Long Overdue Harvest Report

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One hundred years ago when I last updated this blog, things were going pretty well. Suspiciously well. We would have liked a bit more heat, but the sun was shining as much as it ever does and everything was looking set for a smooth transition into the harvest season, interspersed with the occasional foray into the vineyards in the venerable tractor to murder the sneaky and underhanded mildew. Confidently predicting some lazy summer afternoons with a respectable gin and tonic count, I marched out into the fields armed with a pair of secateurs with canopy management aforethought.

Half an hour later, I was sat quietly in a darkened room. We have had disasters before – I suspect more than our fair share, but concede that lots of people probably share this notion – and have immediately rolled up our collective sleeve and assaulted adversity; but on this occasion, I didn’t even know where to start.

I’ll get to the point. Lucy called me on my way over to the far field to tell me that there had been a couple of the trellis end posts that had fallen over in the wind the previous night, taking the first few posts in the row with them. This is nothing new as we have had this problem in gales before – there are a litany of complaints about modern pressure treated timber on this very forum (it snaps at the slightest provocation, i.e. some wind and some rain). What was unusual was that the contents of the garden (garden furniture and a menagerie of plastic animals that have been carefully stored in the rain by the children for safe keeping) hadn’t been reorganised and distributed around the valley overnight.

The couple of demolished end posts in the near field was the tip of the iceberg. Something, and now I don’t want to be too hyperbolic here, let’s call it a tornado, had whipped through the middle of Chardonnay and knocked about a dozen complete rows flat. I had just about enough time to hurl some invective at it before running away to have a nice think about what on earth we were going to do in my darkened room. For the record, if a untimely tornado comes and demolishes your vineyard, the appropriate course of action is not to abuse it or ignore it. You must ask your wife to borrow a van and fill it with posts, and then spend a couple of weeks banging those posts into the rock hard summer soil while attempting to retain the will to live.

On the literal and metaphorical leeward side of that accursed day, things are starting to calm down a little. Well, other than one of the cars starting to belch black smoke. And the little generator blowing up. And the pick-up resisting all attempts at resuscitation. But since tornado season appears to have disappeared for the moment, we have been able to mostly repair the trellising, and the engine problems; by cleverly interpreting that peculiar Englishese* that is written all over the instruction manuals of Chinese spare parts and picking the brains of our more technically minded friends. Obviously the pick-up isn’t working so we can use it to transport the grapes to the winery for harvest yet, but I feel sure that something wonderful will happen presently, I’m just not yet entirely sure what. But it will probably involve the tractor and a tow rope.

*In fairness to our Oriental chums and their eccentric translators, the knob that I wasn’t twiddling, but should have been, was clearly marked in plain English in capital letters. Once I did identify it, I proceeded to twiddle it the wrong way. Arguably, I should seek help for my pathological inability to consult qualified people to repair our broken things.

When not elbow deep in engine oil and whining incessantly, we have been quite busy. The growing season finished off fairly nicely – regular wall to wall blue skies have been the order of the play, at the cost of the colder air from the northerly wind that has been ushering them in. Predictably, this has caused a certain amount of logistical havoc for harvesting. I have never seen it in a text book – I do read them, promise – but in my experience, colder and sunnier weather generally causes the red/black grapes to ripen more quickly (presumably as they absorb more of the sunlight), whereas warmer and cloudier weather appears to favour the whites. Or maybe everything ripens at the same rate when it’s cloudy, whatever the case, the acidity is low and the sugars high in the red berries and the opposite is true for the whites – although they are finally starting to turn the corner after some fairly aggressive leaf stripping*. Which should make the logistics of harvest interesting to say the least.

*Leaf stripping is probably less exciting than it sounds. The diligent vigneron marches up and down the rows, removing the leaves from around the bunches of grapes to allow the sunlight in, expediting the ripening process.

At the time of writing, we have harvested all of the German varieties and have made varietal wines from the Bacchus and Siegerrebe that are already clear and pretty well ready to go – we have been performing a certain amount of wine tank harvesting (that’d be tasting them) in any event and are pleased with the results. I manfully picked the Schönburger on my own yesterday after discovering that a pheasant had a taken a liking to it, and we were understandably keen to prevent any of his mates coming over and finishing them off.

In typical 2015 fashion, the ripeness of the Schönburger was all over the place. Some of it was very ripe indeed (hence the attention of the pheasant) and some of it wasn’t terribly ripe at all. As it wasn’t practical to pick on multiple occasions, we are going to experiment with grape drying this year.

You might have heard of grape drying before if you are a fan of wines from Valpolicella (especially Amarone) where they leave their grapes out in the sun to dry. This almost certainly happens under gin clear skies in tropical heat in the middle of August, as the weather is almost exactly the same here at the moment (actual frost on the ground the other morning), you will imagine what has given me the idea. The reason why our Latin colleagues do this is to concentrate the juice that comes out of the grapes – as the drying removes some of the water, but none the flavour or sugar.

We have been meaning to have a bash at this for a couple of years. In my brain this was going to happen with several tonnes of perfectly ripe Pinot Noir as opposed to the bit of indifferently ripe Schönburger that is currently cowering from the cold on a pallet under a polythene sheet, but one does what one can. I will also be interested to see if it turns into on big hornet’s nest or if I find a recalcitrant dog buried waist deep in it before we entrust the mother load to the spasmodic Devonian sunshine.

Speaking of mother loads, we are picking the big field next week; wish us luck!

Highway to Hell

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Finishing the tucking in in the far field should have been cause for celebration. As I climbed through the electric fence, having passed row upon row of tidy (okay, let’s not get carried away, I mean not entirely junglified) vines on my way home, I couldn’t help feeling a wary nibble of uncertainty chipping away at my good mood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In their natural habitat, vines have evolved to have their fruit eaten from the vine by the top end of birds and the seeds deposited elsewhere from the bottom end, preferably somewhere near a tree. In turn, that seed grows into a vine. Presuming that the poor thing doesn’t fall victim to the accursed rabbits and deer, the vine will thrive, go in search of lots of the sunshine – climbing up the tree in the process – until it eventually swamps the poor old tree, and wipes the pair of them out in the process. We saw some Vitis Vinifera (wine species) vines doing this to some huge Eucalyptus trees in Turkey once, it’s remarkable how big regular vines can get.

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that the trellising at Chateau Huxbear is rather smaller than enormous Eucalyptus trees, so how does that work? Well, the wine cognoscenti would have you believe that people all over Europe spent generation after generation looking for the most utterly wonderful piece of land on which to plant vines, tasting the wines at each potential site until alighting on the perfect spot. I suspect that they spent as long looking for stony land that was rough enough so that they didn’t have to spend all of their time hacking away at a field full of triffids. In fairness the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the best land for vines is rarely of much use as anything else.

After a winter’s work hacking away at the previous year’s growth and having planted the vines in a carefully selected site*, the vines still need some attention throughout the growing season. Tucking in comes from when the discerning vigneron would wander around the vines tucking the extraneous shoots into the wires of the trellising. Tucking in now usually involves moving a wire that lives beneath the growing part of the vine in the winter up the post to a hook above where the shoots are growing, lifting all of them into place in one go. It is hard to overstate quite how satisfying watching a tangled mess of shoots turn into gorgeous row of vines is. I’d recommend turning up at your local vineyard and having a go, but you have to have spent three years having a bash at doing it the old fashioned way and failing miserably to enjoy the full effect.

*Don’t let your correspondent’s levity fool you entirely, he spent literally hours going cross eyed in front of Ordnance Survey, geological and soilscape maps before pulling the trigger on the purchase of this particular bit of land. Honest.

“So why all the confusion, it sounds like you should be absolutely punishing a gin and tonic in celebration” I hear you cry. Well, for starters, the weather is still sub-tropical and probably better suited to ale, and secondly, when I arrived home and checked our progress with last season’s dates, we are miles ahead of where we were this time last year. I smell a rat, because this never happens. It was while I was looking for that rat that I stumbled over the new – well, new to us – sprayer that had tiptoed its way past militant French people at Calais all the way to our vineyard! Glory be! In fairness, the sprayer probably accounts for a good bit of our additional progress this year, and it actually had a dead rabbit under it until the dog found it yesterday, which probably accounts for the eau de rat.

Given the shenanigans of the ferry workers, the delivery of the sprayer was fairly uneventful until it reached Devon. We had it delivered to our ever patient and willing farming friend who is fortunate enough to own land on a road that is worthy of the name and I arrived in time to see him carefully extracting it from the delivery wagon with his enormous tractor. Once the delivery documents were signed and I had stopped weeping at the thought of tossing my backpack sprayer in the bin, I was instructed to go away and return with my rather smaller vineyard tractor so the sprayer might be attached to it in preparation for action.

Logistically this is probably more of a problem that it might first appear. While the tractor itself moves around freely enough, it was manufactured when I was two, has a top speed of under twenty miles an hour and I was about to take it out on the sort of road that is frequented by young chaps who will invariably enviably plant their massively exhausted motorised discotheque into at least one of the fields. But then again, it is holiday season, and who can say that they have had the full Devonian experience without having a near death experience with a tractor?

I enjoyed myself enormously on the road, it made a fascinating change from driving around in a field. I was actually feeling quite disappointed when I turned back onto our lane and bid farewell to my new friends in the line of traffic that had formed behind me; who were doubtless as amused as I was that right hand indicator appeared to have stopped working causing me to apparently stop in the middle of the road for no discernible reason. Fine times! I could even see them all earnestly ordering two bottles of wine each with their hands on my way back up our lane.

On its first outing it became apparent that the sprayer was worth the harrowing journey, making mincemeat of the big field in about three hours – a job that is pretty much a couple of days work this time of year when one has factored in the associated procrastination. I whizzed around the smaller field in the afternoon and even managed to fit a spot of grass cutting in before clocking off and was feeling so self satisfied and smug by the end of the day that I assumed that I’d turned into Piers Morgan or something. I can now only imagine how awesome it is to have one of those tractors that cut the grass and spray the vines at the same time; that’d leave me loads of time to repair all the things that I’d smashed into while attempting to do two things at once.

Ooh, before I sign off, I’d like to thank you for keeping your fingers crossed. Although the weather has been less than stellar over the period of flowering – it has been threatening to rain pretty much throughout – it never actually got around to actually raining and the vines are now through flowering and out of the season ending danger zone. Which is as well, because at the time of writing, it’s absolutely lashing down.

The Exploding Rabbit

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I’m currently hiding in the kitchen scowling at some decidedly inclement weather on the other side of the window. The dangerous side of the window.

I’m sitting here primarily because I was losing the will to live in my boil-in-the-bag all weather gear. I appreciate that the upmarket stuff that I was wearing is supposed to breathe, but the breathing mechanism seems to sort of break down a bit when one is covered from head to toe in atomised weeds, grass and rabbit*. As if further justification for my wanton procrastination were required, the weather arrived in grand style in the form of a whopping great lightning storm. And Thor saw fit to lob his sizzling javelins as your correspondent was stood at the top of a hill, soaking wet, clutching a metal strimmer; which is perhaps a less obvious lightning conductor than a golf club, but was still likely to get the job done.

*I saw first hand why I am stalked by a collection of buzzards every time that I take the tractor out this morning. I was innocently tidying up the bits of grass that the mower can’t cut and blew up the carcass of a rabbit that had previously been clobbered by the mower.

The downturn in the weather is particularly galling as, if all – and I mean all – forms of media are to be believed, the weather is utterly wonderful everywhere else (except the bit of France where all the rain is coming from, I don’t why that makes it it worse, it just does). When one adds the fact that the vines are very nearly about to flower to the mix, the news stories about trains and roller coasters being cancelled because the people who operate them have forgotten what happens in summer are completely intolerable.

If you have been with us for a while or just know how the flowers work on vines, you will be aware that rainfall at this time of year is not our friend. In the first half of July (in Chudleigh at least), the inner workings of the flower that have been encased in fused petals (which look at little like tiny grapes) emerge when those petals fall off. The interesting parts of the flower are covered in pollen, which is blown around the vineyard during the flowering process, lands on another flower and makes little grape babies. In turn, we smash those babies to pieces and make wine from their blood (I accept that I may have taken that analogy a little far, I blame this morning’s horror show with the strimmer).

Vine flowers rely on the wind as opposed to insects** to facilitate the movement of their pollen from one flower to another. Grass is pollinated in the same way which explains the rather uninspiring flowers that have evolved on both. As any hay fever sufferer will know, all that wonderful/miserable pollen is mysteriously absent when it is raining. This is because it has been washed onto the floor, as opposed to being in the air, looking for flowers to make delicious grape babies with.

**There is a limited amount of pollination carried out by pollen and solider beetles, or the very occasional bee, but this is more of a happy coincidence sort of a deal. Vines don’t advertise.

At the time of writing, only the very earliest of flowers have emerged – I’m not about to start counting, but I’d guess that 1% or so wouldn’t be far off the mark – so all is not yet lost. The forecast over the next few days shows an improving picture, so logically there should be wall to wall sunshine and nary a drop of rain until the end of October. Cross your fingers please.

Something awful happened the other week that was as surprising as it was disappointing. Our previously invincible Hilux pickup sort of ground to a halt and refused to start again. In truth, I blame myself for this mishap. After six years of faultless service – other than bits falling off it on account of all the rust – I committed the cardinal sin of treating it to a new starter motor, an oil change and even a tyre that was full of air, as opposed to that aerosol stuff that cheapskates (that’d be me then) fix punctures with. After all that pampering, it was an absolute nailed on certainty that it was going to keel over and die at the first available opportunity.

This posed a bit of a problem. At any other time of year this would mean a bit more fetching and carrying on foot, but the pick up is also my portable water supply (in a tank on the back) for spraying during the growing season. As I have successfully deluded myself that using a person mounted sprayer as opposed to a tractor mounted sprayer was a better bet for murdering the mildew every couple of weeks, this promised to become a major problem rather quickly.

Once I had wiped the tears from my eyes, shouted a bit, poked it with a screwdriver and scratched my head for a moment, I had a solution and rushed out to the shop for farmers down the road. And in absolutely no time I was sat in the tractor, looking at a pick up cab full of wife and children that was tethered to the front of the tractor with a tow rope. It was attached to the front of the tractor as I couldn’t find a handy place to hook it onto the back, so we looked very ridiculous. Which was excellent preparation for the return journey, when we were both going backwards.

By the time that we next meet, it is very likely that our new tractor mounted sprayer – one can only take ones delusions so far – will have arrived from France. Unless there is a strike at the ferry terminal or something, which seems unlikely…

Dressed for Summer

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Summer! Well, sort of. The wind continues to arrive obstinately from the north, and having helpfully dumped all of the rain on the people that live there, we are enjoying millions of hours of sunshine and surprisingly frigid temperatures. As I mentioned the last time that we met, we have determined that the vines are starting to get used to the idea of drinking in the sunshine and shrugging off the cold and they are continuing to motor their way through the early part of the growing season. I am having a little more difficulty with the idea and have spent much of the spring performing a variety of costume changes after rashly rushing out of the house dressed for summer.

However bonkers the weather has been for the last few weeks, if the endless conga line of caravans heading southwards on the M5 tells us anything, it is that normal service will be resumed presently. And lo, as this electronic missive is dispatched into the ether, an extreme weather warning is issued for “Isolated extreme thunder storms bringing the risk of torrential downpours” by the Met Office. Quelle surprise!

Other than being able to pretend that I am appearing on Broadway, the absolute best thing about all of this sunshine is that it is providing us with lots of lovely free electricity. Long suffering readers will be aware that we make all of our own electricity on account of cleverly building our house in the middle of field that is in turn pretty well in the middle of nowhere. We aren’t exactly that remote – a determined boozer might walk to a pub in around half an hour or so – but sufficiently remote to make the procurement of a connection to the National Grid* ruinously expensive.

*Eagle eyed readers will have spotted that the National Grid runs through our field. Apparently tossing an extension cable onto one of the pylon’s wires is not a realistic prospect for obtaining domestic power. Or remaining alive for very long.

When we moved to the land, I was able to convince Lucy to move into a towing caravan. We started out with one of those dinky little batteries that live in a flap on the side of the caravan and one of those Chinese generators that live for the warranty period and then immediately fall to pieces. Over time the accommodation and batteries increased to their current state where we live in what might reasonably be described as a house that is powered by the sort of batteries that usually live in the back of a forklift truck.

At about the same time as we bought the Chinese generator, we bought a Chinese wind turbine to charge the batteries. That performed beautifully once we had taught ourselves basic electronics and replaced most of the junk components that lived inside it. But the absolute prince of renewable power was the solar panels, sat motionless, unlikely to fall over and murder man or beast, they have silently produced lots of lovely electricity for us all over the place.

They run the electric fences, top up the generator and tractor starter batteries, the house batteries and we even have one stuck to the bonnet of the pick up. If you take anything away from reading this, it should be to attach a solar panel to anything to that your wife will let you attach it to to prevent the indignity of flat batteries (no luck with the road going cars yet, but it will logically only be a matter of time). Such was our, that is, my, addiction to buying them that when I discovered a magical place that sells enormous second hand examples from solar farms at keen prices, I could neither retain my excitement, nor resist reaching for my wallet.

Guess what? In the two months or so that we have had the new panels (and the clever box of tricks that makes them work harder), we have used precisely one half litre of fuel to run the house. If you look carefully, you can see the ice sheets reforming on Google Earth. Hang on, maybe I’m to blame for all this cold weather. Perhaps I haven’t thought this through properly…

Right ho, back to the vines. Last time I alluded to the six legged swine that have been assaulting the tender tips of our young shoots. Since then, we have met an Entomologist (nope, I didn’t know either, but the internet is telling me that they do insects) to discuss the problem. Said Entomologist was put onto us by our chemical supplier as I had asked for a non-chemical related solution to our insect troubles*. This was because we had built up a nice collection of beneficial insects around the place – soldier beetles and ladybirds that you can see, and I have since discovered predator mites that you can’t – and we were keen not to knock them over at the same time.

*We had suspected that our problems with the thrips (just about visible) and mites (not at all visible), were a problem of our own making after using insecticides once on the wretched wasps which had likely knocked everything out of balance. You will doubtless to be shocked to hear that wasps absolutely refuse to be clobbered by anything other than the sort of chemical that takes out everything else.

The Entomologist suggested a jaw-droppingly brilliant way of taking out the bad guys and bolstering the goodies in one fell swoop. What you do is buy lots of these sort of waterproof tea bag things that you hang over your trellis wires. Inside the tea bag is bran and two types of mite. One of the mites lives on the bran and the other lives on the mites that live on the bran. When the bran loving mites are all eaten, the intrepid carnivores exit through a strategically placed hole in the tea bag (in retrospect, they aren’t anything like tea bags, this is an appalling analogy, but stick with it) and get stuck into the baby thrips and mites.

Isn’t that just about the cleverest thing that you have ever heard? I certainly think so, so we bought lots and scattered them all over the place. Now I just need to find some sort of bird in a bag option that will eat wasps but not grapes; answers on a postcard please…

English Wine What?

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I am going to start by giving you fair warning. Other than being about an English vineyard, this entry has nothing to do with English Wine Week*. See all other media outlets for information about English wine week. And take advantage of the wide availability of English wine this week. Buy lots. Mostly because it’s awesome, but also because I have this feeling that it’s going to get a lot more expensive when we vote ourselves out of Europe and our French cousins petulantly stop selling us theirs.

*This is because I wrote this last week but was then distracted by our swish new solar panels and stood gormlessly gazing at them and smugly plugging things in for literally hours. More on this next week. Well, I say next week, but I’m attending to the wind turbine presently and might even get it working, if that happens, all bets are off.

We have now had a couple of goes at spraying and I’m fairly confident that the children are bouncing out of bed at ridiculous o’clock because the days are getting longer, but it’s still pretty tricky to tell by walking out of the front door. It is absolutely freezing for the time of year. As I type, I am cleverly avoiding proper work as a howling gale ushers one sideways downpour after another (sideways downpour is almost certainly an oxymoron, but you get the idea). And when the sun does come out, it’s none too clever in terms of temperature either, as those howling gales are obstinately appearing from the north where cold things happen.

This isn’t doing morale around here much good, but how is this inclement weather affecting the vines? It doesn’t appear to be wreaking too much havoc – if you were with us last time, you will be aware that we are usually frost free in spring time. We were starting to worry a little a couple of weeks ago, when it was just dry and cold, but a spot of moisture appears to have been just the stuff to get them headed in the right direction. And this year I have been using science to compare their progress with that of previous years.

If you have millions and millions of vines and live in an inferior wine producing region (um, let’s say, France), predicting your harvest date can be a huge help. There is a finite amount of labour available for picking grapes and being ahead of the game can allow you can sign them all up before the guy down the road. Who will probably have to go out and buy a machine to do the picking instead, which will bruise and/or smash smash his fruit to bits in the process. Using scientific or clipboard based methods of prediction can also help our cunning hyper vineyard owner to arrange his spraying schedule as the sweet spot for that happens at specific points in the vine’s development; as opposed to just sticking a load of chemical on every other Tuesday.

In my experience, sitting in front of a computer churning through historical weather data to work out what to do with your vines is all well and good, but it is a poor substitute for walking around and actually looking at them. Discussing your plan of action with the vines is optional, but is probably best done alone. So why the change of heart? Even though common sense and experience tells us that disasters don’t tend to happen at this end of the season, we were a little worried at their progress – mostly because we were stood looking at them wearing three layers in the middle of May.

We were able to allay these fears by looking at photographs that we have taken of the vines in previous years. There is a spot at the bottom of our far field that invariably has the most advanced and vigorous vines (at the bottom of a south facing slope with almost no wind). Going through the old photos, I noticed that we had been drawn as moths to flame to take pictures in pretty much the exact same spot at about this point in the growing season in each of the last six years. Comparing the time stamps on the photos, we can tell that the vines are still just a touch behind where they were last year (a cracker), but with some decent weather on the forecast, we can probably stop worrying.

Last time that we met, I promised to tell you all about the things that are out to get us at this time of year, given that the frost is good enough to leave us alone. Our springtime problems tend to be of the four legged variety.

When we first planted our vines, we followed good practice and invested in rabbit guards. These are essentially a corrugated piece of plastic that is rolled into a tube (by the manufacturer) and sits over the vine and it is held in place by a cane. When I say held in place, what I mean is blown off the cane at the slightest provocation from the merest breath of wind. When that happens, your precious new vines are at the mercy of the wicked and nefarious rabbits, who absolutely demolish every available green bit of vine. And anything else that you happen to have injudiciously attempted to grow in any part of the garden.

And we have a lot of rabbits. Long before we bought our bit of the old Huxbear estate, the chap who owned it sold off the piece of woodland adjacent to the field that we live in and separated the two parcels of land with a Devon bank. Devon banks are a sort of hedgerow that consist of a mound of soil and stones that is held together by the roots of the trees (usually blackthorn, hazel, ash etc.) that are planted in it. Devon banks also make really excellent habitats for rabbits.

After literally years of running up and down the rows collecting the windswept guards and replacing them, we discovered a method for keeping them attached just in time for us to take them all off again, as the vines were sufficiently mature enough to have growing parts that are out of reach of rabbits. In fact, since we removed the guards, the rabbits have been doing a pretty useful job of removing the shoots that we don’t want from the trunks of the established vines. We might never be able to grow carrots, but anything that saves me having to do that crippling job more than I absolutely have to is a huge win in my book.

Deer are another hysterical bio-weapon that is tossed at us by mother nature and are particularly adept at making at mess of things at this time of year. Deer, delicate flowers that they are, really only want to nick the vine’s young growing tips. When your growing tips are short in spring, they also contain the flowers that, all being well, will become your grapes at the end of the season.

After seeing the vines decapitated at the level of the top of the guards in year one – a new vineyard is the equivalent of a McDonald’s drive through for deer, except it’s actually food – we installed some electric fencing. And that was okay until the chap who bought the field next to our far one planted lots of trees in it and had somebody install 7 foot deer fencing right the way around, which helpfully pushed them all back into our field.

Immediately seizing on the nuclear option, I chatted to a string of, um, there isn’t really any way of spinning this, slightly weird chaps with lots of guns. We decided that sitting in a sort of tennis umpire’s chair for hours at the crack of dawn and becoming slightly weird (well, weirder) myself probably wasn’t the best use of my time, but thankfully one of them offered to do it for me in return for a half share in anything that he happened to shoot. I was prepared to offer him money, so this seemed like a particularly sweet deal the time.

He didn’t shoot anything, in spite of visiting on a number of occasions, and even claimed never to have seen a deer. As I was pretty much tripping over deer on a daily basis at the time, I had serious misgivings about his eyesight and the continued safety of the dog, and let’s be honest, myself, so invited him to leave and decided to invest in even more electric fencing.

You know what? I think that we have finally cracked it this year! By simply installing one row of stock proof fence, three electric fence wires and a row of barbed wire, I believe that we have finally convinced them to find another way across our hill. And the vines are safe. Except from thrips. Which I think have six legs. More on this next week too.

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.

Celebrations and Decisions

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Hello! Long time no speak. Your correspondent has been celebrating the end of winter pruning in the Canaries. This missive was written before we left, but remained neglected because I was bundled bodily onto a plane before I could despatch it into the internet ether. No matter, the content remains current and will save you an exhaustive report on the Canary Island wine trade.

The view through the window from my current vantage point is an absolutely glorious sight. The sky is an endless expanse of blue, the vines have been modified from their previous twiggy and chaotic mess to something rather more organised. We may reasonably assume that the increasingly powerful sunshine is doing its work as the arable fields on the periphery of our view turn green and the occasional cow has emerged blinking onto the increasingly dry pasture. As the dog picks her way past a collection of newly redundant Arctic weight clothing on her way for another epic sunbathing session, we enjoy the fresh air from an open window. And best of all, the discerning vineyard owner may admire the view, safe in the knowledge that there are at least three weeks to go before those vines are going to be demanding his attention.

As we move into what is undoubtedly the best part of the year, Devon is an absolute picture. Just a little too bright this morning – it could be argued that we might have slightly over done the end of winter pruning celebrations last night. But then again, if you can’t properly celebrate the end of three months of grinding monotony* and the onset of spring, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate anything.

*I appreciate that I am laying the winter pruning whining on a bit thick this week and apologise for it. It was explained to me recently that staring at the same spreadsheet on a daily basis with no prospect of relief is infinitely worse than a few months stood around in the cold talking to vines, and I accept that. I am a horribly spoiled, self employed child.

As well as the improving meteorological situation and the prospect of spending time doing something other than winter pruning (sorry), we had another little nugget of awesomeness this week with the first proper tasting of last season’s vintage before we start bottling! Now when I say first tasting, first is a bit of a flexible term, but this is the first proper tasting. If you have been to an organised wine tasting before, you will no doubt have spent some time stood around in a winery or anodyne little room, clutching one of those miserable little ISO tasting glasses, while someone tells you why this is the best wine that you have ever tasted, with nary an olive, let alone a plate of food in prospect.

As far as possible, we try not to do that. I admit that I taste the wine on a regular basis to keep any emerging problems in check and to monitor its clarity and maturity – this is especially important when it is in contact with oak, so you don’t end up making something that tastes of little else. I generally don’t take dinner with me when I do this, but I make absolutely sure that I do it on a Friday afternoon so that I can channel the spirit of our customers as I, er, work.

I digress, we have always found it a little odd that you spend all year making wine for people to enjoy over dinner, but taste it yourself in an environment that couldn’t be more different. Admittedly most of the technical decisions about the wine that you are drinking have already been taken at this point, but tasting it is absolutely invaluable for helping us make decisions for future vintages, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Particularly as we took the decision to jettison the overtly scientific approach to wine making at a fairly early stage in favour of looking at, sniffing and tasting everything from vine to bottle. Our Australian colleagues appear to be well on the way to producing some hideously expensive equipment to tell you whether your wine is any good or not, but I reckon that the tongue in your head does the same job and is considerably more portable.

So this is the sequence of events that lead to us bidding farewell to the winter pruning and enthusiastically tasting the wine last weekend over dinner with some friends. It is our intention to start the bottling over the next few weeks or so, so this was likely to be our last opportunity to make any decisions about changes that we would like to make to it.

The tasting proved an invaluable exercise. On the literal table was dinner and on the metaphorical table were specific modifications that we might want to make to the wine. In the case of the Chardonnay and Rose this would be whether or not to sweeten the wine before we bottled it, in the case of the Pinot Noir, we were deciding whether to bottle it at all yet, or allow it some extra maturation in tank.

The rose was the easiest decision to make. The very first year that we made it, we sort of sleep walked into sweetening it and it wasn’t at all to its advantage as the finished wine didn’t have the acidity to carry the sweetness off. Which is weird as, if memory serves (and it’ll have to as I’m not digging out the records), the grapes weren’t as ripe. No matter, we stopped making that mistake immediately and this vintage – being the best of the lot in terms of ripeness – absolutely does not require any sugar at all.

The Chardonnay was rather more difficult. This is because my gut reaction is always to avoid sweetening it, as I very much enjoy steely Chardonnay from, um, am I allowed to say Chablis? Let’s pretend that I am. The problem with this is that lean whites aren’t exactly the order of play for the public at large, so we have previously taken the decision to sweeten it to produce a more approachable wine. This year is a little tricky as we worked particularly hard on the Chardonnay in the vineyard and produced a particularly ripe crop. The resulting honeyed mid palate gives the impression of sweetness, even though the sweetness isn’t actually there. When one adds this to the lower acidity and more prominent fruit flavour from our riper crop, it becomes clear that I am finally going to get my way and we can dispense with the rectified grape must (read: sugar) this year.

We decided that we are going to hang onto the Pinot Noir for a while. I’d guess that it is currently about as mature as the vast majority of commercially available wines at your local supermarket, which tend to be a little young. This is also a bit of a turn up, because in previous years we have had to manage the tannin uptake assiduously, as the grapes were nowhere near as ripe as last season’s (which puts undesirable herbaceous flavours into the wine). No such problems this time, I was battering the fermenting red’s floating skins with my rake and tossing in oak staves with wild abandon in an attempt to get the most out of both. The consequences of this additional flavour is that it takes time for them to marry and mature – there is a pleasing liquorish flavour from the oak that needs to settle down and a slightly out of kilter bitterness from grape tannin that needs to disappear.

So that means a bit of oxidative handling (exposure to the air) and probably months of Friday afternoon tastings. Which is obviously a great hardship…

À Bientôt, Winter! You won’t be missed…

The nadir of the season is now in my rear view mirror and it feels wonderful.

We are occasionally asked – usually by friends and/or family in the middle of summer in the process of assaulting a bottle of our own wine in the garden – whether it is ever not absolutely awesome to own and operate a vineyard. If this happens towards the end of the evening, one tends to reply in the negative, look a little misty eyed and scurry off to the winery for another bottle. At the start of the evening, one is more likely to answer honestly that it is occasionally less than awesome in the middle of winter. This year is different as I’m able to pin down the very moment of ultimate winter misery. It was distinctly non-awesome to own and operate a vineyard on the 29th January at precisely 2PM.

The absolute best thing about having a go at everything on a wine estate* is variety. There are any number of things to have a bash at, one moment you will be climbing into the tractor for a whiz around the vineyard and the next you are attempting to weave a little magic in the winery. This time of year is all about pruning. And after our agronomist worked his own bit of magic on the vines last year and has very nearly all of them performing as they should, there is a lot more of it to do. That and do battle with the plus sized prunings that have become inextricably tangled in the trellising and have developed the nasty habit of vindictively whipping me when I attempt to evict them.

So I was stood in the middle of our larger field, mind wandering and admiring the snow covered and mighty Dartmoor, er, hills? Junior mountains? Whatever, wondering if there was much chance of me talking Lucy into letting me have a day off to go and buy a sledge and attempt to kill myself on it, when I noticed a particularly filthy cabal of clouds sneaking up behind me. The outrageous turncoat of a dog took one look at them, bolted for home and moments later I was pruning in a charming little blizzard that had helpfully arrived hours before clocking off time.

A few more vines and I had started the next row and noticed something wonderful: salvation! Salvation may come in many forms, but I’ll wager that it hasn’t often come in the form of a cut priced speaker that is attached to a wooden post.

The speaker is the ruin of a bird scaring invention from our conceptual period (read: tight fisted) that proved absolutely no use in terms of scaring birds, but is placed about three fifths of the way across the field and indicates that the vineyard worker is on the leeward side of his travails. We still spray the old way here (with a knapsack), so the speaker usually serves as a pick me up to keep the vineyard operative charging up and down the hills. It happens that it is also just the stuff to keep him chopping away and being brutalised by twigs in the eye of the storm. And a timely reminder to call Lucy and get her to stick a bottle of something delicious and alcoholic in the fridge to go with dinner. For the record, my call records indicate that owning and operating a vineyard stopped being non-awesome at precisely 2.33PM.

Three weeks later and the outlook in all senses has improved dramatically. The opportunity to do something other than pruning is so close that one can almost touch it (doubtless I’ll have something else to talk about the next time that we meet), so I’m happy. In both fields, the vast majority of the vines have been beaten into submission, the prunings are piled up at the end of the rows and the vines themselves are looking neat and tidy. And, blessed relief, the days are getting longer, when the sun deigns to show its face, we notice that he is gradually returning to the height of his power and the sap is beginning to rise in the vines (and out of the pruning wounds). And every now and again, just once in a while, I’m strolling out into the fields wearing fewer than three pairs of socks; bless you spring time.

Potentially Perfect Pinot

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When we last met and I was whining on about a broken wind turbine, I promised you Pinot Noir this week. And Pinot Noir you shall have…

Red wine in England was always going to be a bit of a challenge, particularly as we don’t have anything German and red to help us cut corners. There are a couple of red German varieties that are quite popular in England. One is called Rondo and is a big cropping, dark red coloured hybrid (it was crossed with some sort of American vine by a German person) and the other is a reworked version of Pinot Noir. They both ripen earlier than the French Pinot Noir that we have cleverly planted, and the Rondo also has a cracking, deep purple colour which is handy for blending in cooler years when there isn’t much colour about. Unfortunately, we don’t much like either of them.

This isn’t the end of the world, but does necessitate a certain amount of additional work. We have historically spent much of September (which is a relatively slack time of year, save for scaring birds and murdering wasps) removing the leaves from around the bunches of grapes to ensure that as much sunshine as possible can get at them. The sun in turn heats the berries up, which softens the acidity in the berries, improves the colour and moves the flavour from austerity to ripeness. When the grapes are out in the sunshine in a year like 2014, they end up very ripe indeed and you may pick them whenever you want. As opposed to leaving it as late as possible and playing chicken with winter.

We picked a bumper crop of utterly ripe Pinot Noir a whole week early and were very excited at what we might turn it into. I think that I mentioned during our rosé sermon that all of our red was crushed and added to a red wine tank in one go and that we removed the pink from the tank as free run juice. Everything else remained in the tank. This is good news for colour and body, both of which tend to be lacking in wine from cooler climates. This in turn can cause you problems when pouring it into the less discerning drinker who has been raised on the opaque bilge produced by the larger Australian wineries.

The colour and body are both gifts to the wine from the skins of the berries. In this case, the juice that we have removed has left behind much of the potential colour from its berries and all of the potential body. If you are wondering, this is because the colour is soluble in water and the tannin (read: body) only starts coming out of the skins out when the alcohol is present, and since we hadn’t added any yeast yet, none of that has disappeared with the rosé juice. And as there are a disproportionately large number of skins in the tank, one may reasonably expect there to be more of both in the end product.

For the most part, the colour had been removed from the skins within the first week. At this point, we had already added yeast and malo-lactic bacteria (that softens the acidity and gives the wine a nice buttery aroma, remember?) and the fermentation was proceeding nicely. We know this, because there is an idiot balancing atop a pair of rickety stepladders, assaulting the wine with a stainless steel rake and marvelling at the exciting bubbliness occurring below. It’s also possible to tell that something is happening in the tank by touching the side of it and noticing that it’s warm* as yeast’s action is exothermic. The bubbles occur as it also produces masses of carbon dioxide. Those carbon dioxide bubbles are pushing the skins to the surface of the wine, where they are drying out, and perhaps more importantly, not putting any goodness into the wine, hence the rake wielding idiot.

*Warm fermentations are helpful with all wines as it encourages the yeast to do its job efficiently and make absolutely sure that all of the sugar in the juice is turned into alcohol. It is particularly useful in the red wine fermentations as it helps to extract more colour and body from the skins (along with producing the right sort of complex aromas as a by-product of the fermentation process, more on this, er, never). Interestingly, a fermentation that is too cool causes the yeast to produce firstly unpleasant aromas in the wine and then stop working altogether. Temperatures that are too warm can cause some absolutely frightful stinks in the wine and ultimately kill the yeast outright. Which will give you some idea of the sort of stroppy little Goldilocks character that yeast is.

You might remember from our chat about the Chardonnay that we added our oak staves to the wine after the fermentation was complete. This was because adding oak during the fermentation resulted in a wine in which it was too well integrated and eventually disappeared entirely. The Pinot is the polar opposite. When it was aged with oak, it stuck out like a sort thumb and was not at all well integrated with the other flavours in the wine, no matter how long the wine was in the bottle. Adding the staves during the fermentation has added the oak flavour that we desired, and that flavour is currently coexisting with the other flavours in the wine nicely.

After a week or so, as the alcohol starts to accumulate in the wine, it is now absolutely essential to taste it on a regular basis. Aside from the obvious reasons, we do this because, left unattended, the skins now have the ability to make a mess of the finished wine. We have already extracted just about all of the colour that they have to offer (after pressing they are very pale indeed), but they have more tannin than we will ever need, and that tannin is being extracted from the skins at an ever increasing rate.

After a period of time – in this case three weeks – the winemaker will decide that there is enough tannin in the wine, give his liver a well earned break and move the juice into a tank and the skins into the press. If you have pulled the trigger at the right time, the juice will be slightly lightweight and when the skins are pressed, wine that is tannic and somewhat harsh is wrung out of them. Magically, combining the two should result in a wine that is neither too harsh, nor too lightweight.

Having already produced one red that was a mite lightweight and one that was perhaps a little too harsh, I’m fairly confident that we nailed this one and we are very happy with the results and hoping to commence bottling at the start of next month. Just as soon as we have finished the winter pruning. If that ever happens. More on this next week.

Winter’s Flotsam

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Another couple of weeks into winter and it is rapidly turning into one of those spent taking sweepstakes on when the monsoons are likely to wash the road into the river again (like 2013/14), as opposed to one spent trying to work out how many pairs of gloves one can wear and operate secateurs at the same time (2009/10).

Whether we can draw any conclusions about the coming season from this – I confidently predicted that the rain would, er, “run out” last winter – remains a mystery. What is for certain is that we are most unlikely to move into one of the holiday lets over the road to thaw out again this year, as we have now upgraded from a caravan to a centrally heated house. In any event, a week spent in a log cabin kept at a steady 30oC was wonderful while it lasted, but backfired utterly as it took 48 hours to thaw the water on the inside of our caravan out on our return. Which is about as much fun as it sounds. Improbably, we remained married throughout this particular ordeal and have learned to whine about problems that aren’t really problems like normal people in the intervening period.

In fairness, thus far this winter has treated us fairly well. Nothing has collapsed or been blown away, the river at the bottom of our lane remains only slightly dangerously high and I haven’t seen a single tree floating about in it yet either. We were obviously obliged to collect most of the things that weren’t nailed down around the house from the surrounding area after last week’s gales, but this remains very much par for the course. One can certainly remain sanguine about collecting our wind driven rubbish after the storm when one has endured the misery of chasing the roof of a shed across a field in the middle of one.

In fact, just yesterday I was remarking to Lucy that last year’s wind turbine (we smash approximately one per year) hasn’t fallen over yet, in spite of some impressive provocation from the elements. The problem with budget wind turbines is that when it gets windy, they actively go looking for trouble, following the wind around in an attempt to make as much power as possible. In our experience, the very moment after they start being of any real use, they yank whatever they are anchored with out of the ground, fall over and smash into a million pieces.

If you haven’t been with us for long, you perhaps won’t be aware that we make all of our own power with the combination of wind turbine, solar panels and diesel generator as we are not connected to the grid. I generally pretend that this is a chore, but actually quite enjoy the ongoing challenge of producing as much of it as possible, and as the proud owners of a couple of kids, we are keen to leave as small of a footprint as possible (wind distributed flotsam excepted).

The diesel generator is very nearly as old as I am and was procured for a trifling sum from the farmer we bought the land from. After picking the brains of some particularly practical friends, one no longer need take a crank handle to it start it, it is incredibly dependable and drinks considerably less diesel than either of our cars. The same is true of the solar panels – so much so, that we have plans to plant several more behind the house presently. They are also increasingly cost effective. Apparently this has something to do with the Chinese deliberately irritating the American government for some reason, so they also have that in their favour too.

The problem with solar panels is that they are anodyne. They sit smugly on top of our shed (not the one with wandering roof, another one), magically producing electricity out of thin air without making noise, moving, or doing anything particularly exciting at all. On the other hand, wind turbines are all business, whizzing around at impossible speed, making a racket and advertising to anyone within earshot that they are here to help, whether you want it or not. Like an eager and idiotic Labrador before it chews your furniture. And who wouldn’t want that in their lives?

So, we were both braving the elements last week and noticed for the thousandth time that in spite of cleverly building our house at the bottom of a hill, with woodland on two sides, that there is still quite a lot of wind buffeting these intrepid explorers as they venture into the fields. The wonky shed is wobbling, as are the latest crop of broken trellis posts, there are vine guards cartwheeling all over the place and there are even the latest batch of last season’s vine leaves making their own way off to wherever the vine leaf graveyard is. And the wind turbine? That has developed an interesting new tick of pointing in any direction other than where the wind is coming from and refusing to spin. Which is novel.

I was going to tell you all about our Pinot Noir this week but have run out of space. I appreciate that real estate on the internet is essentially infinite, but that your attention probably isn’t, so I’ll start with that next time. Promise.