Forecasting Harvest

I seem to recall promising that I’d provide you with a riveting update from the West Country this time last week. While I’m obviously very sorry indeed that I didn’t manage to provide one, when I have made my excuses I think that we will all be able to blame this on the Met Office and move on.

The weather in August was very strange indeed. I alluded to the fact that the temperatures were a little low for the time of year last time we met, not much changed until about the end of the month. This has some ramifications for the date of harvest, specifically that it moves backward a little. The problems are twofold: firstly, everything moves a bit slower when it is colder than it should be. This means that the vines aren’t knocking out sugar at the appropriate rate, which in turn means that the grapes are not where they should be in terms of sweetness. Secondly, the leaden skies aren’t exactly conducive to ripening the fruit, which opens up the fruity flavours, removes the astringency and improves the colour of the finished wine.

It’s just about possible to rectify the first problem in the winery. Winemakers in cool climates have a long and proud history of tossing sugar into grape juice in less good years. Straight after they have finished berating the chap who looks after the vineyard for not making the sun shine. Unfortunately, due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is managed, I’m obliged to wear both of these hats, so have yet to experience this ostensibly gratifying buck passing exercise. The attendant boost in alcohol is good for the label as the prevalence of people demanding wine that will make them fall over is still fairly common, even amongst the cognoscenti of the English wine trade, who should really know better after making the frankly, er, correct decision to drink English wine. Having said that, used judiciously, a little chaptalisation (and therefore extra alcohol) can help add body and mouth feel to wine.

The second problem is a different matter entirely. In the words of the man who taught me how to make wine: “You can’t change the flavour in here, that all happens out there [points at vineyard]”. And do you know what? It’s true. While we have been disabused of many of our higher minded ideals since setting up in the country (like, let’s go organic and let’s grow potatoes or something under the vines), one that has endured is the importance of checking not only the sugar content of the grapes, but the flavour when checking for ripeness. I’ve even met a chap once who is pretty decent at telling both using no more technology than the mouth attached to his head. And if you can get this right (while you are doubtless taking pot shots at the birds attempting to demolish your perfectly ripe crop), much of the battle is won.

Which leads nicely to another of our high minded ideas which was to steal, that is, emulate and improve the Italian method of allowing the harvested grapes to spend some time in the sun to ripen still further. Unfortunately this method is all well and good when the sun is cracking the flags in Italy in August, but it is less good when when they are being assaulted by the elements in a field in Devon in the second half of October. This method would also probably leave us penniless with a couple of obese children and a dog to chastise.

I nearly forgot, I was going to tell you why everything is all the fault of the Met Office. After excelling themselves at the start of the month by correctly predicting the frenzied attack of failing hurricane Bertha, the entire staff of the Met Office appear to have gone off on holiday and inflicted the good people of Spain with their dubious talents. And how do I know this? Because their forecasts have been nothing short of ridiculous for the last couple of weeks, far, far below their usual awful standard.

It has not only been cool and overcast throughout August, it has also been quite humid, and that means that there has been a much higher disease risk from mildew, and that means that we have to get on the front foot and spray that mildew to death with a variety of fungicides. This is completely impossible in the rain, so one wouldn’t want to start spraying when the forecast is for rain as the rain would wash off all the spray that you have so diligently applied to the poor benighted vines. Guess what has been unerringly happening when the weather forecast has been for rain? A whole day of unbroken sunshine that is utterly perfect for spraying in. The smart ones among you will have already worked out what happened when they predicted – and continued to predict all day in spite of all evidence to the contrary and being based just ten miles from this very vineyard – a whole day of unbroken sunshine. That’s right, rain so heavy one can barely stand up in it. Unfortunately my cricket team no longer plays a Met Office XI, so extracting a measure of revenge with a cricket ball isn’t really an option any more.

No matter, we are now just about up to date, a hurricane is apparently abusing someone else and taking the appalling weather with it, and we are building up to a spot of leaf stripping next week. And we’ll tell you all about that, and our normal person’s, leak free running water system next week. Unless that hurricane turns around and clobbers us, but that’s not in the forecast, so this probably won’t happen.

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