Winter on the Park Bench

On the first of November I distinctly recall standing next to our generator store in shirt sleeves. I was applying the third coat of paint to it in as many days in an attempt to cover up the first, which had claimed to be “Park Bench Green” but had in fact turned out to be “You’ll Never Convince Anyone That it’s Supposed to be This Colour Green”. The shocking nature of the lies told by companies on paint tins aside, things were decidedly idyllic. The sun was out, it was at least 20oC and there was the sort of communal good mood going around that can only come when a little piece of summer is chipped off and emerges unexpectedly in the wrong season.

You will imagine our surprise this week when – the children having allowed us eight hours sleep for once – a surprisingly large amount of light was sneaking into the room from around the curtains. As soon as I’d located the suspiciously quiet child number two and convinced him that three bananas was probably sufficient pre-breakfast fayre, I took a look out of the window and our suspicions were confirmed: frost. Actual, proper, chisel your way into the car, turn it on and ignore it for a bit frost. In November. I feel sure that this must have happened here before, but I don’t recall when. It never seems to happen this side of Christmas and probably means something, but I have no idea what. Probably lots of fracking and exciting earthquakes and whatnot if it goes on much longer.

What is absolutely certain is its effect on the vines, and pretty well everything else that had the temerity to hang on to any of its leaves at this time of year: they are now all brown and on the floor. Except the Alder that makes up the windbreaks, that appears to be made of sterner stuff. And that in turn means that we can now be fairly confident that the vines are absolutely, positively, 100% done with this year and are eagerly awaiting a spot of spring. I can’t pretend that I abandoned our slack season projects – burying pipes, making things, tidying up and fires, lots of fires – immediately, but I did assault my trusty secateurs with a whetstone and a can of WD40 and have definite plans to get cracking next week.

As well as irritating Lucy and generally getting myself into trouble, we spent the balance of the quiet period meeting suppliers and getting as much done for the following spring as possible. Having decided that a limited amount of damage by the ubiquitous rabbits over winter (they nibble some of the bark off some of the vines) was preferable to spending forever lifting up vine guards to attend to the vines’ trunks, we decided to go wild and remove the lot last summer. Before running out of time – and let’s be honest, inclination – and spending the next six months tripping over them and obliterating them with the mower.

I have now finished picking them up and am an absolute dab hand at slipping them inside each other and balancing cylinders of them on a wheelbarrow; I’m not entirely sure what use this skill may be going forward, but one never knows. It was also good to get some miles onto the hamstrings because I’m convinced that spring and the ritual abuse of them during bud rubbing will come all too quickly. In fact, the only fly in the ointment was when I spotted the large piles of them neatly stacked around the place, recalled that they filled one quarter of an articulated wagon and noticed that we don’t exactly have a spare outbuilding in which to store them. So if you are reading this and are interested in some well travelled (I have picked most of them out of our hedges at some point) and slightly tatty vine guards for the low price of, um, nothing, do get in touch.

Wine! After a month in the winery, the last of the wines has finally fallen clear, has been parted from its lees and, although they will all be filtered, poked and prodded a bit before bottling, we may now spend some time filling glasses from the tanks’ valves as opposed to measuring cylinders. If you are wondering what sort of alcoholic fermentation takes a month, the answer is none (to the best of my knowledge), we were yet again waiting for the Chardonnay to complete its typically languid malo-lactic fermentation.

This is always a magical and slightly nerve racking time of year, although, with experience, it gets less nerve racking and more magical every year as one is able to get a better idea during the growing season of what is likely to come out of the tank. No matter, once the winemaker has made his decisions and carried them out, there isn’t an awful lot more he can do to his wine without being hauled off in handcuffs, so he must live with them. I don’t know whether it is our increasing experience, our increasingly experienced and loyal workforce, or the sheer, unadulterated awesomeness of the weather this year, but 2014 has been rather less stressful than most.

We were toying with the idea of making an entirely new wine from the German varieties and a limited amount of Pinot Noir this year with no skin contact (it would be white). Making still white wine from Pinot Noir is something that I have always wanted to, but never actually gotten around to doing; and as we are planning on having a bash at fizz in a small way next year, it seemed the logical thing to get some experience doing. And I looked long and hard at all of that perfectly ripe, beautifully sun drenched Pinot Noir and decided that it was much too pretty to turn into white wine and it all became red and rosé.

And looking at my word count, I should probably tell you all about that next week. But the mention of rosé reminds me: fancy a bottle of pink for grown ups? We have just released the final bottling of the 2013s and are offering them to non-blood relatives for the very first time. It will be appearing on the shop page at the start of next week, or, if you’d rather, send us an email and we’ll arrange it all for you. 6 @ £50, 12 @ £95, UK delivery is £5 (singles available on request with delivery at cost).

Post Harvest Indolence

With harvest and the fermentations over, the discerning Devonian vineyard owner generally doesn’t give two hoots about the contents of the weather forecast, as the vines are pretty well inured to anything that mother nature can throw at them in the off season. Barring some sort of polar vortex* (at -15oC or so they have the nasty habit of keeling over and dying), they are pretty good at weathering the winter. Which is at least something in the credit column for the world’s sickliest plant. And while a particularly bitter winter has accounted for a vine or two among the intrepid vine growers of the north, the Gulf Stream has prevented anything so beastly happening in our bit of Devon.

*We were delighted to hear the first meteorologically challenged reporter on the news this week insisting that we were in for the most appalling winter, and that said polar vortex was about to unleash hell on the good people of Devon; and everywhere else for that matter. You may take it from me that, given this excitable proclamation of doom, nothing of the sort is about to happen; it’s the predictions of a warm and wet winter that you want to watch out for.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when – after a seemingly endless Indian summer – I was looking at something on my mobile telephone and noticed that the Met Office forecast was covered in pretty colours, indicating that some particularly horrible weather was on the way. And how! As I type, I am safely billeted in the living room, watching the last of the season’s leaves being unceremoniously ripped from the vines and the wind turbine attempting a sort of limbo dance as its pole threatens to bend double.

It is also raining. A lot. The formerly wonderfully dry vineyard that had allowed the easy passage of man and machine alike for pretty well the entire growing season has turned into the sort of quagmire not seen since, well, the end of last winter when bits of the local infrastructure started slipping into the waterways, en route to the English Channel. This was doubly depressing for me as – although I hadn’t dared voice this opinion – I was pretty sure that the land, being so parched during the summer, could take plenty of stick come the winter and would remain navigable throughout. Which goes to show that I don’t know anything about the weather either.

No matter, this was exactly the sort of thing that I was complaining about last winter before we were treated to the best growing season that we have ever had, so probably the exact same thing is going to happen again this year. We have already established my fortune telling ability, so rush out and buy several barbecues immediately.

As well as ensuring an immaculate growing season in 2015, another plus for the surprising change in the weather is that I am once again replacing the posts that were so rudely snapped by the remains of hurricane Gonzalez the other month. You might recall that, after the storm, we were only replacing the posts that were essential to keep the vines upright, on account of the decidedly firm soil (about 25% of the total snapees). If you do recall that, you may also remember that I’d cleverly talked my way into banging the lot in with one of those old fashioned hand banger things instead of shoe-horning a tractor mounted job into the original vineyard budget. You will imagine my utter delight at having the opportunity to knock the balance of the replacements into something a little more yielding.

It’s a strange time of year here when the grapes are picked and the wine is processed because, for the first time in 6 months or so, one can look around and pick something to do, as opposed to charging out at the crack of dawn and attempting to assault everything in one go. Particularly given the winter’s big job – winter pruning – shouldn’t really be attempted before the end of the month** at the earliest, no matter how tempting it is to steal a march on it, get it all done and sit around smugly looking for something else to do in the middle of January.

**The vineyard cognoscenti will have their own opinions on when the correct time to prune your vines is. Many people think that the correct time is as late as possible as doing so can cause the vines to start growing later (when the risk of frost has departed) and can help to prevent disease (as the sap is rising as opposed to falling and, in theory, pushes the baddies from the pruning wounds out of the plant). Until we have our very own legion of well trained pruners, I shall continue to start it in winter and hope to have it finished by the end of winter, but have conceded to prune the most eager vines last, in the hope of slowing them down a little.

The uncomfortable period of indolence – farming appears to have knocked the ability to sit around and do nothing right out of us – lead me to turn my attention to our poor old pick up. I thought that it was about time to give the old girl a spot of pampering as she had decided that, after seven years of uncomplaining service, the turning of the key was less of a demand and more of a suggestion to burst into life, before failing entirely last week. This conveniently happened just after harvest, which is as well, because asking our pickers to man-haul the grapes back from the far vineyard may very well have lead to a full scale mutiny.

My enthusiasm to avoid knocking in posts was so great that, along with a starter motor, it has also had its first service of our ownership, has wiper blades that actually clear the windscreen and Lucy has even cleaned the inside out. Which should dramatically reduce my chances of returning from the fields with Legionnaires disease or something. What a rare treat to look under the bonnet and see shiny new things attached to the decrepit engine and to slide in behind the wheel without being impaled upon a pair of abandoned secateurs and enjoy the refreshing scent of washing powder (the seat covers have even been through the washing machine). And when you consider that the cost of all this was a very reasonable £60 – bringing our total pick up expenditure to, er, £60 – you begin to realise why those chaps in the middle east go around bolting machine guns to them.

End Of Season Alchemy

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The view from the window is a fairly forlorn one of twiggy vines, just clinging to their last few leaves, leaden skies and squidgy fields that were still behaving themselves not two weeks ago. My nemesis pheasant that I had been chasing around is pecking around at something in the field, but I’m still happily tapping away at my laptop because there are no longer any grapes for him steal from the vines, so we have formed an uneasy friendship on the proviso that he makes himself scarce in time for harvest 2015.

Once we had attended to harvest 2014 in the vineyard, it was time to turn the grapes that hadn’t disappeared into our resident pheasant into wine. We had initially thought that we would have a bash at picking the German varieties first along with the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier* in this field to make something white and interesting. Unfortunately, the rotbrenner that we had some trouble with about half way through the growing season had taken its toll on the Bacchus (which makes up the better part of the German planting) and there wasn’t much fruit on it that we were willing to take off, which put paid to those plans. Fortunately, I have recorded the idea here, so when we are absolutely swamped with Bacchus next year (the vines are in perfect health otherwise), we will know exactly what to do with it.

*If extra fruity German varieties and two of the Champagne triumvirate appear to be strange bedfellows, you’d be 100% right. However I have the idea that the classy acidity and guts of Pinot Noir in particular should help turn the slightly two dimensional German chaps into something considerably better than its constituent parts. Well, that’s the theory, in practice, we will ferment them individually and do lots of sampling with as many people as possible; which is one job that it’s relatively easy to find a workforce for.

So first up this year was the exceedingly ripe and plentiful Pinot Noir that I had been paying very close attention to for the month before we picked. Having a whole lot of grapes was obviously a very welcome development, particularly when it was Pinot Noir, which is an incredibly versatile grape. I can remember vividly last year standing at the top of a ladder, tipping crushed Pinot Noir goo** into one of the red wine tanks, flipping a metaphorical coin and deciding to turn it all into rosé, as there was hardly enough to make red too. Not so this year.

**Okay, so goo probably doesn’t sound quite as romantic as it is supposed to, but it serves a purpose. When one tips in tact grapes into our archaic crusher/de-stemmer, they are smashed to pieces and the stems whiz out of the end of the contraption while the skins, pulp and pips drop out of the bottom. If you prefer, when you see goo, mentally substitute it for fruit based porridge.

This year I was stood at the top of the ladders, tipping the billionth bucket of Pinot Noir/Meunier goo into a tank, trying to decide whether we could do with more rosé or red wine this year. What a difference a year (and an agronomist) makes. I was also thinking that we should probably have worked one of those clever pumps that moves the goo from the crusher/de-stemmer into the tank all by itself into the winery budget as I was on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the red wine tank was as full as it had ever been (which is quite, but not completely full, as it is enormous), there was very little goo on the floor and we were contentedly nursing a beer and enjoying the company of our pickers/winery hands/slaves at the end of day two.

It was as well that we finished picking at the end of day two as the third day brought some utterly old testament style rain with it – which isn’t conducive for picking as it can affect the quality of your juice and will definitely affect the morale of your pickers. So we all had a day off, allowing our pickers to spend some time exploring the interior places of Devon and me to repeatedly drag Lucy into the winery and point out how full one of our family red wine tanks was this year.

Refreshed, we assaulted the Chardonnay. The Chardonnay had performed less well than the Pinot Noir this year in terms of grapes (the vines themselves are looking very well, so we are hopeful for next year), so we fairly motored through. Right up to the last five rows that confusingly had about 100kg of grapes each attached to them, which slowed us all down a bit. Well, when I say us, I mean everyone else, as I was busy berating the other 35 rows of Chardonnay for not pulling its finger out and working as hard as the other, genetically identical vines that are planted in the exact same field.

Once the Chardonnay was crushed and pressed, the free run rosé removed from the big tank after 24 hours (it looks absolutely gorgeous) and with everything fermenting nicely, it was once again time to turn our attention to infrastructure projects! Which is always the most entertaining part of the week as we get to watch a gaggle of engineers (our pickers are horribly overqualified) argue about how best to build the things that we save up for this time every year.

You may recall that we had a disaster at the start of season when the winery generator exploded on account of its being out in the rain in a canopy that was not quite waterproof enough (and a saga lasting literally months as I attempted to install a new bit on it without the relevant expertise). Well, we decided to make a charming little bus shelter type thing on the side of the winery for it to live in – apparently a tarpaulin weighed down by a dead battery isn’t exactly the thing for the discerning wine estate owner. It is now erected, has been battered by a largish storm and is still standing resolute. Once we had similarly waterproofed the tractor’s rusty little container and rebuilt the chicken coop – probably escapologist chickens to follow next spring – the week was over, and we waved our astonishingly loyal workers off once more with a distinct feeling of a job well done…