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.

End Of Season Alchemy

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The view from the window is a fairly forlorn one of twiggy vines, just clinging to their last few leaves, leaden skies and squidgy fields that were still behaving themselves not two weeks ago. My nemesis pheasant that I had been chasing around is pecking around at something in the field, but I’m still happily tapping away at my laptop because there are no longer any grapes for him steal from the vines, so we have formed an uneasy friendship on the proviso that he makes himself scarce in time for harvest 2015.

Once we had attended to harvest 2014 in the vineyard, it was time to turn the grapes that hadn’t disappeared into our resident pheasant into wine. We had initially thought that we would have a bash at picking the German varieties first along with the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier* in this field to make something white and interesting. Unfortunately, the rotbrenner that we had some trouble with about half way through the growing season had taken its toll on the Bacchus (which makes up the better part of the German planting) and there wasn’t much fruit on it that we were willing to take off, which put paid to those plans. Fortunately, I have recorded the idea here, so when we are absolutely swamped with Bacchus next year (the vines are in perfect health otherwise), we will know exactly what to do with it.

*If extra fruity German varieties and two of the Champagne triumvirate appear to be strange bedfellows, you’d be 100% right. However I have the idea that the classy acidity and guts of Pinot Noir in particular should help turn the slightly two dimensional German chaps into something considerably better than its constituent parts. Well, that’s the theory, in practice, we will ferment them individually and do lots of sampling with as many people as possible; which is one job that it’s relatively easy to find a workforce for.

So first up this year was the exceedingly ripe and plentiful Pinot Noir that I had been paying very close attention to for the month before we picked. Having a whole lot of grapes was obviously a very welcome development, particularly when it was Pinot Noir, which is an incredibly versatile grape. I can remember vividly last year standing at the top of a ladder, tipping crushed Pinot Noir goo** into one of the red wine tanks, flipping a metaphorical coin and deciding to turn it all into rosé, as there was hardly enough to make red too. Not so this year.

**Okay, so goo probably doesn’t sound quite as romantic as it is supposed to, but it serves a purpose. When one tips in tact grapes into our archaic crusher/de-stemmer, they are smashed to pieces and the stems whiz out of the end of the contraption while the skins, pulp and pips drop out of the bottom. If you prefer, when you see goo, mentally substitute it for fruit based porridge.

This year I was stood at the top of the ladders, tipping the billionth bucket of Pinot Noir/Meunier goo into a tank, trying to decide whether we could do with more rosé or red wine this year. What a difference a year (and an agronomist) makes. I was also thinking that we should probably have worked one of those clever pumps that moves the goo from the crusher/de-stemmer into the tank all by itself into the winery budget as I was on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the red wine tank was as full as it had ever been (which is quite, but not completely full, as it is enormous), there was very little goo on the floor and we were contentedly nursing a beer and enjoying the company of our pickers/winery hands/slaves at the end of day two.

It was as well that we finished picking at the end of day two as the third day brought some utterly old testament style rain with it – which isn’t conducive for picking as it can affect the quality of your juice and will definitely affect the morale of your pickers. So we all had a day off, allowing our pickers to spend some time exploring the interior places of Devon and me to repeatedly drag Lucy into the winery and point out how full one of our family red wine tanks was this year.

Refreshed, we assaulted the Chardonnay. The Chardonnay had performed less well than the Pinot Noir this year in terms of grapes (the vines themselves are looking very well, so we are hopeful for next year), so we fairly motored through. Right up to the last five rows that confusingly had about 100kg of grapes each attached to them, which slowed us all down a bit. Well, when I say us, I mean everyone else, as I was busy berating the other 35 rows of Chardonnay for not pulling its finger out and working as hard as the other, genetically identical vines that are planted in the exact same field.

Once the Chardonnay was crushed and pressed, the free run rosé removed from the big tank after 24 hours (it looks absolutely gorgeous) and with everything fermenting nicely, it was once again time to turn our attention to infrastructure projects! Which is always the most entertaining part of the week as we get to watch a gaggle of engineers (our pickers are horribly overqualified) argue about how best to build the things that we save up for this time every year.

You may recall that we had a disaster at the start of season when the winery generator exploded on account of its being out in the rain in a canopy that was not quite waterproof enough (and a saga lasting literally months as I attempted to install a new bit on it without the relevant expertise). Well, we decided to make a charming little bus shelter type thing on the side of the winery for it to live in – apparently a tarpaulin weighed down by a dead battery isn’t exactly the thing for the discerning wine estate owner. It is now erected, has been battered by a largish storm and is still standing resolute. Once we had similarly waterproofed the tractor’s rusty little container and rebuilt the chicken coop – probably escapologist chickens to follow next spring – the week was over, and we waved our astonishingly loyal workers off once more with a distinct feeling of a job well done…

Harvest 2014

Chrdonnay PickersThe film of dust on the laptop, my inability to write coherently and the surfeit of biscuit wrappers in the bin and empties in the recycling box can mean only one thing: the break for harvest has happened, it’s over, and it’s time to fill both of our loyal readers in on what has been happening over the last few weeks.

When we last met we were taking turns at increasingly demented methods of scaring anything that looked askance at the grapes and enjoying an absolutely cracking Indian summer. The very moment that I had contentedly closed the lid on the laptop after beaming the last update into the ether, the mercury plummeted, the clouds gathered and we endured some distinctly autumnal weather. This may be a direct consequence of my sending Lucy out to hoover up the last of the Pimms from the local supermarket on account of the unseasonably awesome weather, or it may not, either way, we now have a lot of Pimms and absolutely no takers.

The iffy weather continued for most of the run up to harvest, so we moved the banger to the field with the most grapes in, performed the last rites on the bird scaring balloon after a particularly savage attack by the wind and drew up a rota for striding out into the fields and doing a scarecrow impression. The last had become necessary as we had run out of actual jobs to do in the vineyard having strimmed and mowed every blade of grass to within an inch of its life and the ground was still too hard to attempt to whack any posts in.

The very real fear that my job could at any time be outsourced to a broom handle and a stuffed shirt aside, I very much enjoyed my time as a scarecrow. It’s really easy to forget that you are living in the middle of paradise – well, what I consider paradise – when you are marching out to work and have your head down all day. Being obliged to spend time just looking around and appreciating your surroundings had the most remarkably calming effect during what is always the most stressful* time of the year. I was also able to make notes on the visiting birds and work out which of them is eating the grapes and is actually worthy of being inaccurately shot at.

*In addition to checking that they haven’t been nicked by birds, one must also check that your grapes are not covered in botrytis and are blossoming into grapes worthy of your wine, otherwise no amount of alchemy in the winery can turn your mouldy/under ripe/absent grapes into serviceable wine.

The first thing that I noticed during my perambulations was that my chummy raven companions are not actually eating our grapes, but are doing an excellent impression of it. They had been hanging around one particular spot of Pinot Noir for weeks, close inspection revealed that the grapes from that spot were not disappearing. Which is just as well as I have spotted that said ravens are both enormous and alarmingly bright, and have been mocking my attempts to scare them off, and shooting at them is of questionable legality. I appreciate that obeying the law isn’t exactly the done thing in the countryside, but since there are half a dozen government agencies that can remove our permission to produce and sell wine, we find it best to stay on the light side of the law.

The birds that are very definitely off our Christmas card list include pigeons, magpies and pheasants. The first two groups were so utterly alarmed at the prospect of an animated scarecrow who packs heat, that they opted for discretion and chose to eat somebody else’s produce. Pheasants are so utterly stupid that nothing short of the business end of a shotgun will do the trick.

I actually quite enjoy having the pheasants around in the summer as the chaps (which are the only ones that seem to turn up here) are undeniably lovely and keep us company while we work; and watching Tilly chase them around the vineyard is an absolute riot. In common with badgers – which you have to be part of a stupid government initiative to shoot – pheasants are too short to reach up and steal grapes from the fruiting zone (and are way too big to perch on the fruiting wire), so we thought that they wouldn’t cause too much of a problem for us. Until I saw one run up, jump and pinch a grape from a rogue shoot that was only slightly lower than the fruiting zone. I immediately shot it, only to be informed that it was much too old to dismantle for the pot.

No matter, I knew that there was a much more youthful specimen hanging around and intended to have what must assuredly be the most satisfying meal of my life, delicious grape fed pheasant. I hunted my quarry for a week and finally spotted him eyeing up some Siegerrebe in our German patch, but he was several rows away and I had a shotgun that would assuredly obliterate several vines in the process of sending my nemesis to the great vineyard in the sky. I thought long and hard about shooting anyway, but decided to spend half an hour chasing him around the vineyard a la Tilly instead before he realised that he has wings and I don’t and flew off into the wilderness never to be seen again. Lucy is telling me that me chasing the pheasant around is also a riot to watch.

And that takes us right up to harvest. Our perennially faithful pickers arrived on the Saturday before last and joined us for dinner so that we could draw up a plan of action for the week ahead. This harvest was going to prove different to the previous ones, as the vines are now starting to perform properly, and coupled with a decent growing season, we were going to have to spend the better part of the week actually picking grapes.

The following morning, we marched out into the fields to assault the Pinot Noir. I was obviously delighted that we had a veritable team of bird scarers and could stop worrying about the extremely obvious bunches of black grapes that were all over the vines. It took us two days to get them all off, which was very exciting after a couple of indifferent years. Admittedly, this may have had something to do with the fact that I had filled many of the all too convenient picking baskets with bottles of rosé so we kept running out, but nevertheless, it was progress.

Picking the rest of the vineyard was a little quicker than the Pinot Noir, but the consensus view from the pickers that see the vineyard annually at this time of year was that the vines appear to be in much better condition than ever before, so we are confident that the improvement in the Pinot Noir this year should be replicated across the whole of both fields next year. If this doesn’t make perfect sense, it takes a whole year of good health to encourage your vines to make lots of flowers in the following season. Which in our case, will be wall to wall sunshine, allowing those flowers to turn into tonne after tonne of lovely and perfectly ripe grapes, which in turn will make thousands of cases of delicious wine and allow us to buy a couple of islands and a yacht.

And then we moved those grapes into the winery. Which I’m going to tell you all about next week, because I’m still attending to bubbling tanks and I’ve been prattling away for much longer than usual and I’ve been reading something called Buzzfeed and noticed that internet articles. Appear to be in bite size pieces. And in very short sentences.

With tiny paragraphs.

A Thunderous Harvest

It’s October. Honestly. Way back in July when we were digging out the jumpers and cursing the holiday makers – who we inevitably hold accountable for any sort of inclement weather during the school holidays – it seemed certain that the excellent start to the growing season would be arrested. In turn, the vines would notice that they are planted at a recklessly northern latitude, start misbehaving and we’d have the devil’s own time keeping the frost off the grapes before picking them. Some time around Christmas. Imagine our delight when this vineyard operative is still leaping out of bed and climbing into our dilapidated pick up in shirt sleeves on the first day of October.

It has been the strangest second half to a growing season that we have ever had. The sun has shone remorselessly, there has been no repeat of July’s hysterical little hurricane (or anything to trouble the wind turbine at all for that matter) and there has been practically no rain at all. I mentioned last time that we met that the grass around the place is slowly yellowing owing to the parched soil – which is irritating the beef farming locals no end, things have moved along since then.

I was in the process of dismantling the elaborate security system on one of the water butts this week to water the equally parched tomatoes – which are apparently still in season in Devon – and noticed that the butts are now empty. It can now only be a matter of time before frantic news stories about hosepipe bans are the order of the day, leading to the mandatory flooding over much of the country, so it’s probably as well that the growing season is just about over. This also means that months of frustration for child number two at not being able to attempt to drown himself under the water butts are also over. He shall once again be able to dive headlong into one of the many puddles that skirt our driveway during much of the off season the very moment that his mother puts him into clean clothing.

I don’t wish to belabour the point, but if you are wondering if this is harming the vines at all, it isn’t. Their ancestors having evolved in the near east, vines take the precaution of putting down some very deep roots indeed, so a spot of dry weather is grist to their mill so to speak. It would appear that this is also true for the Alder that makes up the windbreaks between the patches of vines, but untrue of the willow that lines the driveway, which are looking very peaky indeed.

So what of the grapes? Well, as we are now on the receiving end of a top notch agronomist who has the vines performing as they should, the harvest is looking promising in terms of quantity. The superb growing conditions also means that they should be riper than ever before. We intend to pick the German varieties in the middle of next week, along with some of our Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (for reasons that I’ll explain another time) and have a consignment of family arriving the week after to attend to the mother load in our other vineyard. Which is all very exciting as it means that we shall be able to employ another skill set in the winery and think long and hard about taking the occasional weekend off.

Another consequence of this year’s prematurely ripe grapes is that I noticed some losses to the birds for the first time. Well not exactly the first time, we have lost the occasional exposed grape to the accursed magpies from the always excessively ripe Siegerrebe before, but we have never lost much in the far field. The grapes that have gone have disappeared from the edges of the Pinot Noir patch are the ones that are furthest away from our blue pretend hawk balloon kite thing (we will invest in another next year). That they are missing is a bit of a surprise, but that it’s the Pinot is no surprise at all, as they are sort of aubergine coloured this year, which makes for a striking contrast against the leaves of the vine and a whopping great advertisement for our passing avian chums. Needless to say, this has taken bird scaring to the top of the list of important jobs to attend to over the next couple of weeks.

Our first line of attack was to spend quite a lot of time driving around in the wonky pickup, making lots of noise with its even wonkier exhaust. This might seem a particularly ridiculous method of bird scaring, but it is borrowed from one of the very exclusive places that I worked at during my vine growing education, and it seemed to work okay there.

Problem solved? Not a bit of it! I’m much more paranoid than that. I had noticed that our resident cabal of ravens were bright enough to work out that I was of no threat in my dilapidated machine and were hopping around looking disinterested as I drove by. I’m pretty confident that ravens don’t eat grapes (they hop around confidently pecking the grass for most of the year), but I was worried that they might inform their feathered chums that the coast was essentially clear. If you think that this is paranoid, consider that I was convinced that they were serving as lookouts for the deer that were hammering our young vines just after we planted, and you will understand how mistrustful I have become of ravens after a diet of wall to wall Tolkein during my formative years.

I was busy cutting the grass under the vines with the strimmer the other day, making an enormous racket and thinking “This is all well and good, but I am tired and feel that I could be making much more noise, given the correct equipment”, that it came to me. There was an easy way that I could make much more noise without even standing up!

And lo, birds and people alike across all of Devon ran for cover as our prehistoric tractor rumbled across the fields with an almighty roar amid billowing clouds of blue smoke. In retrospect, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before. The fields can occasionally be a bit dicey in October as the change in season asserts itself and they become a little slippery, but they are absolutely rock hard this year. And the thunderous racket not only shakes the birds from the trees, it acts as a clarion call for Devon’s buzzards, who follow the tractor as the gull follows the trawler, looking for the carcasses of the small furry things that the mower inevitably dispatches. So we now have our own, ready made legion of terrifying birds of prey that are absolutely knocking the unconvincing blue hawk into a cocked hat. Assuming that they don’t go and pick a fight with the balloon, we should be all set.

As an added bonus, the vineyards look great and our familial slaves/pickers shall go home with dry feet this year, so presumably we’ll get away without paying them with anything other than booze again. Wish us luck!

Preparing for harvest, Jaipur Style

As I sit down in front of the faithful and aged laptop that I can never replace because I have forgotten virtually all of the passwords that are stored on it, I’m considering what might be the last of this season’s Pimms. Pimms is the order of the day because, after a hiatus over much of August, the doors and windows at Casa Huxbear have been flung open once again to keep things nice and cool indoors. The clouds have parted, the whole month of appalling northerly winds is just a memory and it is really rather summery in our charming and increasingly non-verdant bit of Devon. That’s right, the weather has been so agreeable that the grass growing from the iron hard ground under the vines is starting to keel over and die as if we were still in the dog days of summer.

Worried? Not a bit of it! The supremely dry Autumn (thus far) is doing an excellent job of arresting the development of the mildew that threatened to spoil the party in August and is also ensuring that the botrytis is kept to an absolute minimum. Admittedly this is an entirely selfish assessment of the weather, as I discovered when I bumped into the regular farmer from next door this week. He cuts the grass from the land that we own that is sans vineyard and collects it for his cows’ winter feed. He was giving his not at all impressive crop some extremely dark looks, but I suppose that he giveth with one hand, and he taketh with the other. And I’m guessing that we can expect a bumper harvest of corn, so I very much doubt that his bovine chums will have to go without this winter.

There are now many signs around the place that harvest is upon us, but as usual, chief among them is our increasingly preposterous attempts to ensure that the birds are kept on their toes and away from our ripening crop; and I’m upping the ante this year. Long suffering readers may recall that, thanks to a surprisingly large population of buzzards and sparrow hawks, we don’t have a lot of trouble with birds. Unfortunately, they have this nasty habit of waiting around and eating only your most ripe grapes, so any damage is best avoided.

During our maiden harvest, we bought a couple of floating balloon things that have a sort of rudimentary kite attached them. The idea is that you fill the balloons with helium, tie one end of the string to a post, let them go and marvel as the local avian population flees in terror for miles around. Whether it works or not is another matter. The non-grape eating swallows fly around looking for insects to eat and ignore the incongruous blue hawk entirely, but I did see a filthy, grape eating pigeon turn around when it spotted it, so perhaps it is of some merit. Either way, it has this nasty habit of falling to earth and getting horribly tangled in the trellising when it rains. While on the ground, it may or may not also terrorise mice and ants, but it certainly wasn’t in any danger of upsetting anything else, so we decided to go for a multiple pronged attack.

While I was studying at the hallowed halls of Plumpton College, I noticed that they had a box with speakers attached to it that does bird distress calls. It had lots of different types of call on its play list, barking them out every couple of minutes to ensure that no bird was sufficiently brazen to hang around for long enough to find and consume your delicious grapes. I knew that these things worked, because the battery died on it once at the weekend and the resident starlings absolutely demolished their crop.

These contraptions have a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, bird distress calls are actually quite distressing. I recall listening to the damned thing for hour after hour while attending to the vines and finding the whole process rather stressful; that said, we weren’t against having one in the vineyard that is some distance (¼ mile ish) from the house. The other problem is that at the time, they seemed horribly expensive. No matter, back then we* were pretty advanced wombles, inventing all manner of things out of smashed up pallets and general waste, so weren’t averse to stealing the idea and producing a more affordable model.

*Note the use of the the royal “We” in this case. It essentially involved me making things and Lucy sensibly refusing to sit on/use/go near them.

This sequence of events lead us to unveiling the, er, well I’ve forgotten what I called it, something like Ultimate Bird Terrifier 1.0. For only the small outlay of a few pounds on a Chinese car amplifier coupled with some speakers that I found knocking about and their waterproof (plastic bottle) housings, we had a bird scarer of our very own for a fraction of the cost of a proper one. We went online and downloaded some bird distress calls and even recorded a bit of clapping for good measure as that seems to upset the birds more than anything. I fired it up, noted that the only bird that seemed to take offence at the ungodly noise was the buzzard, and went to borrow a gas banger from our neighbour.

We now have our own banger, it seems to work, but I’m always keen to innovate unnecessarily. I don’t know if I mentioned that I applied for, and received a firearms licence in the summer in a vain attempt to reduce the numbers of our millions and millions of rabbits. If not, that happened, and I also ticked the shotgun box. This allowed me to pop out and buy a venerable soviet built contraption.

I’m fairly confident that if anyone in authority catches me returning home after my evening’s perambulations, clutching a helium balloon in one hand and a shotgun in the other that I shall be immediately locked away for the common good. That said, it feels good to be on the front foot, actually doing something about the problem. I obviously haven’t actually shot anything other than a tree with my new gun, but I’m keeping a very close eye on a particularly crafty pigeon that keeps loitering around the Chardonnay. I also noticed that the gang of magpies – which, I think, don’t eat grapes, but are responsible for some extremely unsavoury conduct towards their avian cousins – have not returned after I chased them off with a couple of cartridges last night. I’ll keep you posted, but I think that we have pretty much cracked it; as a fringe benefit, I’m not expecting to see much in the way of trespassers either.

I was meaning to talk about the state of the harvest and have been self indulgently banging on about birds, I’ll give you the edited highlights: sugars, good; acid, low; Pinot Noir, utterly black. I sense that you don’t come here for science, but if you have vines and wish to compare notes, feel free to get in touch. But not via the comments section, because it currently contains 2500 offers to buy counterfeit handbags and, er, things that aren’t exactly for a family audience and I haven’t ploughed through that lot to get at the good stuff yet.

Forecasting Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricane Irony

What goes “I don’t know what you are talking about mother, I see absolutely no evidence of hurricane Bertha here” and then spends all week picking up entire rows of vines that have been knocked over by the aforementioned storm? Well, er, me. (This also partially explains the unacceptably large gap between this and the last missive from the viticultural front line). And it was all going so well until the elements turned up and started making work for us. The weather was mostly good – well good enough, we’d like it a little hotter, but one takes what one can get when the children are summer holidaying – the weeds and the grass had started to relax after their excesses in June and July and the vines were just about ready to stop growing and start getting down to the important task of ripening their delicious grapey offspring.

Being sort of reverse omnipotent, I hold myself entirely responsible for this turn of events. Had the conversation with mother gone something along the lines of “I’m really worried about this storm, I doubt that anything will be upright when it passes”, it would doubtless have passed with nary a snapped post. We have had some pretty lively stuff pass through before – notably in the “Barbecue summer” of 2009 (ho ho ho) and the equally appalling summer of 2012 – but our not at all excellent wooden posts were not in their current parlous state then.

At this point you will doubtless be thinking “Aren’t you quite a new vineyard, did you buy second hand posts, you irrepressible cheapskate?”. Sadly this isn’t the case, and what’s more, I detect the distinct whiff of a marketing racket. When we were looking to source our posts, we had the choice of using wood or metal. I had seen little metal posts (3′ high or so) in Burgundy before and thought that they weren’t particularly aesthetically pleasing, and just before we ordered had a look at some 6′ metal posts that are used for English style trellising (which is borrowed from New Zealand). While I’m sure that they are just the trick for some folks – folks who want trellising that doesn’t immediately fall to pieces – I personally think that they have an air of Soviet style architecture about them and didn’t want to spend the next, er, as long as it takes Lucy to see sense and kick me out, looking at them. So it had to be wood.

The chap that we bought the land from has been farming for longer than I have been alive, so we went to canvass his opinion and he immediately started darkly muttering about how posts are now entirely rubbish and that they were much better when television was in black in white. I asked around and discovered that this is because that blue stuff that they treat them with isn’t full of arsenic and other equally appalling goodies any more. But how bad could they be? Answer: very, very bad. By the time that I had finished clobbering the last ones into the ground, the first ones had already assumed a sinister grey colour after spending just a few months in the rain. I still needed to buy some (slightly thicker) end posts, so went and bought them somewhere else, same result. You might recall that we came up with the brilliant scheme of painting the bottom of the replacement posts, the jury is still out on that solution, but I’m not holding my breath.

But what’s this? New and incredible posts that are guaranteed to last for 15 years and only cost twice the price of the other snappy ones! A less cynical man wouldn’t suggest that whoever makes that blue gloop that they treat wood with has been deliberately producing ineffective gloop so that they can manufacture a market for their premier league gloop. If you think this is unlikely, I politely draw your attention to everything that you have ever owned that mysteriously stopped working the very moment that the warranty ran out.

Okay, less whine, more wine. At the end of last week’s drama, we cracked open a bottle of rosé last weekend and were absolutely delighted with the result. I’ll confess that we, okay I, couldn’t resist having a go at it much too early and found it a little flat, but in common with every other bottle of wine that we have ever made, leaving it for the appropriate period of time seems to have done the trick. It’s now back to its glorious strawberries and cream best. We’ll be arranging some labels in the next week or so and we will be able to finally get the world’s most hard won bottle of wine (see previous entries for ad nauseam generator woe) onto the market. You’ve been warned.

I’m currently writing this wearing a dressing gown under the watchful eye of a pair of soaking wet trousers, but it hasn’t rained at all today. This can only mean one thing: we have mechanised the water supply and now have proper water pressure and a limitless supply of water like normal people. Unfortunately the limitless supply of water has a couple of small leaks, so I’ll tell you all about that when I have attended to the leaks and have developed a sense of humour about it, let’s say about this time next week?