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.

Happy New Year!

Pruning (Copy)

Happy New Year! If your new year is anything like our one, you will doubtless be setting about the new year’s tasks like an absolute tiger after a relaxing and refreshing break from your exertions over the festive period. That not ring true? Well, you are in good company. I’m currently tapping away at my laptop from the relative comfort of the kitchen as all hell breaks loose outdoors; the wind turbine is very nearly doubled over and the rain is fairly bouncing off the roof of the winery. And as for the relaxing festive break, I put it to you that we have done our fair share of Yuletide entertaining, and people rarely visit vineyards with abstinence aforethought.

No matter, bleary heads aside, the close season’s duties are beginning to fall into line nicely. If one could actually see the vines from this vantage point – it is usually possible, but the weather has temporarily prevented our remote inspection from the safety of the kitchen – one would notice that much of the previous season’s twiggy growth in the nearest patch has already been tamed. The vines nearest to us are no longer a la hedgerow as they have been pruned back to somewhere near their fruiting wire (the bottom one, at about waist height), and they are looking absolutely lovely. Albeit twiggy.

I don’t think that we have talked about winter pruning for a couple of years, so here goes. Before finding themselves in the enviable position of being planted in God’s own country – South Devon – the forefathers of our vines made their living taking over entire trees (to get at the sunlight) in the near east. They still retain much of this vigour (in spite of the best efforts of the vine nursery wizards to calm them down a bit), so one must hack them down on an annual basis to ensure that they remain easy to manage; considerably smaller than the specimen we discovered demolishing an entire Eucalyptus tree in Turkey the other year.

Once the vines are planted, pruning becomes a bit of a hard won skill. At college, there were three vineyards with a variety of different types and ages of vine in them that we spent much of the first winter chopping away at. At the time the consensus view was that this was because the university bean counters were too frugal to pay for a gang of professionals to get it done properly. Three years later, presented with a couple of fields full of our own vines (and having barely even looked askance at a pair of secateurs since then), I was grateful for all the practice.

The idea is that as the vine starts to establish itself, you may ask for more and more from it. Perhaps for the first year or two you will continue to prune it back down to just above the ground until the joyous day arrives when you may allow it to extend to the business end of things and use the previous year’s growth to form a trunk. At which point one might reasonably expect a grape or two in the following season. Over the following seasons, you allow it’s infrastructure to extend until it runs into the territory of the next vine and therefore out of space.

The finesse comes from looking at the vine’s enthusiasm in the previous season and deciding how much further you wish to extend its remit. If you end up being too conservative, the shoots that emerge in the following season go absolutely crazy and you end up having to hack them back throughout the growing period – lest they create shade, the enemy – and lamenting that a couple of bunches of grapes is the most you can expect from your exuberant shoots. If you are too ambitious, they end up spindly little things and you spend all season looking for the grapes that they haven’t the energy to produce.

When the vine does eventually run out of space and produces nicely manageable shoots, you may get on and congratulate yourself for picking a site of the appropriate vigour in which to plant your vines. If the vine runs out of space and the shoots are still going absolutely bonkers, you would be obliged to dash out and find yourself something to attack your monstrous shoots throughout the growing season, or dig them all up and grow corn or something. If you are wondering what category our collection of vines falls into, it’s thankfully mostly the former, with some alarmingly labour intensive patches of the latter.

Wine! This week I shall be sermonising about our rosé.

In 2011 we conducted a trial with a small amount of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Menier from that year’s harvest. We smashed the grapes up in the crusher destemmer and deposited both skins and juice (along with some argon gas to keep the oxygen off) in a red wine tank to see what happened. We weren’t exactly flying blind, we knew that the juice would remove increasingly large amounts of colour from the skins (it starts life mostly white) over the next couple of weeks before turning red. The generally accepted period of skin contact for rosé wine is 6 to 48 hours.

Needless to say, we bottled it. Sorry, bad analogy, lost confidence after 18 hours or so and pressed the lot and made some very serviceable, rose coloured pink from it. As the hue was utterly lovely, in 2013 (2012 was a complete write off on account of the rain) we decided that it might be an idea to extract even more colour and so left it in contact with the skins for, gasp, the entire 48 hours. And that made wine in a colour of incomparable loveliness, with similar (if richer) flavours to the previous model. I’m advised by the wine retail cognoscenti that our Gallic cousins tend to opt for rosé that is hardly coloured at all, but I reckon that if you are going to make it, you might as well do it properly.

In a bid to further raise our rosé above the appalling alcopop levels of your common or garden rosé, we elected not to sweeten it in 2013 either. This made for an interesting finished wine that tends rather more towards a light red than a beefed up white. We were very happy with it, as were the vast majority of people on the receiving end of it.

This year it was a little more difficult to work out how to judge the amount of skin contact for the juice as we – and our indefatigable picking slaves – kept running out of boxes to transport the grapes in, owing to last year’s bumper Pinot Noir harvest. This meant that we had to process the grapes (smash them to pieces in a crusher destemmer and toss them into a wine tank) as we worked our way across the field to free up the boxes. By the time that we had finished, some of the grapes had been in the tank for 48 hours, and some of them had been in for five minutes.

Doubtless, a less cavalier winemaker would start borrowing fingers to count on and work out the average period of skin contact. We opted for a more direct method: taking turns at intervals to stand in the line of fire in front of the tank’s valve clutching a wine glass and hoping to catch some of the pink jet of juice in it. As an added bonus, my clothes were absolutely delicious and pleasingly pink by the time that we were ready to ferment the juice.

We have just carried out our final racking (pumping the clear wine off the solid bits in the bottom of the tank) and had a taste of the finished article this very morning. Quite why we taste wine at 9.30 in the morning remains a mystery, but the wine itself looks and tastes great. It is also about as clear as we have ever had it pre-bottling, which may have something to do with us using only free run juice this year*. Whatever the case, it should make filtering the wine extra easy at bottling time in spring.

*More on this next time, but it essentially means that the juice is pumped off the smashed up grapes without pressing them.

Right, I have helped myself to enough of your time already. Here’s to 2015, cross your fingers that it treats us all as well as 2014 did.

Three Months of Twigs

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So I’m sat pulling on my third pair of socks and looking around for something other to do than go outside and get cracking. The dog has already taken her grand tour of the Teign Valley at the crack of dawn and is curled up, looking impossibly cosy in her fluffy winter coat next to a radiator. There is nothing left in the coffee pot and I have run out out of excuses – not that this stops me from frantically trying to dream up several excuses at exactly this point every year – it is time to embark on our annual three month long winter pruning journey; and I’m as keen as ever.

I mentioned the last time that we met that we were enduring an unseasonably cold snap at the time that had knocked all of the leaves off everything in sight and had moved the vines into dormancy nicely. By the time that we had taken our cue and frantically finished off the last of the last of the post-harvest/pre-pruning projects around the place, it was precisely December 1st and we were ready to start pruning at pretty much the same time as we do every year.

When I say ‘an unseasonably cold snap’, it was the end of November and the weather was exactly like it is supposed to be at the end of November. But while I distinctly remember mother threading a pair of mittens on a string through the sleeves of my parka before ushering me out of the door to take on the frigid tundra of, er, south Manchester on my way to school, it is not the sort of thing that we have come to expect in south Devon this side of Christmas. It is cold, but on the plus side, recalling the cold weather of the past has reminded me to place an order with my knit-meister mother for a couple of pairs of those natty mittens on a string for kids. So they will immediately stop losing them at the current rate of one pair per day.

Ploughing through the pruning promises to be an an extra challenge this year as there is considerably more of it to do. You may recall from a number of previous missives that, on account of finally nailing the nutrition for the vines this year, that we had our best harvest to date. Well, those grapes have grown on some fairly whopping vines and the time has come to pay the piper.

We take an excellent monthly journal from the Antipodes that is chock full of adverts for machines that do the first part of your pruning for you and we have both considered this a largish waste of time and money. For clarity, the machine is like a large hedge trimmer that attaches to the back of your tractor and cuts the canes of the vine to a manageable length, allowing you to fairly whiz along with your secateurs to finish the job off. You would also buy a rake for the tractor to collect the prunings from the floor or make some incredibly short/understanding friends. I had pruned my way through precisely one vine’s worth of broom handle gauge canes before completely changing my views on the subject, before having them changed back by our financial controller and voice of reason.

In fairness, I’m absolutely delighted with the change in workload. And when we are really busy in the middle of summer, the workload is almost exactly the same whether the vines are replete with grapes or not, so I reckon that this a small price to pay in return for well stocked wine tanks. We will therefore be focusing on the contents of the winery as I attempt to navigate the slippery winter hills with my brimming and twiggy wheelbarrow.

After an entertaining afternoon hammering away at clay pigeons (the genuine, grape munching article thankfully remains relatively elusive), we had our first batch of friends over since all of the wine fell clear last weekend. We never miss an opportunity to march passing visitors up to the winery for a taste and a lecture and are especially keen to do so at the moment, after such a cracking year in the vineyard.

In terms of evaluating the wine, this was of limited use as we have been encouraging the environment to cold stabilise the wine for us by opening the winery doors at every available opportunity. If you are wondering, cold stabilising is required for wine as, if it isn’t carried out, it has this nasty little habit of dropping clear crystals that look a lot like glass into your wine when your customer pops it into the fridge. The crystals have no effect on the overall quality of your wine, but apparent lumps of glass make absolutely sure that your customers don’t become repeat customers. The cold ambient temperature in the winery causes the crystals to weld themselves to the sides of the tank before bottling. However, cold temperatures mask a little of the flavour.

We therefore had our thermally challenged tasters stood around in an ice cold winery, warming their glasses in their hands to get the most out of the experience. In retrospect, we should probably have taken the wine into the house and placed it and them somewhere near a radiator, but it always seems to taste better in the winery. And I can point to bits of equipment and tell amusing anecdotes about how I had tripped over or fallen in them over the years.

Bear with me, but I thought that it might be of interest to discuss each of the wines in some detail in separate entries, as it is essentially what we are here for. This week is Chardonnay.

The Chardonnay has been in contact with some oak staves* since we removed it from its fermenting tank (and yeast lees). As with pretty much everything to do with wine, there are lots of thoughts about when you should introduce contact with oak. The theory is that if you ferment your wine with oak, the flavour is more integrated, if you age it in oak, it is more distinct.

*If you don’t require the extreme oakiness provided by a whole barrel for your wine, you can buy the constituent parts of the barrel and add them one at a time to the tank that it lives in to get the exact amount of oak that you require. They are easy to use, portable and, if you allow your wine to see a limited amount of oxygen throughout its period of ageing, indistinguishable from the genuine article.

We have historically fermented the Chardonnay with oak in an attempt to ensure that the flavour is as subtle as possible – some may love extremely oaky Australian Chardonnay but we don’t. The problem we found in doing this was that, if anything, it was too subtle. The logical remedy for this would be to toss even more oak in during the fermentation. I put it to you that it is a brave winemaker who tastes fermenting wine (smelling is a good idea) – it’s an excellent laxative – to determine its oakiness and whether or not to fish out the staves from the bubbling brew. Much better to taste the non-laxative and delicious finished wine at regular intervals and adjust as necessary.

The oak goes well with the buttery flavours from the malo-lactic fermentation that we carried out at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation. Malo-lactic fermentations convert astringent malic acid (most notably found in green apples) into smoother lactic acid (found in milk, etc.). The bacteria that perform this task – which come in a packet – like warm wine to do it in, so we do it at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation as the wine is already nicely warmed by the action of the yeast. As oak marries well with these flavours, it is better to have them apparent in the wine at the requisite levels, therefore we are ageing it in oak this year.

Then all that remains is for us to drag another team of tasting types out before bottling it (we are tentatively aiming at the start of March) to decide how much we should sweeten it, if at all. Assuming that there is any left by then; having a stocked winery parked that close to the house is horribly tempting…

Winter on the Park Bench

On the first of November I distinctly recall standing next to our generator store in shirt sleeves. I was applying the third coat of paint to it in as many days in an attempt to cover up the first, which had claimed to be “Park Bench Green” but had in fact turned out to be “You’ll Never Convince Anyone That it’s Supposed to be This Colour Green”. The shocking nature of the lies told by companies on paint tins aside, things were decidedly idyllic. The sun was out, it was at least 20oC and there was the sort of communal good mood going around that can only come when a little piece of summer is chipped off and emerges unexpectedly in the wrong season.

You will imagine our surprise this week when – the children having allowed us eight hours sleep for once – a surprisingly large amount of light was sneaking into the room from around the curtains. As soon as I’d located the suspiciously quiet child number two and convinced him that three bananas was probably sufficient pre-breakfast fayre, I took a look out of the window and our suspicions were confirmed: frost. Actual, proper, chisel your way into the car, turn it on and ignore it for a bit frost. In November. I feel sure that this must have happened here before, but I don’t recall when. It never seems to happen this side of Christmas and probably means something, but I have no idea what. Probably lots of fracking and exciting earthquakes and whatnot if it goes on much longer.

What is absolutely certain is its effect on the vines, and pretty well everything else that had the temerity to hang on to any of its leaves at this time of year: they are now all brown and on the floor. Except the Alder that makes up the windbreaks, that appears to be made of sterner stuff. And that in turn means that we can now be fairly confident that the vines are absolutely, positively, 100% done with this year and are eagerly awaiting a spot of spring. I can’t pretend that I abandoned our slack season projects – burying pipes, making things, tidying up and fires, lots of fires – immediately, but I did assault my trusty secateurs with a whetstone and a can of WD40 and have definite plans to get cracking next week.

As well as irritating Lucy and generally getting myself into trouble, we spent the balance of the quiet period meeting suppliers and getting as much done for the following spring as possible. Having decided that a limited amount of damage by the ubiquitous rabbits over winter (they nibble some of the bark off some of the vines) was preferable to spending forever lifting up vine guards to attend to the vines’ trunks, we decided to go wild and remove the lot last summer. Before running out of time – and let’s be honest, inclination – and spending the next six months tripping over them and obliterating them with the mower.

I have now finished picking them up and am an absolute dab hand at slipping them inside each other and balancing cylinders of them on a wheelbarrow; I’m not entirely sure what use this skill may be going forward, but one never knows. It was also good to get some miles onto the hamstrings because I’m convinced that spring and the ritual abuse of them during bud rubbing will come all too quickly. In fact, the only fly in the ointment was when I spotted the large piles of them neatly stacked around the place, recalled that they filled one quarter of an articulated wagon and noticed that we don’t exactly have a spare outbuilding in which to store them. So if you are reading this and are interested in some well travelled (I have picked most of them out of our hedges at some point) and slightly tatty vine guards for the low price of, um, nothing, do get in touch.

Wine! After a month in the winery, the last of the wines has finally fallen clear, has been parted from its lees and, although they will all be filtered, poked and prodded a bit before bottling, we may now spend some time filling glasses from the tanks’ valves as opposed to measuring cylinders. If you are wondering what sort of alcoholic fermentation takes a month, the answer is none (to the best of my knowledge), we were yet again waiting for the Chardonnay to complete its typically languid malo-lactic fermentation.

This is always a magical and slightly nerve racking time of year, although, with experience, it gets less nerve racking and more magical every year as one is able to get a better idea during the growing season of what is likely to come out of the tank. No matter, once the winemaker has made his decisions and carried them out, there isn’t an awful lot more he can do to his wine without being hauled off in handcuffs, so he must live with them. I don’t know whether it is our increasing experience, our increasingly experienced and loyal workforce, or the sheer, unadulterated awesomeness of the weather this year, but 2014 has been rather less stressful than most.

We were toying with the idea of making an entirely new wine from the German varieties and a limited amount of Pinot Noir this year with no skin contact (it would be white). Making still white wine from Pinot Noir is something that I have always wanted to, but never actually gotten around to doing; and as we are planning on having a bash at fizz in a small way next year, it seemed the logical thing to get some experience doing. And I looked long and hard at all of that perfectly ripe, beautifully sun drenched Pinot Noir and decided that it was much too pretty to turn into white wine and it all became red and rosé.

And looking at my word count, I should probably tell you all about that next week. But the mention of rosé reminds me: fancy a bottle of pink for grown ups? We have just released the final bottling of the 2013s and are offering them to non-blood relatives for the very first time. It will be appearing on the shop page at the start of next week, or, if you’d rather, send us an email and we’ll arrange it all for you. 6 @ £50, 12 @ £95, UK delivery is £5 (singles available on request with delivery at cost).

Post Harvest Indolence

With harvest and the fermentations over, the discerning Devonian vineyard owner generally doesn’t give two hoots about the contents of the weather forecast, as the vines are pretty well inured to anything that mother nature can throw at them in the off season. Barring some sort of polar vortex* (at -15oC or so they have the nasty habit of keeling over and dying), they are pretty good at weathering the winter. Which is at least something in the credit column for the world’s sickliest plant. And while a particularly bitter winter has accounted for a vine or two among the intrepid vine growers of the north, the Gulf Stream has prevented anything so beastly happening in our bit of Devon.

*We were delighted to hear the first meteorologically challenged reporter on the news this week insisting that we were in for the most appalling winter, and that said polar vortex was about to unleash hell on the good people of Devon; and everywhere else for that matter. You may take it from me that, given this excitable proclamation of doom, nothing of the sort is about to happen; it’s the predictions of a warm and wet winter that you want to watch out for.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when – after a seemingly endless Indian summer – I was looking at something on my mobile telephone and noticed that the Met Office forecast was covered in pretty colours, indicating that some particularly horrible weather was on the way. And how! As I type, I am safely billeted in the living room, watching the last of the season’s leaves being unceremoniously ripped from the vines and the wind turbine attempting a sort of limbo dance as its pole threatens to bend double.

It is also raining. A lot. The formerly wonderfully dry vineyard that had allowed the easy passage of man and machine alike for pretty well the entire growing season has turned into the sort of quagmire not seen since, well, the end of last winter when bits of the local infrastructure started slipping into the waterways, en route to the English Channel. This was doubly depressing for me as – although I hadn’t dared voice this opinion – I was pretty sure that the land, being so parched during the summer, could take plenty of stick come the winter and would remain navigable throughout. Which goes to show that I don’t know anything about the weather either.

No matter, this was exactly the sort of thing that I was complaining about last winter before we were treated to the best growing season that we have ever had, so probably the exact same thing is going to happen again this year. We have already established my fortune telling ability, so rush out and buy several barbecues immediately.

As well as ensuring an immaculate growing season in 2015, another plus for the surprising change in the weather is that I am once again replacing the posts that were so rudely snapped by the remains of hurricane Gonzalez the other month. You might recall that, after the storm, we were only replacing the posts that were essential to keep the vines upright, on account of the decidedly firm soil (about 25% of the total snapees). If you do recall that, you may also remember that I’d cleverly talked my way into banging the lot in with one of those old fashioned hand banger things instead of shoe-horning a tractor mounted job into the original vineyard budget. You will imagine my utter delight at having the opportunity to knock the balance of the replacements into something a little more yielding.

It’s a strange time of year here when the grapes are picked and the wine is processed because, for the first time in 6 months or so, one can look around and pick something to do, as opposed to charging out at the crack of dawn and attempting to assault everything in one go. Particularly given the winter’s big job – winter pruning – shouldn’t really be attempted before the end of the month** at the earliest, no matter how tempting it is to steal a march on it, get it all done and sit around smugly looking for something else to do in the middle of January.

**The vineyard cognoscenti will have their own opinions on when the correct time to prune your vines is. Many people think that the correct time is as late as possible as doing so can cause the vines to start growing later (when the risk of frost has departed) and can help to prevent disease (as the sap is rising as opposed to falling and, in theory, pushes the baddies from the pruning wounds out of the plant). Until we have our very own legion of well trained pruners, I shall continue to start it in winter and hope to have it finished by the end of winter, but have conceded to prune the most eager vines last, in the hope of slowing them down a little.

The uncomfortable period of indolence – farming appears to have knocked the ability to sit around and do nothing right out of us – lead me to turn my attention to our poor old pick up. I thought that it was about time to give the old girl a spot of pampering as she had decided that, after seven years of uncomplaining service, the turning of the key was less of a demand and more of a suggestion to burst into life, before failing entirely last week. This conveniently happened just after harvest, which is as well, because asking our pickers to man-haul the grapes back from the far vineyard may very well have lead to a full scale mutiny.

My enthusiasm to avoid knocking in posts was so great that, along with a starter motor, it has also had its first service of our ownership, has wiper blades that actually clear the windscreen and Lucy has even cleaned the inside out. Which should dramatically reduce my chances of returning from the fields with Legionnaires disease or something. What a rare treat to look under the bonnet and see shiny new things attached to the decrepit engine and to slide in behind the wheel without being impaled upon a pair of abandoned secateurs and enjoy the refreshing scent of washing powder (the seat covers have even been through the washing machine). And when you consider that the cost of all this was a very reasonable £60 – bringing our total pick up expenditure to, er, £60 – you begin to realise why those chaps in the middle east go around bolting machine guns to them.