English Wine What?

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I am going to start by giving you fair warning. Other than being about an English vineyard, this entry has nothing to do with English Wine Week*. See all other media outlets for information about English wine week. And take advantage of the wide availability of English wine this week. Buy lots. Mostly because it’s awesome, but also because I have this feeling that it’s going to get a lot more expensive when we vote ourselves out of Europe and our French cousins petulantly stop selling us theirs.

*This is because I wrote this last week but was then distracted by our swish new solar panels and stood gormlessly gazing at them and smugly plugging things in for literally hours. More on this next week. Well, I say next week, but I’m attending to the wind turbine presently and might even get it working, if that happens, all bets are off.

We have now had a couple of goes at spraying and I’m fairly confident that the children are bouncing out of bed at ridiculous o’clock because the days are getting longer, but it’s still pretty tricky to tell by walking out of the front door. It is absolutely freezing for the time of year. As I type, I am cleverly avoiding proper work as a howling gale ushers one sideways downpour after another (sideways downpour is almost certainly an oxymoron, but you get the idea). And when the sun does come out, it’s none too clever in terms of temperature either, as those howling gales are obstinately appearing from the north where cold things happen.

This isn’t doing morale around here much good, but how is this inclement weather affecting the vines? It doesn’t appear to be wreaking too much havoc – if you were with us last time, you will be aware that we are usually frost free in spring time. We were starting to worry a little a couple of weeks ago, when it was just dry and cold, but a spot of moisture appears to have been just the stuff to get them headed in the right direction. And this year I have been using science to compare their progress with that of previous years.

If you have millions and millions of vines and live in an inferior wine producing region (um, let’s say, France), predicting your harvest date can be a huge help. There is a finite amount of labour available for picking grapes and being ahead of the game can allow you can sign them all up before the guy down the road. Who will probably have to go out and buy a machine to do the picking instead, which will bruise and/or smash smash his fruit to bits in the process. Using scientific or clipboard based methods of prediction can also help our cunning hyper vineyard owner to arrange his spraying schedule as the sweet spot for that happens at specific points in the vine’s development; as opposed to just sticking a load of chemical on every other Tuesday.

In my experience, sitting in front of a computer churning through historical weather data to work out what to do with your vines is all well and good, but it is a poor substitute for walking around and actually looking at them. Discussing your plan of action with the vines is optional, but is probably best done alone. So why the change of heart? Even though common sense and experience tells us that disasters don’t tend to happen at this end of the season, we were a little worried at their progress – mostly because we were stood looking at them wearing three layers in the middle of May.

We were able to allay these fears by looking at photographs that we have taken of the vines in previous years. There is a spot at the bottom of our far field that invariably has the most advanced and vigorous vines (at the bottom of a south facing slope with almost no wind). Going through the old photos, I noticed that we had been drawn as moths to flame to take pictures in pretty much the exact same spot at about this point in the growing season in each of the last six years. Comparing the time stamps on the photos, we can tell that the vines are still just a touch behind where they were last year (a cracker), but with some decent weather on the forecast, we can probably stop worrying.

Last time that we met, I promised to tell you all about the things that are out to get us at this time of year, given that the frost is good enough to leave us alone. Our springtime problems tend to be of the four legged variety.

When we first planted our vines, we followed good practice and invested in rabbit guards. These are essentially a corrugated piece of plastic that is rolled into a tube (by the manufacturer) and sits over the vine and it is held in place by a cane. When I say held in place, what I mean is blown off the cane at the slightest provocation from the merest breath of wind. When that happens, your precious new vines are at the mercy of the wicked and nefarious rabbits, who absolutely demolish every available green bit of vine. And anything else that you happen to have injudiciously attempted to grow in any part of the garden.

And we have a lot of rabbits. Long before we bought our bit of the old Huxbear estate, the chap who owned it sold off the piece of woodland adjacent to the field that we live in and separated the two parcels of land with a Devon bank. Devon banks are a sort of hedgerow that consist of a mound of soil and stones that is held together by the roots of the trees (usually blackthorn, hazel, ash etc.) that are planted in it. Devon banks also make really excellent habitats for rabbits.

After literally years of running up and down the rows collecting the windswept guards and replacing them, we discovered a method for keeping them attached just in time for us to take them all off again, as the vines were sufficiently mature enough to have growing parts that are out of reach of rabbits. In fact, since we removed the guards, the rabbits have been doing a pretty useful job of removing the shoots that we don’t want from the trunks of the established vines. We might never be able to grow carrots, but anything that saves me having to do that crippling job more than I absolutely have to is a huge win in my book.

Deer are another hysterical bio-weapon that is tossed at us by mother nature and are particularly adept at making at mess of things at this time of year. Deer, delicate flowers that they are, really only want to nick the vine’s young growing tips. When your growing tips are short in spring, they also contain the flowers that, all being well, will become your grapes at the end of the season.

After seeing the vines decapitated at the level of the top of the guards in year one – a new vineyard is the equivalent of a McDonald’s drive through for deer, except it’s actually food – we installed some electric fencing. And that was okay until the chap who bought the field next to our far one planted lots of trees in it and had somebody install 7 foot deer fencing right the way around, which helpfully pushed them all back into our field.

Immediately seizing on the nuclear option, I chatted to a string of, um, there isn’t really any way of spinning this, slightly weird chaps with lots of guns. We decided that sitting in a sort of tennis umpire’s chair for hours at the crack of dawn and becoming slightly weird (well, weirder) myself probably wasn’t the best use of my time, but thankfully one of them offered to do it for me in return for a half share in anything that he happened to shoot. I was prepared to offer him money, so this seemed like a particularly sweet deal the time.

He didn’t shoot anything, in spite of visiting on a number of occasions, and even claimed never to have seen a deer. As I was pretty much tripping over deer on a daily basis at the time, I had serious misgivings about his eyesight and the continued safety of the dog, and let’s be honest, myself, so invited him to leave and decided to invest in even more electric fencing.

You know what? I think that we have finally cracked it this year! By simply installing one row of stock proof fence, three electric fence wires and a row of barbed wire, I believe that we have finally convinced them to find another way across our hill. And the vines are safe. Except from thrips. Which I think have six legs. More on this next week too.

Growing Pains

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Hello again, long time no speak. Again. Your correspondent absolutely promises to attend to his blogging issues and update this more frequently from now on, sort of a new (growing) year’s resolution. By way of explanation, we have gone sort of bonkers over the last month and attempted to do everything that had been demanding our attention (and being summarily ignored) while we were winter pruning, all in one go. Rather than explain every scintillating moment in one whopping opus, it is my intention to do so weekly, so expect the next entry around the middle of June.

I have also been working on a new website – which is to say mostly shouting at my laptop – recently too which is consuming much of my desk time. Readers blessed with the gift of vision will have noticed that it hasn’t changed at all since we last met, which should give you some idea of my progress with this. But I do have a lot of incoherent stuff cluttering up the laptop even as we speak, so this might well change soon. I’ll keep you posted. Now, read on…

Once our intrepid vigneron’s pruning and associated operations (mostly celebrating not having to do pruning any more) are done, the absolute king of the new season’s jobs are ensuring that nothing is going to have the opportunity to eat or damage your precious new growth. This is a particularly important time of year as the shoots are delicate and the bud from which they are emerging contains the flowers that will eventually become grapes. And if the grapes go missing, our tame vigneron is obliged to spend all year growing the sickliest plant imaginable on an industrial scale without the prospect of a glass of wine at the end of it. And he would have to be a really committed masochist to want to do that*.

*We had a go at growing increasingly unwell vines with grapes that could easily have been used as artillery in 2012, it wasn’t at all gratifying.

The absolute bane of a vine grower’s life at this time of year is frost. This is because – as well as being generally awkward – vines have absolutely no coping mechanism for dealing with frost. This is either because they have evolved in the near east where frost is a bit thin on the ground or because they are vindictive. The textbooks lean towards the former, but I’m pretty sure that they have been sent to test us.

As an added bonus, the trigger for the vine to start growing is warm(ish) temperature. This means that any region where there is the slightest chance of frost in spring can be problematic because the vines will start growing earlier and earlier in the season (closer to winter) the further south that you plant them, moving them back into the period where frost can be a danger. For the most part, the areas that are most at risk from frost are those that are furthest from the sea, like Champagne, Burgundy and Surrey. Oh, and, er, alarmingly a vineyard 8 miles north of us, which fairly torpedoes my seaside-is-okay argument, but all bets tend to be off for pioneers reckless enough to plant vines this far north.

You might have noticed that the first two of the frosty examples that I have listed above contain some pretty rarefied grape growing areas, with equally rarefied owners. So how does the discerning oligarch go about protecting his priceless crop from the elements once he has escaped the long arm of Vladimir Putin? With some pretty wild and wonderful contraptions, most of which come with a suitably alarming price tag.

Assuming that you have chosen your location carefully – frost tends to settle in pockets or hollows in land and at the bottom of hillsides and is often driven off by the rising sun on south east facing slopes – the sky is essentially the limit. You can buy an enormous propane powered air heater to drag behind your tractor, diesel heaters to sit around the vines, millions of pots of paraffin to set fire to under the vines and I’ve even heard of people using helicopters to force the air around the vines to move and prevent frost settling.

I checked with our financial controller and brains of the operation early on and discovered that we have a helicopter sized hole in the budget at the moment, so we have previously employed frost busting methods that lean more towards the Heath Robinson end of the market.

After a couple of seasons of waking up with the weather station’s frost alarm at five (or earlier) for a walk around, clutching my petrol can and matches, ready to set fire to the enormous piles of wood that I had strategically placed around the vines, I discovered a couple of things. One was that our cut priced weather station is a liar of Walter Mitty proportions and the other being that our carefully selected site doesn’t appear to be prone to frost.

But it is prone to other things that want to do damage to our precious vines, and we shall be covering that in the next lecture, er, unmissable blog entry.