18 Months of Winter

At this point in our journey from spring 2017 to now, I was intending to recap what happened last winter. I would probably have discussed the three months of winter pruning and given the reasons why we do it and have explained how we do it. I would probably have also explained the other bits and pieces of work that are required around here to get everything ship shape for the start of the growing season. Unfortunately, every time that I think about winter 2017/2018, I have to go and have a nice sit down in a darkened room.

Suffice to say that a sustained period of really old testament rainfall fairly early on put paid to my ambitions of taking our new (to us) 4×4 with me winter pruning to act as a sort of mobile shelter/cafeteria, when it started travelling in a direction roughly perpendicular to the one in which I was intending as I drove across the fields. When it finally started looking like it might dry up a bit, we had a couple of very entertaining snow storms in March that cut us off entirely from civilisation and put paid to our ambitions of not having our new 4×4 parked in a bank half way up the lane to our house.

Joking aside, this atypical – certainly in these parts – period of cold weather at the start of the year changed the mood among vineyard owners substantially when compared with 2017. Old hands here will remember that vines start growing when the weather gets warmer and that they don’t care what time of year it is. More sensible types of plant will begin growing when there is a specific period of daylight, but vines will power along in the middle of February, just as long as the temperature tells them to. Conversely, if the climate elects to dump a foot of snow on them in the middle of March, it acts as really compelling evidence to a vine that it is still the middle of winter, compelling them to batten down the hatches and hang on a bit before they start growing.

This is in stark contrast to 2017, when a fairly insubstantial winter – it barely froze at all – followed by a period of warmer weather encouraged the vines into action really early. This invariably leaves the winery owning vine grower in two minds. It will either mean that the vines will power on through the growing season, the grapes will ripen tremendously and create some absolutely superb wine. Or it will mean that the over-enthusiastic shoots will be frozen to death, there will be little or no grapes and the vintage therefore won’t happen at all. The latter happened to most people in 2017 (and to some people in 2016 too), so most people appear to have been very happy indeed to have had a spot of snow in return for non frozen vines.

It occurs to me that I’m stuffing quite a few words into the mouths of our peers. It’s undoubtedly the case that people were celebrating a proper end to the winter, which helped to mitigate the potential of frost damage to the vines as stated; it is very difficult to prevent frost damage if nature intends to assert itself, and horribly expensive to attempt to remedy. I’m arguably in a minority of one person who actually thinks that an early start to the growing season has anything more than a tiny effect on the quality of the grapes at the end of the season. It probably has rather more to do with me digging around for positives for what could turn into an appalling disaster. In reality, what tends to happen is that the vine knocks out the shoots at the end of March, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the shoots grow to about two inches long, and then they do precisely nothing for about a month as they play chicken with the frost.

Back to this year and, at the end of what seemed like a good 18 months of winter, the sun came out, the mercury started rising dramatically, and, miraculously, the shoots all emerged at about the same time for what might actually have been the first time ever.

When we sort of stumble into spring, with the usual false starts of one stunning day, followed by three days of freezing rain, the shoots come out here, there and everywhere*. This can cause a bit trouble when picking a harvest date as flowering will happen in roughly the same order as the shoots came out, and the grapes will also ripen in roughly that order too, so you have a field full of grapes that are ripe, with some that aren’t quite there. It takes a surprisingly large amount of finesse to get a field full of grapes with the average level of ripeness that you want. Or a picking team that is willing to do everything twice without performing some sort of appalling mutiny. Loyal as our pickers are, I shan’t be testing my luck.

*For the record, if it’s cold and sunny, the Chardonnay in our prime location (South East facing, about 20 degrees) go first, if it’s damp and warm, the Siegerrebe (which is a parked in a less salubrious location) go first.

I am told that the poster child for this uniform vine growth is Hungary. Your correspondent travelled there one year in February and was greeted by utterly bone chilling -20C weather on arrival to an utterly enchanting Budapest, replete with whopping great chunks of ice floating down the Danube. The weather was to some extent mitigated by the fact that there was an incredibly well stocked wine bar not five steps from the hotel door. Upon opening the curtains of the hotel room as we were preparing to leave, we were astonished to see that the previous night’s monochrome city had disappeared and been replaced with one running the full colour gamut.

It was incredible. The previous day’s foot thick snow had disappeared and was running in torrents down the streets and there were only medium sized ice bergs in the river. As we climbed aboard the aircraft, it was nearing shirt sleeves weather. Now, I’m not saying that Devon was exactly like that before or after, but it was a bit like that, which in turn promises to make picking that fiddly harvest date a little easier this year.