Harvest 2014

Chrdonnay PickersThe film of dust on the laptop, my inability to write coherently and the surfeit of biscuit wrappers in the bin and empties in the recycling box can mean only one thing: the break for harvest has happened, it’s over, and it’s time to fill both of our loyal readers in on what has been happening over the last few weeks.

When we last met we were taking turns at increasingly demented methods of scaring anything that looked askance at the grapes and enjoying an absolutely cracking Indian summer. The very moment that I had contentedly closed the lid on the laptop after beaming the last update into the ether, the mercury plummeted, the clouds gathered and we endured some distinctly autumnal weather. This may be a direct consequence of my sending Lucy out to hoover up the last of the Pimms from the local supermarket on account of the unseasonably awesome weather, or it may not, either way, we now have a lot of Pimms and absolutely no takers.

The iffy weather continued for most of the run up to harvest, so we moved the banger to the field with the most grapes in, performed the last rites on the bird scaring balloon after a particularly savage attack by the wind and drew up a rota for striding out into the fields and doing a scarecrow impression. The last had become necessary as we had run out of actual jobs to do in the vineyard having strimmed and mowed every blade of grass to within an inch of its life and the ground was still too hard to attempt to whack any posts in.

The very real fear that my job could at any time be outsourced to a broom handle and a stuffed shirt aside, I very much enjoyed my time as a scarecrow. It’s really easy to forget that you are living in the middle of paradise – well, what I consider paradise – when you are marching out to work and have your head down all day. Being obliged to spend time just looking around and appreciating your surroundings had the most remarkably calming effect during what is always the most stressful* time of the year. I was also able to make notes on the visiting birds and work out which of them is eating the grapes and is actually worthy of being inaccurately shot at.

*In addition to checking that they haven’t been nicked by birds, one must also check that your grapes are not covered in botrytis and are blossoming into grapes worthy of your wine, otherwise no amount of alchemy in the winery can turn your mouldy/under ripe/absent grapes into serviceable wine.

The first thing that I noticed during my perambulations was that my chummy raven companions are not actually eating our grapes, but are doing an excellent impression of it. They had been hanging around one particular spot of Pinot Noir for weeks, close inspection revealed that the grapes from that spot were not disappearing. Which is just as well as I have spotted that said ravens are both enormous and alarmingly bright, and have been mocking my attempts to scare them off, and shooting at them is of questionable legality. I appreciate that obeying the law isn’t exactly the done thing in the countryside, but since there are half a dozen government agencies that can remove our permission to produce and sell wine, we find it best to stay on the light side of the law.

The birds that are very definitely off our Christmas card list include pigeons, magpies and pheasants. The first two groups were so utterly alarmed at the prospect of an animated scarecrow who packs heat, that they opted for discretion and chose to eat somebody else’s produce. Pheasants are so utterly stupid that nothing short of the business end of a shotgun will do the trick.

I actually quite enjoy having the pheasants around in the summer as the chaps (which are the only ones that seem to turn up here) are undeniably lovely and keep us company while we work; and watching Tilly chase them around the vineyard is an absolute riot. In common with badgers – which you have to be part of a stupid government initiative to shoot – pheasants are too short to reach up and steal grapes from the fruiting zone (and are way too big to perch on the fruiting wire), so we thought that they wouldn’t cause too much of a problem for us. Until I saw one run up, jump and pinch a grape from a rogue shoot that was only slightly lower than the fruiting zone. I immediately shot it, only to be informed that it was much too old to dismantle for the pot.

No matter, I knew that there was a much more youthful specimen hanging around and intended to have what must assuredly be the most satisfying meal of my life, delicious grape fed pheasant. I hunted my quarry for a week and finally spotted him eyeing up some Siegerrebe in our German patch, but he was several rows away and I had a shotgun that would assuredly obliterate several vines in the process of sending my nemesis to the great vineyard in the sky. I thought long and hard about shooting anyway, but decided to spend half an hour chasing him around the vineyard a la Tilly instead before he realised that he has wings and I don’t and flew off into the wilderness never to be seen again. Lucy is telling me that me chasing the pheasant around is also a riot to watch.

And that takes us right up to harvest. Our perennially faithful pickers arrived on the Saturday before last and joined us for dinner so that we could draw up a plan of action for the week ahead. This harvest was going to prove different to the previous ones, as the vines are now starting to perform properly, and coupled with a decent growing season, we were going to have to spend the better part of the week actually picking grapes.

The following morning, we marched out into the fields to assault the Pinot Noir. I was obviously delighted that we had a veritable team of bird scarers and could stop worrying about the extremely obvious bunches of black grapes that were all over the vines. It took us two days to get them all off, which was very exciting after a couple of indifferent years. Admittedly, this may have had something to do with the fact that I had filled many of the all too convenient picking baskets with bottles of rosé so we kept running out, but nevertheless, it was progress.

Picking the rest of the vineyard was a little quicker than the Pinot Noir, but the consensus view from the pickers that see the vineyard annually at this time of year was that the vines appear to be in much better condition than ever before, so we are confident that the improvement in the Pinot Noir this year should be replicated across the whole of both fields next year. If this doesn’t make perfect sense, it takes a whole year of good health to encourage your vines to make lots of flowers in the following season. Which in our case, will be wall to wall sunshine, allowing those flowers to turn into tonne after tonne of lovely and perfectly ripe grapes, which in turn will make thousands of cases of delicious wine and allow us to buy a couple of islands and a yacht.

And then we moved those grapes into the winery. Which I’m going to tell you all about next week, because I’m still attending to bubbling tanks and I’ve been prattling away for much longer than usual and I’ve been reading something called Buzzfeed and noticed that internet articles. Appear to be in bite size pieces. And in very short sentences.

With tiny paragraphs.

A Thunderous Harvest

It’s October. Honestly. Way back in July when we were digging out the jumpers and cursing the holiday makers – who we inevitably hold accountable for any sort of inclement weather during the school holidays – it seemed certain that the excellent start to the growing season would be arrested. In turn, the vines would notice that they are planted at a recklessly northern latitude, start misbehaving and we’d have the devil’s own time keeping the frost off the grapes before picking them. Some time around Christmas. Imagine our delight when this vineyard operative is still leaping out of bed and climbing into our dilapidated pick up in shirt sleeves on the first day of October.

It has been the strangest second half to a growing season that we have ever had. The sun has shone remorselessly, there has been no repeat of July’s hysterical little hurricane (or anything to trouble the wind turbine at all for that matter) and there has been practically no rain at all. I mentioned last time that we met that the grass around the place is slowly yellowing owing to the parched soil – which is irritating the beef farming locals no end, things have moved along since then.

I was in the process of dismantling the elaborate security system on one of the water butts this week to water the equally parched tomatoes – which are apparently still in season in Devon – and noticed that the butts are now empty. It can now only be a matter of time before frantic news stories about hosepipe bans are the order of the day, leading to the mandatory flooding over much of the country, so it’s probably as well that the growing season is just about over. This also means that months of frustration for child number two at not being able to attempt to drown himself under the water butts are also over. He shall once again be able to dive headlong into one of the many puddles that skirt our driveway during much of the off season the very moment that his mother puts him into clean clothing.

I don’t wish to belabour the point, but if you are wondering if this is harming the vines at all, it isn’t. Their ancestors having evolved in the near east, vines take the precaution of putting down some very deep roots indeed, so a spot of dry weather is grist to their mill so to speak. It would appear that this is also true for the Alder that makes up the windbreaks between the patches of vines, but untrue of the willow that lines the driveway, which are looking very peaky indeed.

So what of the grapes? Well, as we are now on the receiving end of a top notch agronomist who has the vines performing as they should, the harvest is looking promising in terms of quantity. The superb growing conditions also means that they should be riper than ever before. We intend to pick the German varieties in the middle of next week, along with some of our Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (for reasons that I’ll explain another time) and have a consignment of family arriving the week after to attend to the mother load in our other vineyard. Which is all very exciting as it means that we shall be able to employ another skill set in the winery and think long and hard about taking the occasional weekend off.

Another consequence of this year’s prematurely ripe grapes is that I noticed some losses to the birds for the first time. Well not exactly the first time, we have lost the occasional exposed grape to the accursed magpies from the always excessively ripe Siegerrebe before, but we have never lost much in the far field. The grapes that have gone have disappeared from the edges of the Pinot Noir patch are the ones that are furthest away from our blue pretend hawk balloon kite thing (we will invest in another next year). That they are missing is a bit of a surprise, but that it’s the Pinot is no surprise at all, as they are sort of aubergine coloured this year, which makes for a striking contrast against the leaves of the vine and a whopping great advertisement for our passing avian chums. Needless to say, this has taken bird scaring to the top of the list of important jobs to attend to over the next couple of weeks.

Our first line of attack was to spend quite a lot of time driving around in the wonky pickup, making lots of noise with its even wonkier exhaust. This might seem a particularly ridiculous method of bird scaring, but it is borrowed from one of the very exclusive places that I worked at during my vine growing education, and it seemed to work okay there.

Problem solved? Not a bit of it! I’m much more paranoid than that. I had noticed that our resident cabal of ravens were bright enough to work out that I was of no threat in my dilapidated machine and were hopping around looking disinterested as I drove by. I’m pretty confident that ravens don’t eat grapes (they hop around confidently pecking the grass for most of the year), but I was worried that they might inform their feathered chums that the coast was essentially clear. If you think that this is paranoid, consider that I was convinced that they were serving as lookouts for the deer that were hammering our young vines just after we planted, and you will understand how mistrustful I have become of ravens after a diet of wall to wall Tolkein during my formative years.

I was busy cutting the grass under the vines with the strimmer the other day, making an enormous racket and thinking “This is all well and good, but I am tired and feel that I could be making much more noise, given the correct equipment”, that it came to me. There was an easy way that I could make much more noise without even standing up!

And lo, birds and people alike across all of Devon ran for cover as our prehistoric tractor rumbled across the fields with an almighty roar amid billowing clouds of blue smoke. In retrospect, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before. The fields can occasionally be a bit dicey in October as the change in season asserts itself and they become a little slippery, but they are absolutely rock hard this year. And the thunderous racket not only shakes the birds from the trees, it acts as a clarion call for Devon’s buzzards, who follow the tractor as the gull follows the trawler, looking for the carcasses of the small furry things that the mower inevitably dispatches. So we now have our own, ready made legion of terrifying birds of prey that are absolutely knocking the unconvincing blue hawk into a cocked hat. Assuming that they don’t go and pick a fight with the balloon, we should be all set.

As an added bonus, the vineyards look great and our familial slaves/pickers shall go home with dry feet this year, so presumably we’ll get away without paying them with anything other than booze again. Wish us luck!