Preparing for harvest, Jaipur Style

As I sit down in front of the faithful and aged laptop that I can never replace because I have forgotten virtually all of the passwords that are stored on it, I’m considering what might be the last of this season’s Pimms. Pimms is the order of the day because, after a hiatus over much of August, the doors and windows at Casa Huxbear have been flung open once again to keep things nice and cool indoors. The clouds have parted, the whole month of appalling northerly winds is just a memory and it is really rather summery in our charming and increasingly non-verdant bit of Devon. That’s right, the weather has been so agreeable that the grass growing from the iron hard ground under the vines is starting to keel over and die as if we were still in the dog days of summer.

Worried? Not a bit of it! The supremely dry Autumn (thus far) is doing an excellent job of arresting the development of the mildew that threatened to spoil the party in August and is also ensuring that the botrytis is kept to an absolute minimum. Admittedly this is an entirely selfish assessment of the weather, as I discovered when I bumped into the regular farmer from next door this week. He cuts the grass from the land that we own that is sans vineyard and collects it for his cows’ winter feed. He was giving his not at all impressive crop some extremely dark looks, but I suppose that he giveth with one hand, and he taketh with the other. And I’m guessing that we can expect a bumper harvest of corn, so I very much doubt that his bovine chums will have to go without this winter.

There are now many signs around the place that harvest is upon us, but as usual, chief among them is our increasingly preposterous attempts to ensure that the birds are kept on their toes and away from our ripening crop; and I’m upping the ante this year. Long suffering readers may recall that, thanks to a surprisingly large population of buzzards and sparrow hawks, we don’t have a lot of trouble with birds. Unfortunately, they have this nasty habit of waiting around and eating only your most ripe grapes, so any damage is best avoided.

During our maiden harvest, we bought a couple of floating balloon things that have a sort of rudimentary kite attached them. The idea is that you fill the balloons with helium, tie one end of the string to a post, let them go and marvel as the local avian population flees in terror for miles around. Whether it works or not is another matter. The non-grape eating swallows fly around looking for insects to eat and ignore the incongruous blue hawk entirely, but I did see a filthy, grape eating pigeon turn around when it spotted it, so perhaps it is of some merit. Either way, it has this nasty habit of falling to earth and getting horribly tangled in the trellising when it rains. While on the ground, it may or may not also terrorise mice and ants, but it certainly wasn’t in any danger of upsetting anything else, so we decided to go for a multiple pronged attack.

While I was studying at the hallowed halls of Plumpton College, I noticed that they had a box with speakers attached to it that does bird distress calls. It had lots of different types of call on its play list, barking them out every couple of minutes to ensure that no bird was sufficiently brazen to hang around for long enough to find and consume your delicious grapes. I knew that these things worked, because the battery died on it once at the weekend and the resident starlings absolutely demolished their crop.

These contraptions have a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, bird distress calls are actually quite distressing. I recall listening to the damned thing for hour after hour while attending to the vines and finding the whole process rather stressful; that said, we weren’t against having one in the vineyard that is some distance (¼ mile ish) from the house. The other problem is that at the time, they seemed horribly expensive. No matter, back then we* were pretty advanced wombles, inventing all manner of things out of smashed up pallets and general waste, so weren’t averse to stealing the idea and producing a more affordable model.

*Note the use of the the royal “We” in this case. It essentially involved me making things and Lucy sensibly refusing to sit on/use/go near them.

This sequence of events lead us to unveiling the, er, well I’ve forgotten what I called it, something like Ultimate Bird Terrifier 1.0. For only the small outlay of a few pounds on a Chinese car amplifier coupled with some speakers that I found knocking about and their waterproof (plastic bottle) housings, we had a bird scarer of our very own for a fraction of the cost of a proper one. We went online and downloaded some bird distress calls and even recorded a bit of clapping for good measure as that seems to upset the birds more than anything. I fired it up, noted that the only bird that seemed to take offence at the ungodly noise was the buzzard, and went to borrow a gas banger from our neighbour.

We now have our own banger, it seems to work, but I’m always keen to innovate unnecessarily. I don’t know if I mentioned that I applied for, and received a firearms licence in the summer in a vain attempt to reduce the numbers of our millions and millions of rabbits. If not, that happened, and I also ticked the shotgun box. This allowed me to pop out and buy a venerable soviet built contraption.

I’m fairly confident that if anyone in authority catches me returning home after my evening’s perambulations, clutching a helium balloon in one hand and a shotgun in the other that I shall be immediately locked away for the common good. That said, it feels good to be on the front foot, actually doing something about the problem. I obviously haven’t actually shot anything other than a tree with my new gun, but I’m keeping a very close eye on a particularly crafty pigeon that keeps loitering around the Chardonnay. I also noticed that the gang of magpies – which, I think, don’t eat grapes, but are responsible for some extremely unsavoury conduct towards their avian cousins – have not returned after I chased them off with a couple of cartridges last night. I’ll keep you posted, but I think that we have pretty much cracked it; as a fringe benefit, I’m not expecting to see much in the way of trespassers either.

I was meaning to talk about the state of the harvest and have been self indulgently banging on about birds, I’ll give you the edited highlights: sugars, good; acid, low; Pinot Noir, utterly black. I sense that you don’t come here for science, but if you have vines and wish to compare notes, feel free to get in touch. But not via the comments section, because it currently contains 2500 offers to buy counterfeit handbags and, er, things that aren’t exactly for a family audience and I haven’t ploughed through that lot to get at the good stuff yet.

Forecasting Harvest

I seem to recall promising that I’d provide you with a riveting update from the West Country this time last week. While I’m obviously very sorry indeed that I didn’t manage to provide one, when I have made my excuses I think that we will all be able to blame this on the Met Office and move on.

The weather in August was very strange indeed. I alluded to the fact that the temperatures were a little low for the time of year last time we met, not much changed until about the end of the month. This has some ramifications for the date of harvest, specifically that it moves backward a little. The problems are twofold: firstly, everything moves a bit slower when it is colder than it should be. This means that the vines aren’t knocking out sugar at the appropriate rate, which in turn means that the grapes are not where they should be in terms of sweetness. Secondly, the leaden skies aren’t exactly conducive to ripening the fruit, which opens up the fruity flavours, removes the astringency and improves the colour of the finished wine.

It’s just about possible to rectify the first problem in the winery. Winemakers in cool climates have a long and proud history of tossing sugar into grape juice in less good years. Straight after they have finished berating the chap who looks after the vineyard for not making the sun shine. Unfortunately, due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is managed, I’m obliged to wear both of these hats, so have yet to experience this ostensibly gratifying buck passing exercise. The attendant boost in alcohol is good for the label as the prevalence of people demanding wine that will make them fall over is still fairly common, even amongst the cognoscenti of the English wine trade, who should really know better after making the frankly, er, correct decision to drink English wine. Having said that, used judiciously, a little chaptalisation (and therefore extra alcohol) can help add body and mouth feel to wine.

The second problem is a different matter entirely. In the words of the man who taught me how to make wine: “You can’t change the flavour in here, that all happens out there [points at vineyard]”. And do you know what? It’s true. While we have been disabused of many of our higher minded ideals since setting up in the country (like, let’s go organic and let’s grow potatoes or something under the vines), one that has endured is the importance of checking not only the sugar content of the grapes, but the flavour when checking for ripeness. I’ve even met a chap once who is pretty decent at telling both using no more technology than the mouth attached to his head. And if you can get this right (while you are doubtless taking pot shots at the birds attempting to demolish your perfectly ripe crop), much of the battle is won.

Which leads nicely to another of our high minded ideas which was to steal, that is, emulate and improve the Italian method of allowing the harvested grapes to spend some time in the sun to ripen still further. Unfortunately this method is all well and good when the sun is cracking the flags in Italy in August, but it is less good when when they are being assaulted by the elements in a field in Devon in the second half of October. This method would also probably leave us penniless with a couple of obese children and a dog to chastise.

I nearly forgot, I was going to tell you why everything is all the fault of the Met Office. After excelling themselves at the start of the month by correctly predicting the frenzied attack of failing hurricane Bertha, the entire staff of the Met Office appear to have gone off on holiday and inflicted the good people of Spain with their dubious talents. And how do I know this? Because their forecasts have been nothing short of ridiculous for the last couple of weeks, far, far below their usual awful standard.

It has not only been cool and overcast throughout August, it has also been quite humid, and that means that there has been a much higher disease risk from mildew, and that means that we have to get on the front foot and spray that mildew to death with a variety of fungicides. This is completely impossible in the rain, so one wouldn’t want to start spraying when the forecast is for rain as the rain would wash off all the spray that you have so diligently applied to the poor benighted vines. Guess what has been unerringly happening when the weather forecast has been for rain? A whole day of unbroken sunshine that is utterly perfect for spraying in. The smart ones among you will have already worked out what happened when they predicted – and continued to predict all day in spite of all evidence to the contrary and being based just ten miles from this very vineyard – a whole day of unbroken sunshine. That’s right, rain so heavy one can barely stand up in it. Unfortunately my cricket team no longer plays a Met Office XI, so extracting a measure of revenge with a cricket ball isn’t really an option any more.

No matter, we are now just about up to date, a hurricane is apparently abusing someone else and taking the appalling weather with it, and we are building up to a spot of leaf stripping next week. And we’ll tell you all about that, and our normal person’s, leak free running water system next week. Unless that hurricane turns around and clobbers us, but that’s not in the forecast, so this probably won’t happen.