Neighbourly Thunder

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It’s now the middle of September, the Siegerrebe is up to a potential alcohol sugar level of about 6%, and the season is in the process of drawing to a close. This can only mean one thing: time to ingratiate ourselves with the neighbours by firing up the thundering bird banger! If you aren’t au fait with bird bangers, they are a box with a length of pipe at one end that is connected to a gas bottle and a battery. The banger’s electronic brain sucks gas from the bottle into the pipe, where it ignites it and fires out a mighty bang.

When we first moved to the land there was a chap who owned the field behind our estate who grew something that was of interest to the birds in about June. His banger started up at sunrise (5 on the dot) and didn’t stop until after we went to bed. He seems to have stopped growing whatever it was, or been shot by one of his neighbours, because we haven’t heard it for a couple of years now. Fortunately, it isn’t action stations around here until September, so the banger doesn’t turn itself on until well after 7, which helps to keep the locals onside and the children in bed until a reasonable hour.

We are actually quite lucky in our little bit of Devon as the only birds that we are likely to have trouble with is the occasional pigeon. And when they aren’t being bullied back into the woods by the magpies, they are being permanently removed from the food chain by one of our many local birds of prey.

This is the polar opposite from the vineyard where we learned to look after vines in Sussex. It had a set of power lines running through it which was extra handy for the Starlings to perch on when they turned up mob handed (with grinding monotony every harvest). Left unattended, they can cause a huge amount of damage to the carefully maintained grapes just when you are about to make some wine out of them.

And it’s not just the paucity of grape eating birds that we are thankful for. Our birds are also the type that one may shoot at if they ever get out of hand, or bright enough to work out that nothing is coming out of the end of the banger (Starlings, on the other hand, are protected). Admittedly this would necessitate Lucy agreeing to let me wander around the estate packing heat like an actual farmer, but if we cross that hurdle, I shan’t be clapped in irons for taking pot shots at pigeons and magpies. And let’s be honest, probably vines too.

Our Gallic cousins on the other side of the Channel have taken a completely different – and alarmingly right wing – view for keeping down the animal damage in their vine growing areas. We first started smelling a rat when we were wandering around the Cotes de Beaune and noticed that there were no fences anywhere, and that the vines were trellised at a height that would be extremely agreeable to rabbits. I enquired about this when we returned home (French wine types generally pretend that they don’t know what you are talking when you start asking awkward questions) and discovered that they have cleverly shot anything that might even think twice about looking at the green parts of a vine. And they have brilliantly solved the bird problem by cutting down all the trees that they might hide in when they are not stealing your grapes. The French are evil geniuses.

It was a sad day for us last week as I tucked away my working shorts for what will probably be the last time this year and dug out a pair of winter weight trousers. It’s appreciably cooler in Devon, and much of the rest of the country according to all media outlets all the time. It’s particularly depressing at the moment as we could really do with a spot of sunshine to finish off ripening the grapes before harvest and keep them clean, dry and disease free. For what it’s worth, the long range weather forecast is excellent, and as the Met Office is apparently officially the second best weather forecaster in the world, we can relax utterly and await an absolutely stunning harvest. On second thoughts, I may keep the shorts handy.

Exactly how well prepared are we for our imminent harvest? We aren’t doing badly. After giving it quite a lot of consideration, I cleverly sent mother to the shops to buy the discount cider for the wasps traps, having first decided that on balance she looks much less like a potential alcoholic who would be refused service from a concerned shop assistant. She returned with half a dozen glass bottles of upmarket cider, claiming that they were better value than the mysterious orange goo that comes in the sort of plastic bottle that one finds strewn all over parks and by bus shelters on Saturday mornings. Whatever the case, the wasps appear to love their better quality cider and are lining up to drown themselves in the traps, and we have also caught several enormous hornets. I understand that it’s an even toss as to whether they will be more likely to eat grapes or wasps, but when one factors in their enormous stinger and malignant appearance, I think that we’d prefer them in the traps.

The next time that we meet, it is entirely likely that the Siegerrebe will be out of the vineyard, smashed to its constituent parts and in a tank fermenting, which is very exciting indeed. And we will have absolutely no problem collecting all those grapes as we have been onto the internet and bought some new amazing picking boxes to replace the ones that we have been using that are now falling apart a bit and have holes big enough for grapes to fall out of the bottom. When I say new, I mean that they have “Property of Woolworths” written on the bottom of them, and when I say that they are amazing, I mean that they are so big that they will probably weigh as much as I do when they are full of grapes. Did I mention that they were cheap? Did I have to?

A Waspish Swansong

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Don’t you just hate it when you go around telling people that something won’t happen and then, as if by magic, you are proven completely wrong in such an obvious fashion that you can’t even pretend that’s what you meant in the first place? Or is that just me? Whatever, I have been dutifully regurgitating an article that I heard on the radio news last year about wasps being so utterly soaked through by the rain and then starved by the attendant lack of fruit in 2012 that their numbers could not possibly recover in time for them to do any commercial damage to fruit growers for years to come, possibly forever. If not longer. You will imagine my surprise and delight when we had the temerity to attempt an al fresco dining session last weekend and were assaulted by an armada of the unpleasant little blighters.

And that wasps have the most amazing ability to turn what should be a mildly boozy and wickedly enjoyable afternoon in the (still) sun drenched Devonian countryside into a stressful retreat into a hermetically sealed room was not the worst of it. The wasps like to make a mess of our grapes. If you weren’t with us in 2011 (or have somehow managed to escape the relentless whining about them since then) most of the German vines, which were very well stocked at the time, had pretty much all of their grapes nicked by a legion of wasps. This was particularly shocking for us as things had been going extremely smoothly until that point, with nary a wasp to be seen. What’s more, our usual insecticide (forefinger and thumb) promised to be painful and potentially lethal, so we were without chemicals to convince them that they might want to be elsewhere. Specifically motionless beneath the vines.

By the time that I was in possession of some insecticide, most of the grapes were already gone, but disposing of the few remaining wasps was still intensely satisfying. We use insecticide extremely sparingly here because it also knocks over the good guys (ladybirds, lacewings, solider beetles et al), so we were keen to use something other than chemicals again this year. We have used jam jars with holes banged in the lids, filled with golden syrup and water before with some success, but not nearly enough to prevent the wasps doing fairly major damage to the grapes.

The solution came to us in the pub. From where I expect that most ideas worth their salt come. Gluttons for punishment, we were with some friends sat outside a pub attempting to eat. And sure enough, the moment that we sat down, the wasps came to join us and generally stir things up a little, which was all very depressing. Then someone noticed that one of our number had absent mindedly bought another pint of cider before finishing the first and that her unattended cider now had a wasp attempting doggy paddle in it. My attention was immediately taken by this as we had made a new design of trap this year and filled it with orange pop, which was going well, but nowhere near as well as this (at this point a third wasp took a swan dive into her lonely Bulmers).

We left the pub in extremely high spirits, mostly because we had turned the tables on the wasps and were at that point looking forward to their visits as they unerringly ended with a tumble into the cider and a victorious cheer from our previously harassed troupe. And what did we discover when we returned from the pub with our house guests? More exciting evidence: amongst the wreckage from the previous evening’s festivities there was a very nearly empty bottle of cider with its own collection of half drunk wasps stumbling around the bottom. Had we chanced upon an extremely effective and humane way to prevent the wasps from damaging the grapes and send them on their way with the mother of all waspish swansongs? Yes. Now all that I need to do is pluck up the courage to go to the cheapest supermarket that I can find for a quantity of discount cider.

Away from the wasps, the vines are really starting to move into their final stage of the season and we are hopeful to start picking the first of them at the end of the month. Our German vines have changed colour from green to a sort of translucent yellow colour (which is called veraison and usually happens about six weeks before picking) and the most advanced are just at about the sweetness that one might expect from a table grape. Which is why we are paying attention to the wasps, although they still won’t actively start chewing through the skins for a couple of weeks yet.

The main part of our crop has, at the time of writing, just started to move into the first stage of this process. The Chardonnay, which appears to have suffered the most from the ravages of a soggy 2012 (unlike the wasps, the effects on these vines are as advertised), has a smallish amount of fruit that is almost entirely through veraison and is looking great. The Pinot Noir – which will ultimately turn red/black – is just about to change colour and there is rather more of it. This is interesting as the Pinot Noir is usually further along than the Chardonnay, but it appears to be about a week behind this year. It seems likely that this is due to the Chardonnay being able to concentrate its efforts on a smaller amount of fruit. Whatever the case, it’s going to be really interesting to see what effect this potentially riper fruit has on each of the two bottles of wine we are going to be able to make from it.