18 Months of Winter

At this point in our journey from spring 2017 to now, I was intending to recap what happened last winter. I would probably have discussed the three months of winter pruning and given the reasons why we do it and have explained how we do it. I would probably have also explained the other bits and pieces of work that are required around here to get everything ship shape for the start of the growing season. Unfortunately, every time that I think about winter 2017/2018, I have to go and have a nice sit down in a darkened room.

Suffice to say that a sustained period of really old testament rainfall fairly early on put paid to my ambitions of taking our new (to us) 4×4 with me winter pruning to act as a sort of mobile shelter/cafeteria, when it started travelling in a direction roughly perpendicular to the one in which I was intending as I drove across the fields. When it finally started looking like it might dry up a bit, we had a couple of very entertaining snow storms in March that cut us off entirely from civilisation and put paid to our ambitions of not having our new 4×4 parked in a bank half way up the lane to our house.

Joking aside, this atypical – certainly in these parts – period of cold weather at the start of the year changed the mood among vineyard owners substantially when compared with 2017. Old hands here will remember that vines start growing when the weather gets warmer and that they don’t care what time of year it is. More sensible types of plant will begin growing when there is a specific period of daylight, but vines will power along in the middle of February, just as long as the temperature tells them to. Conversely, if the climate elects to dump a foot of snow on them in the middle of March, it acts as really compelling evidence to a vine that it is still the middle of winter, compelling them to batten down the hatches and hang on a bit before they start growing.

This is in stark contrast to 2017, when a fairly insubstantial winter – it barely froze at all – followed by a period of warmer weather encouraged the vines into action really early. This invariably leaves the winery owning vine grower in two minds. It will either mean that the vines will power on through the growing season, the grapes will ripen tremendously and create some absolutely superb wine. Or it will mean that the over-enthusiastic shoots will be frozen to death, there will be little or no grapes and the vintage therefore won’t happen at all. The latter happened to most people in 2017 (and to some people in 2016 too), so most people appear to have been very happy indeed to have had a spot of snow in return for non frozen vines.

It occurs to me that I’m stuffing quite a few words into the mouths of our peers. It’s undoubtedly the case that people were celebrating a proper end to the winter, which helped to mitigate the potential of frost damage to the vines as stated; it is very difficult to prevent frost damage if nature intends to assert itself, and horribly expensive to attempt to remedy. I’m arguably in a minority of one person who actually thinks that an early start to the growing season has anything more than a tiny effect on the quality of the grapes at the end of the season. It probably has rather more to do with me digging around for positives for what could turn into an appalling disaster. In reality, what tends to happen is that the vine knocks out the shoots at the end of March, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the shoots grow to about two inches long, and then they do precisely nothing for about a month as they play chicken with the frost.

Back to this year and, at the end of what seemed like a good 18 months of winter, the sun came out, the mercury started rising dramatically, and, miraculously, the shoots all emerged at about the same time for what might actually have been the first time ever.

When we sort of stumble into spring, with the usual false starts of one stunning day, followed by three days of freezing rain, the shoots come out here, there and everywhere*. This can cause a bit trouble when picking a harvest date as flowering will happen in roughly the same order as the shoots came out, and the grapes will also ripen in roughly that order too, so you have a field full of grapes that are ripe, with some that aren’t quite there. It takes a surprisingly large amount of finesse to get a field full of grapes with the average level of ripeness that you want. Or a picking team that is willing to do everything twice without performing some sort of appalling mutiny. Loyal as our pickers are, I shan’t be testing my luck.

*For the record, if it’s cold and sunny, the Chardonnay in our prime location (South East facing, about 20 degrees) go first, if it’s damp and warm, the Siegerrebe (which is a parked in a less salubrious location) go first.

I am told that the poster child for this uniform vine growth is Hungary. Your correspondent travelled there one year in February and was greeted by utterly bone chilling -20C weather on arrival to an utterly enchanting Budapest, replete with whopping great chunks of ice floating down the Danube. The weather was to some extent mitigated by the fact that there was an incredibly well stocked wine bar not five steps from the hotel door. Upon opening the curtains of the hotel room as we were preparing to leave, we were astonished to see that the previous night’s monochrome city had disappeared and been replaced with one running the full colour gamut.

It was incredible. The previous day’s foot thick snow had disappeared and was running in torrents down the streets and there were only medium sized ice bergs in the river. As we climbed aboard the aircraft, it was nearing shirt sleeves weather. Now, I’m not saying that Devon was exactly like that before or after, but it was a bit like that, which in turn promises to make picking that fiddly harvest date a little easier this year.

Harvest 2017: Inside the Winery

Now that the grapes have been picked, our tanned and exhausted vigneron may remove his boots and put his feet up until it is time to start the winter pruning. In a climate as cool as the one we are “blessed” with in Devon, this period of relative indolence lasts for about five weeks. Further south, where harvest is earlier, it might go on for as much as two and a half months – or longer if they have chosen to start pruning later, as tends to happen in vineyards that are blessed with staff. Given that your correspondent spends the entire month of November wandering around like a lost child, trying to work out what normal people do during the weekend, it’s probably as well that this is kept to a minimum so that he may keep himself out of too much trouble.

It is much the same story in the winery. Most of the really hard work happens concurrently with the harvest. The grapes appear from the fields and then the fun starts. Given that we have given up on still white and red wine production for the moment (more on this later), the crusher/de-stemmer – to the uninitiated, this is a large, and frankly terrifying, machine that smashes bunches of grapes into stemless, grapey porridge – is now, for the most part, surplus to requirements. The grapes are therefore loaded directly into the press – a rather less terrifying machine that squishes grapes gently, removing the juice only – in whole bunches.

While smashing grapes to bits sounds like an appalling indignity for something that you have spent the previous six months nurturing, it is absolutely essential if you wish to extract some colour (and certain flavour compounds) from your grapes. If one wishes to make soft, rosé wine, this porridge will sit around for a period of up to 2 days, where the juice will pick up some of the colour from the red skins. For reds, we will start the fermentation in the porridge, allowing the juice to pick up even more colour, but also tannin (body and pleasing bitterness) from the skins.

If one is attempting to produce quality sparkling white wine, using the crusher/de-stemmer is generally considered a bit of a wine making sin, as the rather industrial machine can also help to extract unwanted flavour, harshness and colour (in the case of red grapes used to make white fizz), so our top quality wine maker is obliged to shun it. This causes a bit of a space problem.

Remember when we discussed that looking after vines with almost no crop on is about as much effort as looking after vines with lots of crop (hurricanes smashing the trellising to bits excepted)? Well, it’s a bit like that with the harvest. If there are lots of grapes on all of the vines, you clip away with your snippers and the boxes are full just as quick as you say “Do we have enough of those boxes?”. In disappointing years – I’m looking at you, 2012 – there is a lot of walking around with a half empty box.

Given that last year was a really decent one, the grapes turned up, piled on the back of the knackered and complaining pickup, from the fields as our pickers removed record amounts of them in a relatively short time.

This isn’t a huge problem when the grapes are going straight into the – admittedly massively oversized for our purposes – crusher/de-stemmer, as it gobbles through them, merrily turning them into grape porridge by the tonne. If one is fortunate enough to be making red wine, that grape porridge is then pumped into a red wine tank and does fermenting and becomes wine. If one is unfortunate enough to be making white wine, that grape porridge has to be pressed immediately and that usually means a bottleneck. Well, it does in our winery anyway, as we can only manage to ram about a tonne of it into our press.

In practice, this means that everything grinds to a halt and everyone stands around looking for something to do, until some bright spark goes mining in the fridge for beer and the conversation improves as the work output goes off a cliff.

“But we are ignoring the preposterously enormous crusher/de-stemmer this year” I hear you cry, “what are the beer consuming ramifications when one doesn’t use it?”.

I’m afraid that the beer consuming ramifications are even worse. When one is obliged to shun the grape smasher, the grapes must go into the press looking very much like they did when they were removed from the vine, and that means that they take up quite a lot more space than grape porridge. Even with the most enthusiastic encouragement, our wine maker is hard pressed to ram half as many whole bunches or grapes into his press, so he is obliged to discuss buying a larger one with his increasingly inebriated volunteers. That said, the juice is appreciably more delicate and very much cleaner (although you do get a little less of it) so the effort is absolutely worth it.

Once this juice of tip top quality has been squished out of the grapes, it spends 24 hours sat in a cold tank, where any dirt and gunge that has made it through the tiny slits in the press collects at the bottom of the tank, before the clean juice is pumped off it and into another tank. It’s then time for a fermentation, where juice that is destined to become a bottle of sparkling wine is treated in pretty much the same way as wine that is destined to become still wine. Everything changes at bottling, and we are doing that soon, so you will no doubt know all about that presently.

I promised to discuss our decision to switch to an entirely fizz based model (for the moment at least), but I have probably already overstayed my welcome. Suffice to say that it’s pleasingly explosive and what the market appears to want. Oh, and one can only bear being asked “So, where is your fizz?” so many times.

Havest 2017

Having dealt with most of the growing season in 2017 last week, it is time to move on to the most important part of the year: harvest.

Harvest always, always, always brings a mixture of emotions for the vigneron – well, this vigneron anyway. It marks the end of a season of hard work and the vigneron knows that the grapes will be in the winery and become somebody else’s problem in no time. In the immediate short term however, he is going to be spending his time running around after pickers, fretting about the condition of his grapes and casting a suspicious eye over the surrounding area. It is important to wander around pointing at local woodland and cursing its owners for not cutting all their trees down, as the sort of birds that eat grapes don’t much care for people, and the sound of demented rambling generally helps to keep them on their toes.

Due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is run, our winemaker looks rather a lot like the chap who runs the vineyard. The winemaker has also been busy in the run up to harvest. The winery is the cleanest that it has been all year, the tanks have been boiled to within an inch of their lives, the equipment is looking shiny and lovely and there is a nice big space in front of the door for the pickers to drive in and drop the grapes off (and, if history is any guide, they will also be dropping off much of the soil and leaves from the vineyard along with those grapes). He has his winery sundries, he has analysed the grapes, he knows what he is going to be turning those grapes into, he is ready.

I mentioned last week that harvest in 2017 started about a week early. It had been such a strange year, we watched our anticipated harvest date going backwards week after week through an absolutely sodden summer, and genuinely thought that we might end up with another 2012* style write off. Salvation came in the form of lovely late summer, which got everything moving again and we were absolutely counting our blessings as we saw the sugar in the grapes rise, and the acid moving in the opposite direction.

*Those of you with long memories may remember that 2012 was the last time that English wine made it into the press in any meaningful way, as reporters zeroed in on depressed people tipping tonnes of bullet hard grapes into the bin. They really do thrive on misery.

It is usually a big relief to get the fruit off the German varieties and into somewhere safe, as they produce grapes that are thin skinned. (Does being smashed to bits in a large machine and drained count as being safe? I suppose that it’s a matter of perspective, but you get the idea.) Much like thin skinned people, they are at the greatest risk of damage. Disease is a problem – botrytis/grey mould at the end of the year – and the thin skins also make them a firm favourite with wasps, small birds and pheasants (along with any dog that isn’t being properly monitored).

Removing the crop from these vines in 2017 was extra good as there had been a bit of additional disease around, owing to the weather during the growing season. A cool and wet growing season is absolutely perfect for the production of downy mildew, which is a sort of kissing cousin of potato blight. In vineyards, this can cause the grapes to split as they ripen, and ultimately the leaves to fall off the vines. As the leaves are the primary sugar producing engine, this isn’t a big help for getting that sugar into the grapes. As an added bonus, those split grapes are an absolute magnet for wasps and even more disease.

As luck would have it, we learned our lesson in 2012 and our downy mildew game is now absolutely solid. In spite of some serious provocation, the vines were pretty well clear of downy mildew. Did you spot the “but” coming? Well, the people who make the decisions about what we are allowed to spray onto our vines removed one of the products that we used to control powdery mildew. Apparently that product was quite good, as, with it gone, we had some powdery mildew pop up in the vineyard for pretty much the first time since we planted and we had an absolute nightmare murdering it. I was fairly confident that we had it all dead by the time that we were picking, but it’s always nice to be absolutely sure.

I also mentioned last week that there was a lot of fruit on the vines. The Chardonnay in particular was absolutely laden with grapes – and since our Damascene conversion to sparkling wine this was undoubtedly a good thing – as far as the eye could see there were bunches and bunches of lovely, heavy grapes. The sort of heavy weight hanging from the bottom of the vines that would unquestionably add much needed ballast to the canopy in it’s never ending attempt to smash our trellising to bits.

The man from the government who figuratively looks over my shoulder in the winery is a nice man who wanted to know a little more about the practicalities of wine making. He obviously wanted to learn from the best, so he booked himself in to do a spot of literally looking over my shoulder in the winery. Along with some grape picking because, well, nobody gets away with standing still here for more than five minutes in October without being handed a basket and a pair of picking snips.

Now, it hasn’t escaped my attention that accepting the offer of work from the man who marks our homework was a potentially disastrous decision, but we thought that on balance that it was probably worth it; not least as we try to keep applications of Vimto and petrol additions to wine at an absolute minimum around harvest.

I think that we had made it into his second day of picking when the weather forecasters started advising people to start thinking about maybe not going out unless you have to and to panic buy every single loaf of bread and pint of milk in the shop. At this point, we had taken most of the crop in, which was a good thing as the vines in leaf make an effective enough sail for catching the wind, egged on by the ballast of a couple of hundred kilos of grapes, they make an exceedingly provocative proposition to a hurricane.

Nevertheless, our man from the government proved to be an absolute wizard at dodging smashed up bits of flying trellising and we had the last of the grapes onto the back of our pickup* and into the winery in no time, marking an end to probably the most idiosyncratic, but ultimately successful, year that we have had here.

*For the long term reader, the pickup is still going, but has started to vomit huge plumes of steam. Coupled with its knackered exhaust that makes it sound like a tank and its general terrorist-chic condition, it really adds to the air of professionalism around here.

If television has taught me anything it’s that you ruin the next episode at the end of the previous one, so, next time, we will be talking a bit about wine making, and I shall probably be whining about the winter a bit too.

Happy New Year!

Happy new year! Can you still do that in April? Let’s pretend that you can, which is just as well, as WordPress is telling me that it has been a whole year since I published one of these missives. Sorry about that, I promise to try harder.

Remember way back when we were all much younger and the world seemed a relatively sane place and we weren’t doing cold wars and that? You know, 2015? Well, as the contents of the increasingly shrill news output changes apace, things have changed quite a bit here too. In 2015, we had been making a reasonable amount of still wine that was finding its way into the homes of our loyal customers, and things were ticking along fairly well. We would have liked to have produced a lot more wine from our still fairly unenthusiastic vines – long suffering readers will be well aware that vines with not a lot of grapes on take almost as much looking after as those that have lots – but we were still managing to almost completely wet the bottom of our enormous tanks. By this point I had expected to have had the wine producers of Burgundy on their knees, financially crippled because we had stolen all of their customers; or at least to have them clubbing together to fund a bit of corporate espionage to steal our superior winemaking tactics, but one can’t have everything.

Never people to miss the wood for the trees – well, we generally find it after a certain amount of argument – we decided that something probably had to change. Enter our third (well, fourth, if you count me trying to work out which way up to hold a soil sample report as one) agronomist at the start of 2017.

I know that I covered this in detail the last time that we met, but in a nutshell he was fairly alarmed at the acidity of one of the fields, and none too happy at the level in the other field. This necessitated borrowing a spreader as correcting the acidity in particular would take tonnes and tonnes of lime. We eventually got the prescribed dose onto the land and hoped for the best. We had tried changing up a few things in the soil in the past with varying degrees of success, but had never worried particularly about the soil pH, as it was (just) within tolerance on the reports we had back from the, er, soil boffin dudes.

Fast forward six months and we are hauling tonne after tonne of grapes back into the winery and apologising to our committed (but thankfully also, familial) pickers for working them like dogs on their “Holiday”. Only joking! Right at the start of harvest, somebody told me that some enterprising/shameless chap has managed to convince high flying executives that they need to go and pick grapes to help them de-stress. Wandering around telling our volunteers that they are high achievers and that they should really be paying me to pick my grapes for me undoubtedly affected my work rate, but I imagine that it improved morale and overall output no end.

So 2017 was an unqualified success, incorporating wall to wall sunshine and lots of top quality outside time steeped in gin and tonic? Not so fast.

You might or might not have spotted some of the news coverage last spring about the appalling late frost that was clobbering much of the vine growing regions this side of Europe. There was absolute carnage as tender vine shoots were frozen to death all the way down at the Rhone valley and Switzerland. At some point, some enterprising reporter remembered that we also have vineyards, and that they probably get clobbered by frost too. Cue blanket coverage of some really horrible stories from around the country of people having their years ruined by frost. It’d be nice if they took notice when things aren’t all falling apart, but you take what you can get I suppose.

I digress, well, I digress a bit. The morning of the really naughty frost, your correspondent leapt out of bed at about eight and noted that we have managed to dodge another bout of frost for the most part; we had lost the shoots off maybe a couple of dozen vines. Now, if you are thinking that having a medium sized lie in when there is potentially disastrous weather about shows wild indifference, I put it you that you haven’t spent all day spraying a field full of vines, in receipt of a promise from the weather forecasters that it isn’t going to rain, only for that spray to be immediately washed off those vines and onto the ground by rain that definitely isn’t coming often enough. One learns to stop fretting about what one can’t change in this business, or one risks an early grave. Or one gets better at picking lottery numbers and pays somebody else to worry about it, or something like that.

After touching base with a couple of fellow growers, and expressing as much sympathy as possible, I was wandering around the vines and received a phone call from somebody at Radio Devon. They were doing a piece about a local grower who had had his vines clobbered by the frost and wanted somebody else to go onto their show and pour a bit more misery on their piece about frost. The enthusiastic producer told me that this was a great opportunity to get our name out there to the listeners. Presumably assuming that both of them were paying attention at the time.

If you have ever wondered if there is enough budget in local news for their over worked producers to make two phone calls to nail their story, wonder no longer. I was immediately invited on to have a chat the following morning. I’ll be completely honest, it didn’t immediately lead to the phone ringing off the hook with people demanding wine from our frost resistant vines – and I’m almost certain that the chap who was presenting the program wasn’t listening to a word I said – but it did lead to a kind offer from a friend to give me some media training, which was really interesting. So if the media does cover our little industry again, I shall be on hand, remembering to crowbar our brand name into the conversation and not disgracing myself. Well, probably not disgracing myself.

Since I’m in clear and present danger of overstaying my welcome, I’ll stop rambling. The rest of the year was a bit of a strange one. After the frost, the weather improved dramatically, it was hot throughout May and most of June, the vines absolutely powered ahead and were flowering in record time. Cue celebrations and predictions of an absolutely cracking early harvest, about the same time as the one in Bordeaux, with much sitting around and doing nothing in September.

Remember all of those hours we all spent sat in the garden, tending a barbecue last summer? No? Me either. July and August were pretty much a complete wash out, and it was absolute murder keeping the disease at bay as we counted our blessings for the early start to the season. September behaved itself and we managed to get the fruit off the vines perhaps a week early. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the harvest in the hurricane comes next week.

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!

DSC00176 (Copy)Pickers

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.