalk in can have the opposite problem, as the chalk does the same job as the lime and they tend to be alkaline, which causes a whole host of different nutrients to be unavailable to the plant. The advantage with chalky soils is that the direction of travel using modern (and traditional, for that matter) fertilisers is towards acidity, so ignoring the problem tends to help these push/pull factors meet somewhere near the middle.

So where is the sweet spot? In my experience, it’s a moving target depending on who you ask. If you ask a chap who is constantly booting huge lumps of chalk out of the way as he walks around his vineyard, he will tell you that alkaline is the way to go. Astonishingly enough, the opposite is true when you interview someone who is tripping over something other than chalk. What is absolutely the case is that you can spend all the money in the world on fertiliser, but if your soil pH is out of sync too much in either direction, the vines are ultimately going to keel over and die despite your best efforts. The lab that we send our soil samples to recommends an absolute floor of pH 6, which is fairly acidic, and everyone, irrespective of what their soil looks like, will tell you that a number lower than this is bad news.

As one part of one of the fields – interestingly enough, the weakest part – had dropped below 6 and everywhere else was well on the way, we decided that it was time for action. The only fly in the ointment was that changing the pH of a lot of soil takes a lot of lime, in our case, literally tonnes of the stuff. And that’s (mostly) the end of the chemistry lesson, let’s get on to the impracticalities of getting all that good stuff onto our soil.

Old hands here will be aware of the unique way in which we have historically spread fertiliser. To the uninitiated, it involves a bucket, an eggcup and a childish obstinacy to go out and buy the appropriate piece of equipment to make this happen with the minimum of effort. There is a certain amount of logic in this approach – no, really – as spreading fertiliser directly under the vines in an area that is habitually kept clear of grass and weeds means that that fertiliser doesn’t end up feeding the grass that runs up and down between the vines and causing it to take over. As an added bonus, as you are applying it directly, you can apply less of it, save some cash and, in theory, prevent unnecessary acidification of the soil.

The huge bags of lime posed a new and exciting problem as we have never before had to apply such vast quantities. I placed my trusty bucket next to the bag of lime and stood back. Even the most naïve optimist would be hard pressed to deny that the bucket was much, much smaller than the bag of lime. I put it to my farming mate that I may have bitten off rather more than I could chew and was thinking of hiring a spreader for my tractor and the very next day, the perfect machine for the job magically arrived on the driveway. Once I had wiped away the tears joy, I was ready to farm like a man living on the leeward side of the industrial revolution.

What we were applying with the spreader up and down the rows was a mixture made up principally of lime. We had also added some potassium and phosphorous that the soil needed, but which were unlikely to make the weeds take over or undo any of the good work that the lime was doing in the soil (potassium actually helps a little with acidity). We had the huge bags of fertiliser dealt with in short order. On reflection, this should have come as no surprise as the spreader is significantly bigger than my bucket and I was putting the tractor away and trying to catch the empty bags of fertiliser that were blowing across the fields at the end of three days of not very hard work.

And here endeth the egg cup? Not a bit of it! The vines were still missing their dose of a veritable alphabet of nutrients for the year. Carefully calculating the dose of the all in one fertiliser to be precisely one egg cup’s worth per vine, I grabbed bucket, egg cup and running shoes and went back to work like it’s 1799.

The Iceman Cometh…

After being bundled onto a plane last week and taken far enough away from the vines to prevent me sneaking back and doing a bit of work when Lucy wasn’t watching, it was my intention to write about the onset of spring and pre-bottling operations in the winery. The weather has put paid to these plans as there is currently an elephant in the room, and that elephant is made out of ice.

Now that I think about it, an elephant made out of ice probably isn’t terribly threatening – but forgive the metaphor – frost at this time of year is absolutely no laughing matter. After a mild and dry winter, the rains arrived in March and turned everything into a bit of a boggy mess. Rain isn’t the ideal start to the season, but it does have the happy knack of keeping the frost off and the mercury on the happy side of zero. Enter April. The rain dries up, the fields – in a matter of days – turn into their usual rock hard summer state, the sun comes out and it is warm. Really warm. On cue, vineyard owners dust off the garden furniture and the gin and spend a few evenings soaking up the sun and toasting an excellent start to the season, while comparing the Spanish weather unfavourably with the weather in Devon.

It was during one of these self indulgent moments that your correspondent smugly checked his phone to see just how many more days of perfect springtime weather were in the forecast when he noticed something very dicey indeed at the end of the forecast period: an overnight temperature of one degree. And if ten years of relying on the weather forecast for working out when to spray the vines (rain is excellent at washing off what you have just sprayed on) and not get caught out without suitable wet weather attire has taught us anything, it is that weather forecasters make orange American politicians look like paragons of honesty, this forecast could mean five degrees or minus ten!

If you are reading this, you are probably well aware that growing vines don’t like frost, even a bit. For the uninitiated, when frost comes into contact with the green parts of the vine, it kills them leaving a wintry looking twig. If this happens at all, it usually happens at the start of the growing season between April and mid-May. The vine is ultimately able to recover from its brush with winter by sending out an additional shoot, but that shoot is a) late and b) has fewer flowers on it than the previous one. Which in turn means that there will be fewer grapes and that those grapes will have less time to ripen at the end of the season; vine growers are therefore keen to prevent frost at all costs.

Back when we first planted, we were aware that frost had historically caused problems for vine growers in the UK (and pretty much everywhere else to be honest), so were keen to have at least a couple of tools at hand to fight against our frozen foe. In traditional wine making regions, these methods include:

  • windmills to move the cold air around (a bit like a wind turbine that you put electricity into, as opposed to the other way around).

  • spraying water onto the vines with an irrigation system, which sounds counter intuitive, but apparently the act of the water freezing generates heat, which keeps the pertinent parts warm.

  • driving around in a tractor attached to a huge gas powered electric heater, which probably requires no explanation.

  • lighting hundreds of gel candles under the vines, ditto.

  • spraying a latex solution onto the shoots to give them a protective coating.

  • flying a helicopter over the vines to force the frost causing cold air to dissipate.

All of these methods – particularly the helicopter – seemed very exciting indeed, but at the time we had budget for precisely none of them. Necessity being the mother of invention, we went out and begged, borrowed or stole a collection of fire wood and old wooden pallets and built fires in strategic places around the vines, kept a close eye on the weather forecast and set a frost alarm on our cut priced, off the shelf weather station.

I think that the frost alarm went off once on our first frost busting year (which I think was year 3, for anybody taking notes) when the temperature dropped to 1oC. Torch in hand, I ran out into the fields at 5AM with a lighter in hand and discovered… no frost. And no amount of pacing around the fields until the sun came up would make any appear, so, relieved I went back to bed to ponder how exactly I was expecting to set fire to an actual piece of wood with a disposable cigarette lighter.

Since then we have had years when April and May had constant leaden skies and warm evenings, blue skies and even warmer evenings with Baltic breezes ushering in frost from the north and causing utter carnage in Burgundy and Champagne, and yet there has still been nary a shrivelled up shoot to agonise over. I have checked, and I can’t find a single active volcano or sneaky helicopter floating over the land, so I am pretty much at a loss as to why we have been getting away with it.

Which brings us to this week. As we got closer and closer to the forecasted cold, the wind switched around from a very agreeable southerly breeze to a filthy north easterly one. There were two nights on the spin that looked problematic, which, apart from making sure that the poor chaps rushing out to light candles or climb into their tractors get absolutely no sleep, doubles the chances of the cold weather causing damage.

After the first night (Tuesday/Wednesday), the butcher’s bill across this country and much of Eastern France and Switzerland was fairly heart breaking, social media feeds filled up with awful pictures of dead shoots and frigid vineyards. I did eventually find a handful of vines that had been clobbered, but we appear to have escaped from the ravages of this week pretty much in tact. If you see a vineyard owner any time in the not too distant future, be nice to them, and be absolutely sure to talk about something other than the weather.

Captain Scott Slips Into Something More Comfortable

Pruning, or rather finishing pruning, is always a bit of an event here because it means that the growing season is upon us. Perhaps more importantly, it also means that we can look out of window at the huge piles of prunings and the (mostly, at the time of writing) tied down vines and think “Thank God that’s done for another year”, while drinking something agreeable in the garden as we take full advantage of the improving weather.

Now, it’s not that winter pruning is a particularly arduous task in microcosm, in fact, it’s quite agreeable to assault the first vine with a pair of razor sharp snips and see a tangled mess of twigs turn into something a lot more coherent, ready for the following year. Nor is it a particularly miserable task during the first week, or even month, of snipping, but it really starts to beat one’s will to live into submission in the second and third months. By happy coincidence, those second and third months of pruning generally fall in January and February*, so our conscientious vigneron generally finds himself looking like a poor man’s Captain Scott, wearing most of the clothes that he owns, hacking away at unruly vines on the windward side of the Christmas break.

*I have made several impassioned pleas to the vines to grow in the winter and stop in the summer so that I might prune them wearing a pair of shorts to no avail. Although this arguably says more about my mental state at the time than the obstinacy of my leafy chums.

It has been brought to my attention that there are literally hundreds of well trained seasonal workers from Eastern Europe – who I imagine have exceedingly thick blood and laugh in the face of the puny Devonian winter – that could end this wintry toil at the drop of a hat. I’m guessing that the people who suggest doing so are the sort of wimpy part timers (read: normal people) who could easily employ someone and not spend all day looking over their shoulder telling them that they are doing it all wrong before taking over and doing it themselves. So this obstinate vineyard owner shall probably therefore be spending his winters stood in a field talking to a dog until carefully reintroduced into polite company.

I digress, the purpose of winter pruning is to get the vines into a state that will allow them grow in an orderly manner the following year. Vines are natives of the Near East and have evolved to utterly swamp entire trees, using them as a support and ultimately, murdering them with shade – we have seen some in the their natural habitat and they can become absolutely huge. This accounts for the need to assault them with secateurs every winter – as they would very quickly take over* – to keep them sufficiently tidy to allow the victim of your assault to grow from a waist height fruiting wire, up the trellising through the growing season.

*You would be surprised how quickly this can happen. We have visited a couple of vineyards that have been left unattended for a season or two and have been astonished at the resultant unnavigable tangled mess.

As an added bonus, your orderly rows of vines spend all day in the breeze and sun (subject to availability). Keeping the vines dry is important, as fungal diseases thrive in damp conditions in northerly – and presumably very southerly – vineyards throughout the growing season. The wind and sun help to do this. An ordered vineyard is also easy to spray with fungicides, which helps us to help nature destroy a pair of mildews in particular, which can have a nasty habit of spoiling your year. As well as keeping the accursed disease at bay, showing the grapes a bit of sunshine also helps to get them as ripe as possible. Interestingly, the opposite is true for shaded grapes: when the Portuguese branch of the winemaking fraternity decided to make a fresh and zingy white wine, they deliberately left the grapes in the shade to prevent them cooking in the sun. The English vigneron’s mind boggles…

And what of all that twiggy detritus? Well, the first and most obvious thing is that there is a lot of it, literally tons of it. Prunings are a bit of a double edged sword and their optimum final destination has therefore been the subject of much debate. On one hand, one of the aforementioned mildews from the growing season spends the winter living in the vine’s wood, so you would want to get rid of it immediately and burn it to death. On the other hand, that wood is full of lovely organic matter, which is good for the soil, so you would want to smash it into atoms in the vineyard and allow it to compost in situ.

And the best bit is that every other person that you talk to has a different point of view on the matter, and sometimes you don’t even have to talk to the people to get advice. We spent February in Burgundy one year and I was reading a textbook on the subject, the textbook said “Never throw your prunings away”. The very next day, we were clambering around a (pretty prestigious) vineyard and noticed this amazing smell wafting down the valley. In Burgundy, they disagree so strongly with the textbook that they have these sort of massive rolling log burner things that they drag around the vines, throwing the prunings in as they go.

Until now, we have been following the path of most resistance and have been removing the prunings from the vineyard and burning them in a very, very large pile (we don’t have a massive log burner thing) at the end of the winter to ensure that the wood doesn’t pass any disease from one year to the next. Since we planted and, er, now, we have been to see lots of different vineyards, vines in people’s gardens and have been asked for advice on “Vines” in people’s gardens that I am pretty sure weren’t actually vines, it has become apparent that if we don’t give our own vines some form of mildew from the twigs, someone with a sickly rogue vine will help us do it, as there is usually a bit of something kicking around in most places where vines grow in the UK. Powdery mildew spontaneously arrived in year one from nowhere – so we have decided to leave the prunings where they are and chop them to bits with a mower.

Which is to say that is what we will be doing next year when we have replaced our swirly swirly mower, which chops up the prunings not all and sort of spreads them out over a wide area, turning them into surprisingly effective trip wires, with a flail mower. Which is as medieval as it sounds and is certain to show those prunings who is boss.

Fizz? Bang…

The last time that we met I promised to tell you about fizzy wine, and even though I am absolutely desperate to gloat about having finished the winter pruning, I am going to leave that until next time. Which is probably as well as I am pretty much insufferable at the moment.

Way back when we planted the vineyard – 2007 for anybody taking notes – English wine was certainly headed towards the fizz centric space that it currently sits in, but at the time we weren’t entirely sure that fizz was going to be what the market expected from English wine*. Fast forward ten years and a staggering amount of cash has been thrown into the English fizz public relations bandwagon and it is pretty much the only thing that the wider public expect from their domestic wine producers.

*Your correspondent had at this point spent some time working at two of our larger competitors and had witnessed about a billion vines planted at one of them and seen a sort of house sized press installed in the winery of another, both of which were to be used exclusively for fizz; so quite how I failed to detect the direction of travel remains a mystery.

No matter, back when we were planning the planting – literally on the back of a beer mat as we mined the chap who taught at Plumpton wine school for information while plying him with beer – we opted for a handful of the usual German suspects plus the Champagne varieties that could ultimately be made into pretty much anything. Clever, eh? Not so fast… The problem with the Champagne varieties in the frozen north (read, South Devon) is that one can only really expect to be able to turn them into still wine in the most agreeable of English summers, and if ten years standing in a field has taught me anything, it is that English summers aren’t always worthy of the name (see pretty much every other instalment of this very diary, or just look out of the window in June).

Therefore, in the interest of simplifying the wine making process – and let’s be honest, my mental health – we grabbed some still Chardonnay and a bit of rosé and cadged a dozen Champagne bottles and caps from a local producer with the intention of having a bash at fizzerising some wine. Very briefly – as I am sure that most of you understand the mechanics of making sparkling wine – sparkling wine is made from still wine, to which yeast and sugar are added which in turn starts off another fermentation inside the bottle. The CO2 produced from that fermentation forces its way into the wine under pressure, causing it to be fizzy.

Lacking the appropriate kit to do this, we obviously just chucked in the appropriate amount of sugar and some yeast. This is a method that drew a look of unalloyed horror from the consultant that we had over to run the slide rule over our full sized fizz production, but it worked a treat this time. Once the wine was primed and ready to ferment, I grabbed the beer bottle capper (a relic from our home brewing days) and set about putting the caps onto the fizz. Champagne caps look a lot like beer bottle caps, but they are not beer bottle caps. They are very slightly larger, so beer cappers won’t put them on, which is handy. Fortunately, after only an hour or so, we were able to get them onto eleven of the bottles with a hammer and a pair of secateurs with only minor injuries and just one casualty.

Fast forward twelve months and we have spent a whole year poking, shaking and inspecting the bottles and are confident that there are bubbles in our practice fizz. Not least because one of them has ejected its inexpertly applied cap and much of the contents of the bottle across the winery when we weren’t looking. The next part of the process is to turn the bottles upside down, wait for the gunky yeast from the second fermentation to drop to the bottom of the bottle and remove the cap, allowing the yeast out and retaining the rest of the wine.

Guess what? We still don’t have the right kit for doing that at this point either. And this is the trickiest part, as the wine in the bottle is now under pressure. We carefully stored the first bottle upside down in the fridge over night and when our guests arrived, I gently teased the cap off the bottle to release the gunk that was resting at the top of the bottle, just under the cap. Our guests were wine savvy, so had a fairly good idea of what was about to happen and were watching on gleefully as the yeast and about a third of a bottle deposited itself over much of the kitchen and all of me. After a quick costume change, we were able to enjoy (most of) a bottle of very acceptable fizz and agree that the procurement of some proper kit was probably in order.

At about this time last year, we had gotten around to buying a proper capper, had an entire pallet of sparkling wine bottles and a tank full of white wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that we were very happy with. You will no doubt be astonished to hear that they don’t just throw sugar and some yeast at empty bottles over at Krug. They make this marvellous witches brew from wine, yeast, sugar and a bit of water and ignore it until it becomes a raging brew of contented wine accustomed yeast. Our discerning winemaker then pumps the required amount of sugar, along with the foaming yeasty brew into his tank of wine until it is nicely homogenised. First time fizz makers should budget a good five minutes to mourn the conversion of previously gorgeous, spotless wine into an opaque yellow horror. The yellow horror is then bottled and the caps are applied with a machine that is not a hammer.

I spent the next couple of months poking and rattling the bottles, absolutely convinced that they wouldn’t revert to their previous pristine state, but slowly and surely, the bits of yeast dropped to the bottom of the bottle and it started to look very nice indeed. Job done? Not quite. It is now time to ignore them so they can start to pick up some of the flavour from all that lovely dead yeast that has accumulated at the bottom of the bottle. It’s a process that can take literally years and is important as it rounds out the flavour of what can otherwise be fairly anaemic wine – one wouldn’t generally drink the still base wine without the bubbles and yeasty flavour.

Twelve more months down the line and we are very happy with the effect imparted by our fallen yeasty heroes. We haven’t gotten around to procuring the kit to extract the yeast from the bottle just yet – expect to be regaled with horror stories as we get to grips with it in due course – so it is going to be making its way to a man who does have the appropriate bits presently. And, if we can keep our hands off it (it’s absolutely lovely), we might even have some to sell soon too.

The Winemaker’s Handcuffs

It is now the end of September. The end of the season is approaching and the Devonian countryside is exploding into a stunning patchwork of reds and yellows, the vineyard owner surveys his land with a critical eye for the last time, for it is very nearly time to collect his hard won crop. The picking snips are sharp, the grape boxes are stacked and I have been tripping over cases of picker’s lubricant in the kitchen (read: beer*) for days; everything at Chateau Huxbear is primed for harvest.

*It hasn’t escaped my attention that wine would be a much more appropriate lubricant, and we tried it once, but everybody sort of lost interest in working and started tripping over things in the winery and the basic mental arithmetic required for calculating additions very quickly became really, really hard.

The eve of harvest is my absolute favourite time of year. At this point, we have nursed our vines and grapes though yet another season – usually successfully, too, I’m looking at you 2012 – and in the morning we will start collecting the grapes with friends and family. We may now disconnect the bird scaring banger that has been winning me friends over the last few weeks with its thunderous bangs and the shotgun can go back into its safe as there will be a field full of people picking grapes and terrifying the birds for us in the morning. And best of all, we get to make the year’s really important decisions in the winery at the close of play.

I have spent literally years telling anybody that will listen that one can only foul things up in the winery and that the really important things happen in the vineyard. You can throw as much money as you like at your winery and employ a million consultants, it is still pretty much impossible to make anything decent from rotten or very under ripe grapes. We have had a certain amount of luck with keeping the grapes clean, this is probably because our land is at the top of a small hill which sees lots of breeze, which in turn keeps the grapes nice and dry and the dreaded botrytis (that grey mouldy stuff that eats your strawberries when you aren’t looking) at bay. The hill is probably also responsible for the gales that keep smashing the trellising to bits, but let’s just gloss over that for the time being. As per our last meeting, we are obliged to cross our fingers to some extent for the sunshine at the end of the season to finish off ripening the grapes, we also spend quite a lot of time in September stripping the leaves around the grapes to show them as much sunshine (and air) as possible.

The poor old wine maker is therefore left fretting in the winery hoping that the chap rolling around the vineyard in his tractor has taken good care of his grapes and that they will arrive in good condition in a timely manner. In my experience, the wine maker will also be making unreasonable demands of the vineyard staff and their sodden pickers at this point too, but, due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is staffed, they happen to be the same person here, so they are pretty much pulling in the same direction.

You know what? I’m beginning to think that I might have been doing fake news all this time (apparently there is a lot of that going around, so at least I’m in good company). This probably isn’t entirely true in somewhere like Burgundy or Champagne as they don’t have a lot of options for diversification. By way of explanation, let us assume that we have just been appointed head wine maker at a large Champagne house. With a winning smile, we inform our owner that we have turned his very ripe Pinot Noir (for it has been a hot year) into still red wine and are immediately escorted off the premises. Probably at gun point.

A major advantage in the, ahem, enlightened wine making world is that we can make pretty much anything we like, within reason. The fact that we have options is probably more important to the wine maker than you might first think. Chardonnay can find its way into still and sparkling wine (and something called orange wine, more on this at some point – we have plans). Pinot Noir is a real hero, one can turn him into red, white and rosé still and sparkling wine. The important bit is that these different styles of wine require grapes that are of different levels of ripeness: sparkling is usually for the least ripe grapes (hence the northerly location of Champagne), reds need the most ripe grapes and whites can be made from something in between. Our tame British wine maker rejoices and snatches back some control from the chap in the water proofs and the elements.

Our German grape varieties (for the record, Schonberger, Siegerrebe and Bacchus, Germans are terrible at branding) came off nice and early and arrived in the winery ripe and in good condition. Which is as well, because in spite of the incoherent rambling above, they can be turned into still white wine and not much else. We have turned those early grapes into a very approachable, easy going and thoroughly modern white and are very pleased with it. I have a vague plan to have a bash at turning some of it into fizz, if this is the last you hear of it, assume that this experiment was less than a resounding success; it certainly won’t be available for purchase, whether or not I manage to explode some bottle in the process remains a mystery to both of us.

More on non-experimental fizzy wine next time.

Time Travelling Thunder!

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Given that it is quite a while since we last met, I am going to take you back in time by about four months. After a slightly tricky start – we had experienced a touch of frost on the far field for the first time since the vines were tiny little twigs – we have enjoyed the best growing season that I can remember. The sun didn’t exactly shine right the way through flowering, but the rain stayed away, allowing an excellent fruit set and we are consequently entering the business end of the season with plenty of fruit all over the place.

Simple enough? Not a chance. Repeat visitors will be aware that vines are very much like pandas in that I have literally no idea how they made it through the annals of time and vagaries of evolution to the present day intact. Vines will catch anything that is passing and absolutely revel in this sickly role throughout the English “Summer” time. As luck would have it, we enjoyed some drier and warmer weather towards the end of the growing season which allowed us to beat the mildew into submission and we were close to declaring victory on the eve of harvest. Which brings us to about four months ago.

We have already picked the majority of our German varieties, which are always the earliest, but at this point, we have picked them two weeks earlier than ever and the sugar levels are excellent. As is the ripeness* in general, which is of constant concern in English winemaking. The French varieties are looking great and we are anticipating a bumper harvest and an easy time in the winery (more on this next time).

*Not in common with much of the rest of the wine producing world, here in the frigid north, one generally picks the grapes as late as one may get away with it, as opposed to whipping them off in the middle of August (and even in the middle of the night) before they all turn into raisins in the searing heat. Stoic English pickers usually wear hats and gloves and are prone to mutiny if you offer them anything other than a pint of tea and a bowl of soup for lunch.

It is because of this clean and bountiful crop that we find our author bathed in the early evening sunshine at the bottom of the far field clutching a shotgun, ready to meter out some old fashioned justice to hungry birds intent on a putting a dent in this season’s harvest. Old hands here will be aware that this is about as idle as threats get – I couldn’t damage a barn door with a gun, short of actually hitting the door with the gun – so it’s probably as well that we aren’t afflicted with the huge swarms of Starlings that, given half a chance, would absolutely demolish the carefully tended crops of our wine producing colleagues in the South East.

The worst that we have to deal with is the occasional gang of pigeons, and they generally don’t appear mob handed, nor do they seem to have a particular predilection for grapes; that or our particular pigeons are full of the leavings from the local kebab house. Whatever the case, we rarely suffer much damage from the local fauna, but in the calm that comes before the big pick, a vineyard owner must find himself something to do and ensuring that not a single grape ends up inside a pigeon seems like as good a thing as any at the end of September.

Climbing back into his decidedly ancient pick up, our protagonist marvels yet again that it bursts into life as he turns the key in the ignition. The last time that we met, our pick up was in a parlous state. As well as being in about as far from showroom condition that it is possible for a vehicle to be, it had obstinately elected to stop running altogether and was pursuing a new career as a trailer, being dragged around by an even older tractor. This was doing some major damage to the air of absolutely rigid professionalism that we cultivate around everything else here, so I was keen to revive it.

As luck would have it, I am in the possession of the telephone number of a technically minded chap who is far too polite for his own good and was willing talk me through coaxing a couple of more trips around the estate out of the old girl. And lo, at some point around spring of last year, it burst into life and had been happily running on almost all of its cylinders since. The cylinders part is important, because a good chunk of the fuel that the engine was dumping into the wonky one was making its way into the exhaust and exploding there instead, causing regular and thunderous back fires.

This was obviously a problem if we wanted to get the dog or the children within one hundred yards of the pick up, but it also turned it into a sort of mobile bird scarer. As soon as I switched off and climbed out to carry out a spot of bird scaring, I was inevitably greeted by absolute and complete silence and a sky perfectly devoid of ravenous avian intruders. This was going splendidly, right up until the last and greatest of all backfires took a good chunk of the exhaust with it.

Back to life as a trailer? Not a bit of it! It obviously sounds even worse now, but faithfully delivered tonne after tonne of grapes to the winery with nary a whimper. Okay, there was quite a lot a whimpering, but shifting the grapes is no longer a two man job, so I’m calling that a win.

Long Overdue Harvest Report

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One hundred years ago when I last updated this blog, things were going pretty well. Suspiciously well. We would have liked a bit more heat, but the sun was shining as much as it ever does and everything was looking set for a smooth transition into the harvest season, interspersed with the occasional foray into the vineyards in the venerable tractor to murder the sneaky and underhanded mildew. Confidently predicting some lazy summer afternoons with a respectable gin and tonic count, I marched out into the fields armed with a pair of secateurs with canopy management aforethought.

Half an hour later, I was sat quietly in a darkened room. We have had disasters before – I suspect more than our fair share, but concede that lots of people probably share this notion – and have immediately rolled up our collective sleeve and assaulted adversity; but on this occasion, I didn’t even know where to start.

I’ll get to the point. Lucy called me on my way over to the far field to tell me that there had been a couple of the trellis end posts that had fallen over in the wind the previous night, taking the first few posts in the row with them. This is nothing new as we have had this problem in gales before – there are a litany of complaints about modern pressure treated timber on this very forum (it snaps at the slightest provocation, i.e. some wind and some rain). What was unusual was that the contents of the garden (garden furniture and a menagerie of plastic animals that have been carefully stored in the rain by the children for safe keeping) hadn’t been reorganised and distributed around the valley overnight.

The couple of demolished end posts in the near field was the tip of the iceberg. Something, and now I don’t want to be too hyperbolic here, let’s call it a tornado, had whipped through the middle of Chardonnay and knocked about a dozen complete rows flat. I had just about enough time to hurl some invective at it before running away to have a nice think about what on earth we were going to do in my darkened room. For the record, if a untimely tornado comes and demolishes your vineyard, the appropriate course of action is not to abuse it or ignore it. You must ask your wife to borrow a van and fill it with posts, and then spend a couple of weeks banging those posts into the rock hard summer soil while attempting to retain the will to live.

On the literal and metaphorical leeward side of that accursed day, things are starting to calm down a little. Well, other than one of the cars starting to belch black smoke. And the little generator blowing up. And the pick-up resisting all attempts at resuscitation. But since tornado season appears to have disappeared for the moment, we have been able to mostly repair the trellising, and the engine problems; by cleverly interpreting that peculiar Englishese* that is written all over the instruction manuals of Chinese spare parts and picking the brains of our more technically minded friends. Obviously the pick-up isn’t working so we can use it to transport the grapes to the winery for harvest yet, but I feel sure that something wonderful will happen presently, I’m just not yet entirely sure what. But it will probably involve the tractor and a tow rope.

*In fairness to our Oriental chums and their eccentric translators, the knob that I wasn’t twiddling, but should have been, was clearly marked in plain English in capital letters. Once I did identify it, I proceeded to twiddle it the wrong way. Arguably, I should seek help for my pathological inability to consult qualified people to repair our broken things.

When not elbow deep in engine oil and whining incessantly, we have been quite busy. The growing season finished off fairly nicely – regular wall to wall blue skies have been the order of the play, at the cost of the colder air from the northerly wind that has been ushering them in. Predictably, this has caused a certain amount of logistical havoc for harvesting. I have never seen it in a text book – I do read them, promise – but in my experience, colder and sunnier weather generally causes the red/black grapes to ripen more quickly (presumably as they absorb more of the sunlight), whereas warmer and cloudier weather appears to favour the whites. Or maybe everything ripens at the same rate when it’s cloudy, whatever the case, the acidity is low and the sugars high in the red berries and the opposite is true for the whites – although they are finally starting to turn the corner after some fairly aggressive leaf stripping*. Which should make the logistics of harvest interesting to say the least.

*Leaf stripping is probably less exciting than it sounds. The diligent vigneron marches up and down the rows, removing the leaves from around the bunches of grapes to allow the sunlight in, expediting the ripening process.

At the time of writing, we have harvested all of the German varieties and have made varietal wines from the Bacchus and Siegerrebe that are already clear and pretty well ready to go – we have been performing a certain amount of wine tank harvesting (that’d be tasting them) in any event and are pleased with the results. I manfully picked the Schönburger on my own yesterday after discovering that a pheasant had a taken a liking to it, and we were understandably keen to prevent any of his mates coming over and finishing them off.

In typical 2015 fashion, the ripeness of the Schönburger was all over the place. Some of it was very ripe indeed (hence the attention of the pheasant) and some of it wasn’t terribly ripe at all. As it wasn’t practical to pick on multiple occasions, we are going to experiment with grape drying this year.

You might have heard of grape drying before if you are a fan of wines from Valpolicella (especially Amarone) where they leave their grapes out in the sun to dry. This almost certainly happens under gin clear skies in tropical heat in the middle of August, as the weather is almost exactly the same here at the moment (actual frost on the ground the other morning), you will imagine what has given me the idea. The reason why our Latin colleagues do this is to concentrate the juice that comes out of the grapes – as the drying removes some of the water, but none the flavour or sugar.

We have been meaning to have a bash at this for a couple of years. In my brain this was going to happen with several tonnes of perfectly ripe Pinot Noir as opposed to the bit of indifferently ripe Schönburger that is currently cowering from the cold on a pallet under a polythene sheet, but one does what one can. I will also be interested to see if it turns into on big hornet’s nest or if I find a recalcitrant dog buried waist deep in it before we entrust the mother load to the spasmodic Devonian sunshine.

Speaking of mother loads, we are picking the big field next week; wish us luck!

Highway to Hell

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Finishing the tucking in in the far field should have been cause for celebration. As I climbed through the electric fence, having passed row upon row of tidy (okay, let’s not get carried away, I mean not entirely junglified) vines on my way home, I couldn’t help feeling a wary nibble of uncertainty chipping away at my good mood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In their natural habitat, vines have evolved to have their fruit eaten from the vine by the top end of birds and the seeds deposited elsewhere from the bottom end, preferably somewhere near a tree. In turn, that seed grows into a vine. Presuming that the poor thing doesn’t fall victim to the accursed rabbits and deer, the vine will thrive, go in search of lots of the sunshine – climbing up the tree in the process – until it eventually swamps the poor old tree, and wipes the pair of them out in the process. We saw some Vitis Vinifera (wine species) vines doing this to some huge Eucalyptus trees in Turkey once, it’s remarkable how big regular vines can get.

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that the trellising at Chateau Huxbear is rather smaller than enormous Eucalyptus trees, so how does that work? Well, the wine cognoscenti would have you believe that people all over Europe spent generation after generation looking for the most utterly wonderful piece of land on which to plant vines, tasting the wines at each potential site until alighting on the perfect spot. I suspect that they spent as long looking for stony land that was rough enough so that they didn’t have to spend all of their time hacking away at a field full of triffids. In fairness the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the best land for vines is rarely of much use as anything else.

After a winter’s work hacking away at the previous year’s growth and having planted the vines in a carefully selected site*, the vines still need some attention throughout the growing season. Tucking in comes from when the discerning vigneron would wander around the vines tucking the extraneous shoots into the wires of the trellising. Tucking in now usually involves moving a wire that lives beneath the growing part of the vine in the winter up the post to a hook above where the shoots are growing, lifting all of them into place in one go. It is hard to overstate quite how satisfying watching a tangled mess of shoots turn into gorgeous row of vines is. I’d recommend turning up at your local vineyard and having a go, but you have to have spent three years having a bash at doing it the old fashioned way and failing miserably to enjoy the full effect.

*Don’t let your correspondent’s levity fool you entirely, he spent literally hours going cross eyed in front of Ordnance Survey, geological and soilscape maps before pulling the trigger on the purchase of this particular bit of land. Honest.

“So why all the confusion, it sounds like you should be absolutely punishing a gin and tonic in celebration” I hear you cry. Well, for starters, the weather is still sub-tropical and probably better suited to ale, and secondly, when I arrived home and checked our progress with last season’s dates, we are miles ahead of where we were this time last year. I smell a rat, because this never happens. It was while I was looking for that rat that I stumbled over the new – well, new to us – sprayer that had tiptoed its way past militant French people at Calais all the way to our vineyard! Glory be! In fairness, the sprayer probably accounts for a good bit of our additional progress this year, and it actually had a dead rabbit under it until the dog found it yesterday, which probably accounts for the eau de rat.

Given the shenanigans of the ferry workers, the delivery of the sprayer was fairly uneventful until it reached Devon. We had it delivered to our ever patient and willing farming friend who is fortunate enough to own land on a road that is worthy of the name and I arrived in time to see him carefully extracting it from the delivery wagon with his enormous tractor. Once the delivery documents were signed and I had stopped weeping at the thought of tossing my backpack sprayer in the bin, I was instructed to go away and return with my rather smaller vineyard tractor so the sprayer might be attached to it in preparation for action.

Logistically this is probably more of a problem that it might first appear. While the tractor itself moves around freely enough, it was manufactured when I was two, has a top speed of under twenty miles an hour and I was about to take it out on the sort of road that is frequented by young chaps who will invariably enviably plant their massively exhausted motorised discotheque into at least one of the fields. But then again, it is holiday season, and who can say that they have had the full Devonian experience without having a near death experience with a tractor?

I enjoyed myself enormously on the road, it made a fascinating change from driving around in a field. I was actually feeling quite disappointed when I turned back onto our lane and bid farewell to my new friends in the line of traffic that had formed behind me; who were doubtless as amused as I was that right hand indicator appeared to have stopped working causing me to apparently stop in the middle of the road for no discernible reason. Fine times! I could even see them all earnestly ordering two bottles of wine each with their hands on my way back up our lane.

On its first outing it became apparent that the sprayer was worth the harrowing journey, making mincemeat of the big field in about three hours – a job that is pretty much a couple of days work this time of year when one has factored in the associated procrastination. I whizzed around the smaller field in the afternoon and even managed to fit a spot of grass cutting in before clocking off and was feeling so self satisfied and smug by the end of the day that I assumed that I’d turned into Piers Morgan or something. I can now only imagine how awesome it is to have one of those tractors that cut the grass and spray the vines at the same time; that’d leave me loads of time to repair all the things that I’d smashed into while attempting to do two things at once.

Ooh, before I sign off, I’d like to thank you for keeping your fingers crossed. Although the weather has been less than stellar over the period of flowering – it has been threatening to rain pretty much throughout – it never actually got around to actually raining and the vines are now through flowering and out of the season ending danger zone. Which is as well, because at the time of writing, it’s absolutely lashing down.

The Exploding Rabbit

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I’m currently hiding in the kitchen scowling at some decidedly inclement weather on the other side of the window. The dangerous side of the window.

I’m sitting here primarily because I was losing the will to live in my boil-in-the-bag all weather gear. I appreciate that the upmarket stuff that I was wearing is supposed to breathe, but the breathing mechanism seems to sort of break down a bit when one is covered from head to toe in atomised weeds, grass and rabbit*. As if further justification for my wanton procrastination were required, the weather arrived in grand style in the form of a whopping great lightning storm. And Thor saw fit to lob his sizzling javelins as your correspondent was stood at the top of a hill, soaking wet, clutching a metal strimmer; which is perhaps a less obvious lightning conductor than a golf club, but was still likely to get the job done.

*I saw first hand why I am stalked by a collection of buzzards every time that I take the tractor out this morning. I was innocently tidying up the bits of grass that the mower can’t cut and blew up the carcass of a rabbit that had previously been clobbered by the mower.

The downturn in the weather is particularly galling as, if all – and I mean all – forms of media are to be believed, the weather is utterly wonderful everywhere else (except the bit of France where all the rain is coming from, I don’t why that makes it it worse, it just does). When one adds the fact that the vines are very nearly about to flower to the mix, the news stories about trains and roller coasters being cancelled because the people who operate them have forgotten what happens in summer are completely intolerable.

If you have been with us for a while or just know how the flowers work on vines, you will be aware that rainfall at this time of year is not our friend. In the first half of July (in Chudleigh at least), the inner workings of the flower that have been encased in fused petals (which look at little like tiny grapes) emerge when those petals fall off. The interesting parts of the flower are covered in pollen, which is blown around the vineyard during the flowering process, lands on another flower and makes little grape babies. In turn, we smash those babies to pieces and make wine from their blood (I accept that I may have taken that analogy a little far, I blame this morning’s horror show with the strimmer).

Vine flowers rely on the wind as opposed to insects** to facilitate the movement of their pollen from one flower to another. Grass is pollinated in the same way which explains the rather uninspiring flowers that have evolved on both. As any hay fever sufferer will know, all that wonderful/miserable pollen is mysteriously absent when it is raining. This is because it has been washed onto the floor, as opposed to being in the air, looking for flowers to make delicious grape babies with.

**There is a limited amount of pollination carried out by pollen and solider beetles, or the very occasional bee, but this is more of a happy coincidence sort of a deal. Vines don’t advertise.

At the time of writing, only the very earliest of flowers have emerged – I’m not about to start counting, but I’d guess that 1% or so wouldn’t be far off the mark – so all is not yet lost. The forecast over the next few days shows an improving picture, so logically there should be wall to wall sunshine and nary a drop of rain until the end of October. Cross your fingers please.

Something awful happened the other week that was as surprising as it was disappointing. Our previously invincible Hilux pickup sort of ground to a halt and refused to start again. In truth, I blame myself for this mishap. After six years of faultless service – other than bits falling off it on account of all the rust – I committed the cardinal sin of treating it to a new starter motor, an oil change and even a tyre that was full of air, as opposed to that aerosol stuff that cheapskates (that’d be me then) fix punctures with. After all that pampering, it was an absolute nailed on certainty that it was going to keel over and die at the first available opportunity.

This posed a bit of a problem. At any other time of year this would mean a bit more fetching and carrying on foot, but the pick up is also my portable water supply (in a tank on the back) for spraying during the growing season. As I have successfully deluded myself that using a person mounted sprayer as opposed to a tractor mounted sprayer was a better bet for murdering the mildew every couple of weeks, this promised to become a major problem rather quickly.

Once I had wiped the tears from my eyes, shouted a bit, poked it with a screwdriver and scratched my head for a moment, I had a solution and rushed out to the shop for farmers down the road. And in absolutely no time I was sat in the tractor, looking at a pick up cab full of wife and children that was tethered to the front of the tractor with a tow rope. It was attached to the front of the tractor as I couldn’t find a handy place to hook it onto the back, so we looked very ridiculous. Which was excellent preparation for the return journey, when we were both going backwards.

By the time that we next meet, it is very likely that our new tractor mounted sprayer – one can only take ones delusions so far – will have arrived from France. Unless there is a strike at the ferry terminal or something, which seems unlikely…

Dressed for Summer

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Summer! Well, sort of. The wind continues to arrive obstinately from the north, and having helpfully dumped all of the rain on the people that live there, we are enjoying millions of hours of sunshine and surprisingly frigid temperatures. As I mentioned the last time that we met, we have determined that the vines are starting to get used to the idea of drinking in the sunshine and shrugging off the cold and they are continuing to motor their way through the early part of the growing season. I am having a little more difficulty with the idea and have spent much of the spring performing a variety of costume changes after rashly rushing out of the house dressed for summer.

However bonkers the weather has been for the last few weeks, if the endless conga line of caravans heading southwards on the M5 tells us anything, it is that normal service will be resumed presently. And lo, as this electronic missive is dispatched into the ether, an extreme weather warning is issued for “Isolated extreme thunder storms bringing the risk of torrential downpours” by the Met Office. Quelle surprise!

Other than being able to pretend that I am appearing on Broadway, the absolute best thing about all of this sunshine is that it is providing us with lots of lovely free electricity. Long suffering readers will be aware that we make all of our own electricity on account of cleverly building our house in the middle of field that is in turn pretty well in the middle of nowhere. We aren’t exactly that remote – a determined boozer might walk to a pub in around half an hour or so – but sufficiently remote to make the procurement of a connection to the National Grid* ruinously expensive.

*Eagle eyed readers will have spotted that the National Grid runs through our field. Apparently tossing an extension cable onto one of the pylon’s wires is not a realistic prospect for obtaining domestic power. Or remaining alive for very long.

When we moved to the land, I was able to convince Lucy to move into a towing caravan. We started out with one of those dinky little batteries that live in a flap on the side of the caravan and one of those Chinese generators that live for the warranty period and then immediately fall to pieces. Over time the accommodation and batteries increased to their current state where we live in what might reasonably be described as a house that is powered by the sort of batteries that usually live in the back of a forklift truck.

At about the same time as we bought the Chinese generator, we bought a Chinese wind turbine to charge the batteries. That performed beautifully once we had taught ourselves basic electronics and replaced most of the junk components that lived inside it. But the absolute prince of renewable power was the solar panels, sat motionless, unlikely to fall over and murder man or beast, they have silently produced lots of lovely electricity for us all over the place.

They run the electric fences, top up the generator and tractor starter batteries, the house batteries and we even have one stuck to the bonnet of the pick up. If you take anything away from reading this, it should be to attach a solar panel to anything to that your wife will let you attach it to to prevent the indignity of flat batteries (no luck with the road going cars yet, but it will logically only be a matter of time). Such was our, that is, my, addiction to buying them that when I discovered a magical place that sells enormous second hand examples from solar farms at keen prices, I could neither retain my excitement, nor resist reaching for my wallet.

Guess what? In the two months or so that we have had the new panels (and the clever box of tricks that makes them work harder), we have used precisely one half litre of fuel to run the house. If you look carefully, you can see the ice sheets reforming on Google Earth. Hang on, maybe I’m to blame for all this cold weather. Perhaps I haven’t thought this through properly…

Right ho, back to the vines. Last time I alluded to the six legged swine that have been assaulting the tender tips of our young shoots. Since then, we have met an Entomologist (nope, I didn’t know either, but the internet is telling me that they do insects) to discuss the problem. Said Entomologist was put onto us by our chemical supplier as I had asked for a non-chemical related solution to our insect troubles*. This was because we had built up a nice collection of beneficial insects around the place – soldier beetles and ladybirds that you can see, and I have since discovered predator mites that you can’t – and we were keen not to knock them over at the same time.

*We had suspected that our problems with the thrips (just about visible) and mites (not at all visible), were a problem of our own making after using insecticides once on the wretched wasps which had likely knocked everything out of balance. You will doubtless to be shocked to hear that wasps absolutely refuse to be clobbered by anything other than the sort of chemical that takes out everything else.

The Entomologist suggested a jaw-droppingly brilliant way of taking out the bad guys and bolstering the goodies in one fell swoop. What you do is buy lots of these sort of waterproof tea bag things that you hang over your trellis wires. Inside the tea bag is bran and two types of mite. One of the mites lives on the bran and the other lives on the mites that live on the bran. When the bran loving mites are all eaten, the intrepid carnivores exit through a strategically placed hole in the tea bag (in retrospect, they aren’t anything like tea bags, this is an appalling analogy, but stick with it) and get stuck into the baby thrips and mites.

Isn’t that just about the cleverest thing that you have ever heard? I certainly think so, so we bought lots and scattered them all over the place. Now I just need to find some sort of bird in a bag option that will eat wasps but not grapes; answers on a postcard please…