Bombay the Hard Way

20140601_182050 (Copy) 20140620_105226 (Copy)The doors and windows at chez Huxbear have been flung open, there is a largish lump of meat suspended above a smouldering fire in the garden, whoever owns Bombay Sapphire gin is in receipt of perhaps more of our discretionary spend than I would care to admit and I’m spending rather more time than I might wish chasing children down the driveway as they attempt to explore the parts of Devon that do not belong to us. This can only mean one thing: we have settled into that gloriously clement part of summer that arrives before the children are released from captivity for their summer holidays and stops the very moment that they are.

Unusually, my sources have not reported such wonderful weather in other parts of the country, which is quite surprising. But then again, Torquay (which is down the road) is called the English Riviera by the tourist board apparently without irony; presumably this confirms that they have good reason to. While I’m not immune from indulging in a little shardenfreude (which is confusingly not in the spell checker), this is bad news for us. Knowing what is likely to be a good year because you live in England and talk about the weather incessantly (on account of being English) makes up one of the main pillars of my argument for drinking English wine; it certainly helps our customers to engage with the project. The other pillars are that it’s awesome, and perhaps more importantly, because it isn’t French.

It is at times like this that a vineyard owner must remind himself that the weather is excellent news for the vines, even as he himself dissolves into a puddle of sweat. And let’s be honest, tears. This usually happens about this time of the year – right from year one, when we callously roped in a friend to help us get the vine guards on in the middle of the hottest May imaginable – and it is usually at its worst about one in the afternoon. Right after I’ve demolished a pint of coffee and done rather a lot of grumbling about how idle the Spanish are for sensibly avoiding al fresco toil at this time of day.

Close inspection of the vines reveals that they are absolutely revelling in the same weather that is so problematic for working human beings. And we have been spending rather a lot of time looking at them recently on the lookout for disease. The first year that we planted the vines, we were advised that it wasn’t worth spraying them in their first season as one wouldn’t want to take any grapes off them in their first (or second) year. At about the end of August they were absolutely hammered by powdery mildew, so we dispensed with that advice and made friends with the man who sells the chemicals that stop vines from falling over.

Until last year, we took an about turn and started spraying the vines at the very first opportunity – mostly with organics* as the overuse of the more effective stuff is strictly controlled – and carried on right until the end of the season. Which, as I am still too tight to buy a tractor mounted sprayer/am the world’s most assiduous ecologist who chooses to apply the minimum quantity of chemical (delete as appropriate), is rather hard work on the legs. Sensing that something had to change for the sake of my legs and the environment, we spent a good chunk of the winter before last learning how to spot the merest hint of the early signs of disease so that we may better determine when to start spraying to kill it off. Thus far this game of chicken has pretty much resulted in us bottling it at about this time of year, but it does win us a couple of months of not applying fertiliser unnecessarily, and let’s be honest, a pleasing stroll around Devon looking at vines is just the ticket right after breakfast.

*While it is technically possible to grow vines in the UK without the aid of manufactured chemicals, it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette. Although the organics are improving rapidly, filthy weather is still perfectly capable of wiping out your crop entirely in a number of unpleasant ways if you don’t have the additional non-organic tools at your disposal. It’s also important to consider that some of the naturally occurring chemicals used to control mildew are very unpleasant indeed (most notably copper), so we choose not to use those at all.

It was while inspecting the vines that we noticed that some of the Chardonnay in South Field was looking a little peaky, along with the vines in the furthest block of West Field (the one that we live in). To our newly trained eyes, we determined that they were deficient in magnesium. Which, if you are interested, keeps them from producing enough chlorophyll, resulting in pretty yellow stripes all over the older leaves. I was just about to get on the phone and discuss this with our new captive agronomist when an email arrived in my inbox with the analytical leaf results that we sent off the previous week, along with a recommendation for a foliar (spray on) fertiliser that contains both calcium and magnesium. Which goes to show you that time learning is time wasted.

So, with gritted teeth and squared shoulders, I checked that the sprayer was still operational, filled the water tank on the back of the pick up and set to it on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. Most helpful. But apart from the occasional irritation that only a non-moving “Companion” dog who is hiding in the shade of the pick up can offer, it was an absolute breeze and I was positively effervescent at the end of the day. Perhaps this was due to having attended to our nutrition problem and having kept the mildew from the vines for another couple of weeks or the endorphins or whatever it is that makes those running people go around looking smug. Either way, effervescent is the appropriate mood in which to be when one is about to tuck into something cold that contains bubbles by way of celebration.

And the result? Stellar. Even from my vantage point in the kitchen, 50 yards or so from the nearest vine, one can see that they have rarely, if ever, been in better fettle. For their next trick, they will be flowering in the next couple of weeks, so we would be delighted if this lovely weather would continue until the appointed time (more on this next week). Please keep your fingers crossed for us.

Evidence of Summer

20140603_084902 (Copy) 20140604_093844 (Copy)Exactly when did spring turn into summer? I appreciate that it’s technically not summer yet, but all of the hallmarks are in evidence. The trees that until quite recently were bare and twiggy have now burst into life, forming their huge canopies that frame the views in every direction from where I am currently sat. The utterly Spartan hedgerow along the road that we set about in winter like tigers, chainsaw wielding tigers, is now doing a serviceable impression of the other, non tiger ravaged, hedgerows of Devon. The vines, having started to munch their way through the mountains of fertiliser that I tossed at them (from an egg cup) last month, have started to motor and currently look as healthy as I can remember. The bees are buzzing, the wasps are not buzzing, for they are nowhere to be seen, and we have moved into that time of year that when the sun sees fit to make an appearance, there is absolutely nowhere nicer to be than the south west of England.

In the spirit of counting our blessings, something else wonderful happened, and continues to happen this week: the bud rubbing is nearly finished! And all of the signals are on display for that too. Most obvious is that the vines have started to put all their energies into the appropriate place – specifically the bit where they do making grapes as opposed to up and down the trunk. This concentrated exertion has lead them to sort of bolt and the most enthusiastic of them are now about 18 inches into their three feet of permitted growing area (we chop the tops off after that). Which, after some indifferent vigour last year, is good to see. This also means that they will need to be taken in hand presently and pushed back into the trellis wires that are supposed to be taming them, allowing us to usher in as much sunlight as possible into the grapey areas. A properly maintained canopy will also allow us to easily navigate the row in the tractor and mow the equally enthusiastic grass.

To the trained eye there are other clues to the imminence of our arrival on the sun drenched and magnificent uplands of our post bud rubbing Eden. The first is my gait. No longer do we hobble around as old hags looking for a Macbeth to torment, we stand upright, striding into the fields eager to do battle with any shoot naive enough to take us on. It’s wonderful when we are sufficiently organised to spend a good chunk of continuous time bud rubbing, because it means that we can spend enough time doing it to convince back and ham strings that repeated bending over is here to stay and that they had better get used to it. And this year is one of those, and in turn we are really able to power through without dreaming up a couple of dozen other vitally important things that we must be doing instead*, as the student who tidies his room instead of revising at exam time. Which coincidentally, is also happening at this time of year.

*If you are reading this and happen to own vines, this does not constitute an offer to attend to your bud rubbing.

The last hint that we are nearing the end of bud rubbing is my indelibly black hands. This can be quite embarrassing when offering my hand for a shake and the profferee eyes it reluctantly before good manners assert themselves (this always reminds me of when I meet the chap who empties our septic tank, when the boot is pretty much on the other foot). It might interest you to know that the pigment in red wine is only red when it is in wine, which is acidic, and turns to black* at neutral(ish) pH, before turning blue at the alkaline end of the spectrum. I learned this at wine school, what they didn’t tell us was that the pigment is also in the shoots of red wine varieties and that the pigment works its way into the skin beautifully. And when I say indelibly, no amount of scrubbing will shift it in under a couple of weeks. No matter, the social faux pas also means the beginning of the end of bud rubbing as the Pinot Noir is the very last variety that we do battle with.

*Don’t believe me? Mix a little bicarbonate of soda or water with some full bodied red wine. Marvell at the black colour. Lament the waste of wine.

Were the imminent cessation of bud rubbing not enough to drive a vineyard owner to tears of joy, something else stupendous happened last week. I was on the phone receiving some technical support (from a man with ostensibly limitless patience), spanner in hand, poking away at the accursed generator when something magical occurred: it rumbled into life! Even better, the bit that we fashioned to replace the broken part appears to be doing its job properly. I was obviously fully prepared for it to rattle itself to pieces and had a fire extinguisher to hand, but so far, our Heath Robinson marriage of bits are holding together nicely.

So nicely that I left the old girl running for long enough to warm everything up, so I could treat her to a nice oil change and swap the old filters for the shiny new ones that had been in storage in preparation for this most blessed of days. After receiving a few pints of spotless oil, we changed the oil filter and turned our attention to the fuel filter. Unlike the oil filter, it doesn’t lubricate itself, so removing it would necessitate the aid of a wrench. Which I have definitely left somewhere, but its location at the time of writing remains mystery. Unabashed, I set about the old one with a screwdriver and by simply mangling it to its constituent parts, was able to get it off and the new one in. Which leaks, because it arrived broken. But the very moment that the new one arrives, I shall be making the generator repeat its feat of reanimation and get on with bottling that rosé that I have been promising everyone for months. Promise.