Winter’s Flotsam

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Another couple of weeks into winter and it is rapidly turning into one of those spent taking sweepstakes on when the monsoons are likely to wash the road into the river again (like 2013/14), as opposed to one spent trying to work out how many pairs of gloves one can wear and operate secateurs at the same time (2009/10).

Whether we can draw any conclusions about the coming season from this – I confidently predicted that the rain would, er, “run out” last winter – remains a mystery. What is for certain is that we are most unlikely to move into one of the holiday lets over the road to thaw out again this year, as we have now upgraded from a caravan to a centrally heated house. In any event, a week spent in a log cabin kept at a steady 30oC was wonderful while it lasted, but backfired utterly as it took 48 hours to thaw the water on the inside of our caravan out on our return. Which is about as much fun as it sounds. Improbably, we remained married throughout this particular ordeal and have learned to whine about problems that aren’t really problems like normal people in the intervening period.

In fairness, thus far this winter has treated us fairly well. Nothing has collapsed or been blown away, the river at the bottom of our lane remains only slightly dangerously high and I haven’t seen a single tree floating about in it yet either. We were obviously obliged to collect most of the things that weren’t nailed down around the house from the surrounding area after last week’s gales, but this remains very much par for the course. One can certainly remain sanguine about collecting our wind driven rubbish after the storm when one has endured the misery of chasing the roof of a shed across a field in the middle of one.

In fact, just yesterday I was remarking to Lucy that last year’s wind turbine (we smash approximately one per year) hasn’t fallen over yet, in spite of some impressive provocation from the elements. The problem with budget wind turbines is that when it gets windy, they actively go looking for trouble, following the wind around in an attempt to make as much power as possible. In our experience, the very moment after they start being of any real use, they yank whatever they are anchored with out of the ground, fall over and smash into a million pieces.

If you haven’t been with us for long, you perhaps won’t be aware that we make all of our own power with the combination of wind turbine, solar panels and diesel generator as we are not connected to the grid. I generally pretend that this is a chore, but actually quite enjoy the ongoing challenge of producing as much of it as possible, and as the proud owners of a couple of kids, we are keen to leave as small of a footprint as possible (wind distributed flotsam excepted).

The diesel generator is very nearly as old as I am and was procured for a trifling sum from the farmer we bought the land from. After picking the brains of some particularly practical friends, one no longer need take a crank handle to it start it, it is incredibly dependable and drinks considerably less diesel than either of our cars. The same is true of the solar panels – so much so, that we have plans to plant several more behind the house presently. They are also increasingly cost effective. Apparently this has something to do with the Chinese deliberately irritating the American government for some reason, so they also have that in their favour too.

The problem with solar panels is that they are anodyne. They sit smugly on top of our shed (not the one with wandering roof, another one), magically producing electricity out of thin air without making noise, moving, or doing anything particularly exciting at all. On the other hand, wind turbines are all business, whizzing around at impossible speed, making a racket and advertising to anyone within earshot that they are here to help, whether you want it or not. Like an eager and idiotic Labrador before it chews your furniture. And who wouldn’t want that in their lives?

So, we were both braving the elements last week and noticed for the thousandth time that in spite of cleverly building our house at the bottom of a hill, with woodland on two sides, that there is still quite a lot of wind buffeting these intrepid explorers as they venture into the fields. The wonky shed is wobbling, as are the latest crop of broken trellis posts, there are vine guards cartwheeling all over the place and there are even the latest batch of last season’s vine leaves making their own way off to wherever the vine leaf graveyard is. And the wind turbine? That has developed an interesting new tick of pointing in any direction other than where the wind is coming from and refusing to spin. Which is novel.

I was going to tell you all about our Pinot Noir this week but have run out of space. I appreciate that real estate on the internet is essentially infinite, but that your attention probably isn’t, so I’ll start with that next time. Promise.

Happy New Year!

Pruning (Copy)

Happy New Year! If your new year is anything like our one, you will doubtless be setting about the new year’s tasks like an absolute tiger after a relaxing and refreshing break from your exertions over the festive period. That not ring true? Well, you are in good company. I’m currently tapping away at my laptop from the relative comfort of the kitchen as all hell breaks loose outdoors; the wind turbine is very nearly doubled over and the rain is fairly bouncing off the roof of the winery. And as for the relaxing festive break, I put it to you that we have done our fair share of Yuletide entertaining, and people rarely visit vineyards with abstinence aforethought.

No matter, bleary heads aside, the close season’s duties are beginning to fall into line nicely. If one could actually see the vines from this vantage point – it is usually possible, but the weather has temporarily prevented our remote inspection from the safety of the kitchen – one would notice that much of the previous season’s twiggy growth in the nearest patch has already been tamed. The vines nearest to us are no longer a la hedgerow as they have been pruned back to somewhere near their fruiting wire (the bottom one, at about waist height), and they are looking absolutely lovely. Albeit twiggy.

I don’t think that we have talked about winter pruning for a couple of years, so here goes. Before finding themselves in the enviable position of being planted in God’s own country – South Devon – the forefathers of our vines made their living taking over entire trees (to get at the sunlight) in the near east. They still retain much of this vigour (in spite of the best efforts of the vine nursery wizards to calm them down a bit), so one must hack them down on an annual basis to ensure that they remain easy to manage; considerably smaller than the specimen we discovered demolishing an entire Eucalyptus tree in Turkey the other year.

Once the vines are planted, pruning becomes a bit of a hard won skill. At college, there were three vineyards with a variety of different types and ages of vine in them that we spent much of the first winter chopping away at. At the time the consensus view was that this was because the university bean counters were too frugal to pay for a gang of professionals to get it done properly. Three years later, presented with a couple of fields full of our own vines (and having barely even looked askance at a pair of secateurs since then), I was grateful for all the practice.

The idea is that as the vine starts to establish itself, you may ask for more and more from it. Perhaps for the first year or two you will continue to prune it back down to just above the ground until the joyous day arrives when you may allow it to extend to the business end of things and use the previous year’s growth to form a trunk. At which point one might reasonably expect a grape or two in the following season. Over the following seasons, you allow it’s infrastructure to extend until it runs into the territory of the next vine and therefore out of space.

The finesse comes from looking at the vine’s enthusiasm in the previous season and deciding how much further you wish to extend its remit. If you end up being too conservative, the shoots that emerge in the following season go absolutely crazy and you end up having to hack them back throughout the growing period – lest they create shade, the enemy – and lamenting that a couple of bunches of grapes is the most you can expect from your exuberant shoots. If you are too ambitious, they end up spindly little things and you spend all season looking for the grapes that they haven’t the energy to produce.

When the vine does eventually run out of space and produces nicely manageable shoots, you may get on and congratulate yourself for picking a site of the appropriate vigour in which to plant your vines. If the vine runs out of space and the shoots are still going absolutely bonkers, you would be obliged to dash out and find yourself something to attack your monstrous shoots throughout the growing season, or dig them all up and grow corn or something. If you are wondering what category our collection of vines falls into, it’s thankfully mostly the former, with some alarmingly labour intensive patches of the latter.

Wine! This week I shall be sermonising about our rosé.

In 2011 we conducted a trial with a small amount of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Menier from that year’s harvest. We smashed the grapes up in the crusher destemmer and deposited both skins and juice (along with some argon gas to keep the oxygen off) in a red wine tank to see what happened. We weren’t exactly flying blind, we knew that the juice would remove increasingly large amounts of colour from the skins (it starts life mostly white) over the next couple of weeks before turning red. The generally accepted period of skin contact for rosé wine is 6 to 48 hours.

Needless to say, we bottled it. Sorry, bad analogy, lost confidence after 18 hours or so and pressed the lot and made some very serviceable, rose coloured pink from it. As the hue was utterly lovely, in 2013 (2012 was a complete write off on account of the rain) we decided that it might be an idea to extract even more colour and so left it in contact with the skins for, gasp, the entire 48 hours. And that made wine in a colour of incomparable loveliness, with similar (if richer) flavours to the previous model. I’m advised by the wine retail cognoscenti that our Gallic cousins tend to opt for rosé that is hardly coloured at all, but I reckon that if you are going to make it, you might as well do it properly.

In a bid to further raise our rosé above the appalling alcopop levels of your common or garden rosé, we elected not to sweeten it in 2013 either. This made for an interesting finished wine that tends rather more towards a light red than a beefed up white. We were very happy with it, as were the vast majority of people on the receiving end of it.

This year it was a little more difficult to work out how to judge the amount of skin contact for the juice as we – and our indefatigable picking slaves – kept running out of boxes to transport the grapes in, owing to last year’s bumper Pinot Noir harvest. This meant that we had to process the grapes (smash them to pieces in a crusher destemmer and toss them into a wine tank) as we worked our way across the field to free up the boxes. By the time that we had finished, some of the grapes had been in the tank for 48 hours, and some of them had been in for five minutes.

Doubtless, a less cavalier winemaker would start borrowing fingers to count on and work out the average period of skin contact. We opted for a more direct method: taking turns at intervals to stand in the line of fire in front of the tank’s valve clutching a wine glass and hoping to catch some of the pink jet of juice in it. As an added bonus, my clothes were absolutely delicious and pleasingly pink by the time that we were ready to ferment the juice.

We have just carried out our final racking (pumping the clear wine off the solid bits in the bottom of the tank) and had a taste of the finished article this very morning. Quite why we taste wine at 9.30 in the morning remains a mystery, but the wine itself looks and tastes great. It is also about as clear as we have ever had it pre-bottling, which may have something to do with us using only free run juice this year*. Whatever the case, it should make filtering the wine extra easy at bottling time in spring.

*More on this next time, but it essentially means that the juice is pumped off the smashed up grapes without pressing them.

Right, I have helped myself to enough of your time already. Here’s to 2015, cross your fingers that it treats us all as well as 2014 did.