The Iceman Cometh…

After being bundled onto a plane last week and taken far enough away from the vines to prevent me sneaking back and doing a bit of work when Lucy wasn’t watching, it was my intention to write about the onset of spring and pre-bottling operations in the winery. The weather has put paid to these plans as there is currently an elephant in the room, and that elephant is made out of ice.

Now that I think about it, an elephant made out of ice probably isn’t terribly threatening – but forgive the metaphor – frost at this time of year is absolutely no laughing matter. After a mild and dry winter, the rains arrived in March and turned everything into a bit of a boggy mess. Rain isn’t the ideal start to the season, but it does have the happy knack of keeping the frost off and the mercury on the happy side of zero. Enter April. The rain dries up, the fields – in a matter of days – turn into their usual rock hard summer state, the sun comes out and it is warm. Really warm. On cue, vineyard owners dust off the garden furniture and the gin and spend a few evenings soaking up the sun and toasting an excellent start to the season, while comparing the Spanish weather unfavourably with the weather in Devon.

It was during one of these self indulgent moments that your correspondent smugly checked his phone to see just how many more days of perfect springtime weather were in the forecast when he noticed something very dicey indeed at the end of the forecast period: an overnight temperature of one degree. And if ten years of relying on the weather forecast for working out when to spray the vines (rain is excellent at washing off what you have just sprayed on) and not get caught out without suitable wet weather attire has taught us anything, it is that weather forecasters make orange American politicians look like paragons of honesty, this forecast could mean five degrees or minus ten!

If you are reading this, you are probably well aware that growing vines don’t like frost, even a bit. For the uninitiated, when frost comes into contact with the green parts of the vine, it kills them leaving a wintry looking twig. If this happens at all, it usually happens at the start of the growing season between April and mid-May. The vine is ultimately able to recover from its brush with winter by sending out an additional shoot, but that shoot is a) late and b) has fewer flowers on it than the previous one. Which in turn means that there will be fewer grapes and that those grapes will have less time to ripen at the end of the season; vine growers are therefore keen to prevent frost at all costs.

Back when we first planted, we were aware that frost had historically caused problems for vine growers in the UK (and pretty much everywhere else to be honest), so were keen to have at least a couple of tools at hand to fight against our frozen foe. In traditional wine making regions, these methods include:

  • windmills to move the cold air around (a bit like a wind turbine that you put electricity into, as opposed to the other way around).

  • spraying water onto the vines with an irrigation system, which sounds counter intuitive, but apparently the act of the water freezing generates heat, which keeps the pertinent parts warm.

  • driving around in a tractor attached to a huge gas powered electric heater, which probably requires no explanation.

  • lighting hundreds of gel candles under the vines, ditto.

  • spraying a latex solution onto the shoots to give them a protective coating.

  • flying a helicopter over the vines to force the frost causing cold air to dissipate.

All of these methods – particularly the helicopter – seemed very exciting indeed, but at the time we had budget for precisely none of them. Necessity being the mother of invention, we went out and begged, borrowed or stole a collection of fire wood and old wooden pallets and built fires in strategic places around the vines, kept a close eye on the weather forecast and set a frost alarm on our cut priced, off the shelf weather station.

I think that the frost alarm went off once on our first frost busting year (which I think was year 3, for anybody taking notes) when the temperature dropped to 1oC. Torch in hand, I ran out into the fields at 5AM with a lighter in hand and discovered… no frost. And no amount of pacing around the fields until the sun came up would make any appear, so, relieved I went back to bed to ponder how exactly I was expecting to set fire to an actual piece of wood with a disposable cigarette lighter.

Since then we have had years when April and May had constant leaden skies and warm evenings, blue skies and even warmer evenings with Baltic breezes ushering in frost from the north and causing utter carnage in Burgundy and Champagne, and yet there has still been nary a shrivelled up shoot to agonise over. I have checked, and I can’t find a single active volcano or sneaky helicopter floating over the land, so I am pretty much at a loss as to why we have been getting away with it.

Which brings us to this week. As we got closer and closer to the forecasted cold, the wind switched around from a very agreeable southerly breeze to a filthy north easterly one. There were two nights on the spin that looked problematic, which, apart from making sure that the poor chaps rushing out to light candles or climb into their tractors get absolutely no sleep, doubles the chances of the cold weather causing damage.

After the first night (Tuesday/Wednesday), the butcher’s bill across this country and much of Eastern France and Switzerland was fairly heart breaking, social media feeds filled up with awful pictures of dead shoots and frigid vineyards. I did eventually find a handful of vines that had been clobbered, but we appear to have escaped from the ravages of this week pretty much in tact. If you see a vineyard owner any time in the not too distant future, be nice to them, and be absolutely sure to talk about something other than the weather.

Captain Scott Slips Into Something More Comfortable

Pruning, or rather finishing pruning, is always a bit of an event here because it means that the growing season is upon us. Perhaps more importantly, it also means that we can look out of window at the huge piles of prunings and the (mostly, at the time of writing) tied down vines and think “Thank God that’s done for another year”, while drinking something agreeable in the garden as we take full advantage of the improving weather.

Now, it’s not that winter pruning is a particularly arduous task in microcosm, in fact, it’s quite agreeable to assault the first vine with a pair of razor sharp snips and see a tangled mess of twigs turn into something a lot more coherent, ready for the following year. Nor is it a particularly miserable task during the first week, or even month, of snipping, but it really starts to beat one’s will to live into submission in the second and third months. By happy coincidence, those second and third months of pruning generally fall in January and February*, so our conscientious vigneron generally finds himself looking like a poor man’s Captain Scott, wearing most of the clothes that he owns, hacking away at unruly vines on the windward side of the Christmas break.

*I have made several impassioned pleas to the vines to grow in the winter and stop in the summer so that I might prune them wearing a pair of shorts to no avail. Although this arguably says more about my mental state at the time than the obstinacy of my leafy chums.

It has been brought to my attention that there are literally hundreds of well trained seasonal workers from Eastern Europe – who I imagine have exceedingly thick blood and laugh in the face of the puny Devonian winter – that could end this wintry toil at the drop of a hat. I’m guessing that the people who suggest doing so are the sort of wimpy part timers (read: normal people) who could easily employ someone and not spend all day looking over their shoulder telling them that they are doing it all wrong before taking over and doing it themselves. So this obstinate vineyard owner shall probably therefore be spending his winters stood in a field talking to a dog until carefully reintroduced into polite company.

I digress, the purpose of winter pruning is to get the vines into a state that will allow them grow in an orderly manner the following year. Vines are natives of the Near East and have evolved to utterly swamp entire trees, using them as a support and ultimately, murdering them with shade – we have seen some in the their natural habitat and they can become absolutely huge. This accounts for the need to assault them with secateurs every winter – as they would very quickly take over* – to keep them sufficiently tidy to allow the victim of your assault to grow from a waist height fruiting wire, up the trellising through the growing season.

*You would be surprised how quickly this can happen. We have visited a couple of vineyards that have been left unattended for a season or two and have been astonished at the resultant unnavigable tangled mess.

As an added bonus, your orderly rows of vines spend all day in the breeze and sun (subject to availability). Keeping the vines dry is important, as fungal diseases thrive in damp conditions in northerly – and presumably very southerly – vineyards throughout the growing season. The wind and sun help to do this. An ordered vineyard is also easy to spray with fungicides, which helps us to help nature destroy a pair of mildews in particular, which can have a nasty habit of spoiling your year. As well as keeping the accursed disease at bay, showing the grapes a bit of sunshine also helps to get them as ripe as possible. Interestingly, the opposite is true for shaded grapes: when the Portuguese branch of the winemaking fraternity decided to make a fresh and zingy white wine, they deliberately left the grapes in the shade to prevent them cooking in the sun. The English vigneron’s mind boggles…

And what of all that twiggy detritus? Well, the first and most obvious thing is that there is a lot of it, literally tons of it. Prunings are a bit of a double edged sword and their optimum final destination has therefore been the subject of much debate. On one hand, one of the aforementioned mildews from the growing season spends the winter living in the vine’s wood, so you would want to get rid of it immediately and burn it to death. On the other hand, that wood is full of lovely organic matter, which is good for the soil, so you would want to smash it into atoms in the vineyard and allow it to compost in situ.

And the best bit is that every other person that you talk to has a different point of view on the matter, and sometimes you don’t even have to talk to the people to get advice. We spent February in Burgundy one year and I was reading a textbook on the subject, the textbook said “Never throw your prunings away”. The very next day, we were clambering around a (pretty prestigious) vineyard and noticed this amazing smell wafting down the valley. In Burgundy, they disagree so strongly with the textbook that they have these sort of massive rolling log burner things that they drag around the vines, throwing the prunings in as they go.

Until now, we have been following the path of most resistance and have been removing the prunings from the vineyard and burning them in a very, very large pile (we don’t have a massive log burner thing) at the end of the winter to ensure that the wood doesn’t pass any disease from one year to the next. Since we planted and, er, now, we have been to see lots of different vineyards, vines in people’s gardens and have been asked for advice on “Vines” in people’s gardens that I am pretty sure weren’t actually vines, it has become apparent that if we don’t give our own vines some form of mildew from the twigs, someone with a sickly rogue vine will help us do it, as there is usually a bit of something kicking around in most places where vines grow in the UK. Powdery mildew spontaneously arrived in year one from nowhere – so we have decided to leave the prunings where they are and chop them to bits with a mower.

Which is to say that is what we will be doing next year when we have replaced our swirly swirly mower, which chops up the prunings not all and sort of spreads them out over a wide area, turning them into surprisingly effective trip wires, with a flail mower. Which is as medieval as it sounds and is certain to show those prunings who is boss.