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.

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