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.

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