Harvest Hiatus

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Harvest! And how could we possibly find time to publish a blog right in the middle of harvest? When we should be lugging around boxes full of grapes and pouring drinks for our army of workers to keep them just drunk enough to forget that we aren’t paying them? It turns out that we have rather more time than we thought that we might at the moment because a weather system worked its way up from France (where harvest is over for the most part), parked itself over our bit of the country and slowed the ripening process down to an absolute crawl. Fortunately the pickers we had invited over are local, so we were able to talk them into coming the following week, which is now this week*.

*Which is now this morning, as you might have noticed from the photo above.

The absolute best part about all this miserable weather is that there is an underhanded Scandinavian high pressure weather system parked over the north of England at the moment, causing the locals to do some very racy things indeed. Like sit around in beer gardens and barbecue in the garden and other things that people tend to do in summer. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but when we are worrying about the weather here, it is absolutely essential that I can get on the phone to someone in our ancestral seat (Manchester) and listen to them tell me how much worse the weather is there. And if there happens to be a river bursting its banks or a car floating down the road, so much the better. What I absolutely do not need to hear is mother sat in the garden debating the relative merits of an assault on a second ice cold beer. I appreciate that the weather there being awful wouldn’t actually help either of us, and I wish the people long and lazy days sunning themselves in their atypical Indian summer, but if you can’t depend on miserable weather in Manchester, what else can you rely on?

It occurred to me that it’s high time that we went back to weekly blogs last week because I completely missed an opportunity to contradict myself again. We were out walking the vines, looking for the occasional pigeon and were delighted to see that there weren’t any and that the wasn’t a wasp to be seen anywhere either. Other than those that were floating in the traps after being enticed into the traps by discount cider. After bravely sending my mother to the shops for cheap cider a couple of weeks ago (she returned with upmarket cider, probably because she didn’t want to look like a homeless person), I took the plunge and went to the country’s largest retailer and picked up a quantity of truly revolting (and impossibly cheap) cider. I had to do this as the small amount of goodness that remained in the upmarket cider appeared to have caused it to go off, and the remnants were looking decidedly furry.

As the replacement cider has absolutely no goodness in it at all – having tasted it, I very much doubt that it had any apples in either – it appears to be impervious to the ravages of time and has enticed a good crop of wasps to their demise. As well as refreshing the wasp traps, after careful consideration, we had also applied our first treatment of insecticide for a couple of years to make sure that there might be some of the Siegerrebe left come harvest time. I was looking at the last of the wasps struggling in one of the traps and it occurred to me that I was actually starting to feel sorry for the poor little chap. After all, wasn’t he just doing what came naturally when he went around eating our grapes and telling all his mates where to find them? My cross species empathy didn’t extend as far as letting him go, but it had certainly changed my view on wasps.

This hiatus in hostilities lasted for exactly 24 hours, when I noticed that the wasps had started to have a go at our as yet untreated and previously spotless Pinot Noir. By the time that I had finished spraying it, I was well and truly back in the “All wasps must die painfully” camp, but it was fun to have a walk on the wild side, even if was only for one day. I haven’t seen many wasps since then, and the Chardonnay, which is just a little behind the Pinot will have a similar treatment later on this week, so we should hopefully be out of the woods in this regard for another year.

The imminent harvest (we’ll probably be picking while you are reading this) means that it was time for taking on the winery last week. Our instructor told me while we were learning how to make wine that if you don’t like cleaning, you should probably go and find yourself another job as making wine involves quite a lot of cleaning. And how! When you aren’t cleaning the winery itself, you are cleaning hoses, tanks, bottling machines, pumps and sterilising the inside of bottles, it’s absolutely relentless. And the pending harvest means having a go at my favourite job of all: climbing through the door of the white wine tanks sideways to clean the inside of them with a pressure washer.

I’m sure that there are lots of things that the Victorians got wrong, but they were absolutely correct about sending children into inaccessible spaces to clean things. The very instant that either one of our children is sufficiently responsible to be trusted to do it properly, I’m stuffing that child straight into one of these tanks. It’s the worst job imaginable. If you can ignore climbing through the door sideways and the claustrophobia when you are in the thing, there is the utter joy of coordinating sufficiently to blast the water in the relevant place while holding a torch and dodging the splash back. And if you can do all that, one has to remember not to irritate Lucy (who claims to be unable to squeeze through the doors of the tanks) sufficiently for her to lock me in one of them. I still haven’t spent an evening in one, but it’s probably only a matter of time. But just imagine how clean it will be when she lets me out again…

Neighbourly Thunder

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It’s now the middle of September, the Siegerrebe is up to a potential alcohol sugar level of about 6%, and the season is in the process of drawing to a close. This can only mean one thing: time to ingratiate ourselves with the neighbours by firing up the thundering bird banger! If you aren’t au fait with bird bangers, they are a box with a length of pipe at one end that is connected to a gas bottle and a battery. The banger’s electronic brain sucks gas from the bottle into the pipe, where it ignites it and fires out a mighty bang.

When we first moved to the land there was a chap who owned the field behind our estate who grew something that was of interest to the birds in about June. His banger started up at sunrise (5 on the dot) and didn’t stop until after we went to bed. He seems to have stopped growing whatever it was, or been shot by one of his neighbours, because we haven’t heard it for a couple of years now. Fortunately, it isn’t action stations around here until September, so the banger doesn’t turn itself on until well after 7, which helps to keep the locals onside and the children in bed until a reasonable hour.

We are actually quite lucky in our little bit of Devon as the only birds that we are likely to have trouble with is the occasional pigeon. And when they aren’t being bullied back into the woods by the magpies, they are being permanently removed from the food chain by one of our many local birds of prey.

This is the polar opposite from the vineyard where we learned to look after vines in Sussex. It had a set of power lines running through it which was extra handy for the Starlings to perch on when they turned up mob handed (with grinding monotony every harvest). Left unattended, they can cause a huge amount of damage to the carefully maintained grapes just when you are about to make some wine out of them.

And it’s not just the paucity of grape eating birds that we are thankful for. Our birds are also the type that one may shoot at if they ever get out of hand, or bright enough to work out that nothing is coming out of the end of the banger (Starlings, on the other hand, are protected). Admittedly this would necessitate Lucy agreeing to let me wander around the estate packing heat like an actual farmer, but if we cross that hurdle, I shan’t be clapped in irons for taking pot shots at pigeons and magpies. And let’s be honest, probably vines too.

Our Gallic cousins on the other side of the Channel have taken a completely different – and alarmingly right wing – view for keeping down the animal damage in their vine growing areas. We first started smelling a rat when we were wandering around the Cotes de Beaune and noticed that there were no fences anywhere, and that the vines were trellised at a height that would be extremely agreeable to rabbits. I enquired about this when we returned home (French wine types generally pretend that they don’t know what you are talking when you start asking awkward questions) and discovered that they have cleverly shot anything that might even think twice about looking at the green parts of a vine. And they have brilliantly solved the bird problem by cutting down all the trees that they might hide in when they are not stealing your grapes. The French are evil geniuses.

It was a sad day for us last week as I tucked away my working shorts for what will probably be the last time this year and dug out a pair of winter weight trousers. It’s appreciably cooler in Devon, and much of the rest of the country according to all media outlets all the time. It’s particularly depressing at the moment as we could really do with a spot of sunshine to finish off ripening the grapes before harvest and keep them clean, dry and disease free. For what it’s worth, the long range weather forecast is excellent, and as the Met Office is apparently officially the second best weather forecaster in the world, we can relax utterly and await an absolutely stunning harvest. On second thoughts, I may keep the shorts handy.

Exactly how well prepared are we for our imminent harvest? We aren’t doing badly. After giving it quite a lot of consideration, I cleverly sent mother to the shops to buy the discount cider for the wasps traps, having first decided that on balance she looks much less like a potential alcoholic who would be refused service from a concerned shop assistant. She returned with half a dozen glass bottles of upmarket cider, claiming that they were better value than the mysterious orange goo that comes in the sort of plastic bottle that one finds strewn all over parks and by bus shelters on Saturday mornings. Whatever the case, the wasps appear to love their better quality cider and are lining up to drown themselves in the traps, and we have also caught several enormous hornets. I understand that it’s an even toss as to whether they will be more likely to eat grapes or wasps, but when one factors in their enormous stinger and malignant appearance, I think that we’d prefer them in the traps.

The next time that we meet, it is entirely likely that the Siegerrebe will be out of the vineyard, smashed to its constituent parts and in a tank fermenting, which is very exciting indeed. And we will have absolutely no problem collecting all those grapes as we have been onto the internet and bought some new amazing picking boxes to replace the ones that we have been using that are now falling apart a bit and have holes big enough for grapes to fall out of the bottom. When I say new, I mean that they have “Property of Woolworths” written on the bottom of them, and when I say that they are amazing, I mean that they are so big that they will probably weigh as much as I do when they are full of grapes. Did I mention that they were cheap? Did I have to?

A Waspish Swansong

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Don’t you just hate it when you go around telling people that something won’t happen and then, as if by magic, you are proven completely wrong in such an obvious fashion that you can’t even pretend that’s what you meant in the first place? Or is that just me? Whatever, I have been dutifully regurgitating an article that I heard on the radio news last year about wasps being so utterly soaked through by the rain and then starved by the attendant lack of fruit in 2012 that their numbers could not possibly recover in time for them to do any commercial damage to fruit growers for years to come, possibly forever. If not longer. You will imagine my surprise and delight when we had the temerity to attempt an al fresco dining session last weekend and were assaulted by an armada of the unpleasant little blighters.

And that wasps have the most amazing ability to turn what should be a mildly boozy and wickedly enjoyable afternoon in the (still) sun drenched Devonian countryside into a stressful retreat into a hermetically sealed room was not the worst of it. The wasps like to make a mess of our grapes. If you weren’t with us in 2011 (or have somehow managed to escape the relentless whining about them since then) most of the German vines, which were very well stocked at the time, had pretty much all of their grapes nicked by a legion of wasps. This was particularly shocking for us as things had been going extremely smoothly until that point, with nary a wasp to be seen. What’s more, our usual insecticide (forefinger and thumb) promised to be painful and potentially lethal, so we were without chemicals to convince them that they might want to be elsewhere. Specifically motionless beneath the vines.

By the time that I was in possession of some insecticide, most of the grapes were already gone, but disposing of the few remaining wasps was still intensely satisfying. We use insecticide extremely sparingly here because it also knocks over the good guys (ladybirds, lacewings, solider beetles et al), so we were keen to use something other than chemicals again this year. We have used jam jars with holes banged in the lids, filled with golden syrup and water before with some success, but not nearly enough to prevent the wasps doing fairly major damage to the grapes.

The solution came to us in the pub. From where I expect that most ideas worth their salt come. Gluttons for punishment, we were with some friends sat outside a pub attempting to eat. And sure enough, the moment that we sat down, the wasps came to join us and generally stir things up a little, which was all very depressing. Then someone noticed that one of our number had absent mindedly bought another pint of cider before finishing the first and that her unattended cider now had a wasp attempting doggy paddle in it. My attention was immediately taken by this as we had made a new design of trap this year and filled it with orange pop, which was going well, but nowhere near as well as this (at this point a third wasp took a swan dive into her lonely Bulmers).

We left the pub in extremely high spirits, mostly because we had turned the tables on the wasps and were at that point looking forward to their visits as they unerringly ended with a tumble into the cider and a victorious cheer from our previously harassed troupe. And what did we discover when we returned from the pub with our house guests? More exciting evidence: amongst the wreckage from the previous evening’s festivities there was a very nearly empty bottle of cider with its own collection of half drunk wasps stumbling around the bottom. Had we chanced upon an extremely effective and humane way to prevent the wasps from damaging the grapes and send them on their way with the mother of all waspish swansongs? Yes. Now all that I need to do is pluck up the courage to go to the cheapest supermarket that I can find for a quantity of discount cider.

Away from the wasps, the vines are really starting to move into their final stage of the season and we are hopeful to start picking the first of them at the end of the month. Our German vines have changed colour from green to a sort of translucent yellow colour (which is called veraison and usually happens about six weeks before picking) and the most advanced are just at about the sweetness that one might expect from a table grape. Which is why we are paying attention to the wasps, although they still won’t actively start chewing through the skins for a couple of weeks yet.

The main part of our crop has, at the time of writing, just started to move into the first stage of this process. The Chardonnay, which appears to have suffered the most from the ravages of a soggy 2012 (unlike the wasps, the effects on these vines are as advertised), has a smallish amount of fruit that is almost entirely through veraison and is looking great. The Pinot Noir – which will ultimately turn red/black – is just about to change colour and there is rather more of it. This is interesting as the Pinot Noir is usually further along than the Chardonnay, but it appears to be about a week behind this year. It seems likely that this is due to the Chardonnay being able to concentrate its efforts on a smaller amount of fruit. Whatever the case, it’s going to be really interesting to see what effect this potentially riper fruit has on each of the two bottles of wine we are going to be able to make from it.

The Perfect Pig

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Pigs! I almost forgot to tell you about our invasion of pigs last month! Long suffering readers will be aware that we had a similar problem with cows a couple of years ago when four huge – and alarmingly mobile – woolly rare breed cows escaped from their field and set up home in ours. The cows were of particular concern as they had a nasty habit of knocking over bits of the trellising, walking through the electric fences with impunity on account of their woolly coats and churning up the land. And the absolute best bit was that when we complained to their owner, he kept popping in to look for them, and claiming not to be able to find the two tonnes of slowish moving beef that was sauntering around the land. You will no doubt be astonished to hear that once one of our more forthright neighbours called and threatened to shoot them, they magically materialised the following day and were recaptured. I’m fairly confident that they have escaped once more and emerged in someone else’s field since then, but since we are apparently the only people around here who aren’t packing more heat than Bruce Willis, I feel sure that the land’s owner will be suitably prepared to take the appropriate action.

I digress. The first that we knew of our porcine invaders was when the dogs ended their ten hour sunbathing session, ran into the vineyard and started barking a lot. Knowing that it takes nothing less than a delivery driver or dinner to move the dogs from their sun worshipping this time of year, I leapt up to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the dogs having a sort of Mexican stand off with three little pigs amongst the vines while each tried to work out who was going to flinch first and leg it back home. Watching them move forwards and back across the vineyard made quite amusing watching until my fun was spoiled after a good ten minutes when the dogs finally pulled themselves together and chased the pigs back from whence they came.

We had a reasonably good idea of whence they came, as one of our neighbours has had some of her woodland fenced off for the purposes of putting pigs on it. Investigation reveals that the pigs are living in a trailer on a part of her land that is adjacent to our middle field. What’s more, it turns out that they are absolutely charming little critters and we regularly take the children to watch them run around the woodland and attempt to break the gate down to resume their Mexican stand off with the dogs. Looking at the speed that the pigs are growing, I suspect that the balance of power may have shifted a little, but the dogs remain confident as long as the gate remains in place. The only potential fly in the ointment was talking to their owner, who informs me that her pigs go absolutely crazy for soft fruit; which should be fun if they find another way out around harvest time. But then again, I’ll probably have panicked and be wandering around looking like an extra from Apocalypse Now by then, so the grapes should be okay even if I’m a little shell shocked.

And what of the ever expanding grapes? They are still expanding nicely and we are still hopeful that they are going to be ready at the usual time after their slow start. They are now very nearly at what will be their ultimate size (about half the size of an eating grape and almost perfectly round) and the bunches on the red/black varieties that are best exposed to the sun are just about threatening to change colour. The change in colour is called veraison, and it starts happening about six weeks before it’s time to pick the grapes (which is usually about 1st September here, and much earlier pretty much everywhere else in the northern hemisphere). And in a remarkable piece of good fortune, the long suffering family members who tirelessly arrive each year at harvest (and spent last year putting the winery back together and not picking grapes) arrive to do battle again in seven weeks time!

It has been interesting (and an enormous relief) to watch the vines catch up in what can only be described as a proper summer. And not least because our consultant tells me that this is pretty much what happened every year until we planted the vineyard and it started raining relentlessly between the months of April and September. The flowering aside, having a cooler spring and a warmer summer has also saved us having to panic about the vines being clobbered by the frost in spring (because they hadn’t started growing yet) or mildew in the summer (too dry, or at least dry enough for the chemicals to work). So all that we need now is the traditional improvement in the weather the very instant that the children go back to school and we should be all set for a pretty much perfect season.

Adorable Devonian Pinot

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In scenes that were horribly reminiscent of last summer, I was stood in the vineyard attached to a sprayer shaking my fist at the sky and cursing the weather forecasters* for their complete and total ineptitude. It has been about a year since I’ve spent the morning running up and down hills with my sprayer, only to have my efforts wiped out (and the chemicals washed off the vines) by a lot of rain that is supposed to be falling elsewhere. While we aren’t exactly happy that spraying is taking about twice as long as it might (or that those crafty meteorologists keep changing their historical forecasts after the rain has actually started falling in scenes horribly redolent of the Josef Stalin regime), the occasional spot of rain is helping to remind us just how lucky we have been with the weather this year.

*Specifically via the medium of the otherwise excellent, but factually inaccurate Met Office weather application. Fortunately I was stood in the middle of a field with an audience of precisely two dogs and one buzzard, as shouting at your mobile phone for not making the sun stay out isn’t exactly the image that I wish to project to my adoring Devonian public.

Walking to the vineyard through the part of the land that homes the grass that is currently cut to feed our neighbour’s cows, it’s obvious that after its first cut at the end of June it still hasn’t seen much rain. It’s undeniably yellow, as is the rest of the valley. I haven’t bumped into any of the local cattle farmers recently, but I suspect that our delight in the dry weather has correspondingly left them all a little depressed at the lack of grass and therefore winter feed. Presumably they will all be complaining about being poverty stricken at the end of the season. Sound familiar? We, however, are absolutely delighted by the lack of grass: that tractor and mower have only been out for a single tour of duty this year and it’s still perfectly navigable in a pair of sandals. The strimmer also remains fairly idle, and when you consider that we are mostly on the other side of the weed growing season, it doesn’t look like either of them are likely to see much more action until next year.

Amongst the vines it’s the same story. From start to finish the entire flowering period has been wall to wall sunshine, with just a touch of non-threatening fluffy white cloud around the edges. It couldn’t have been better. Particularly given that we spent most of June watching and waiting for the vines to start flowering, absolutely convinced that it would start raining the very moment that they did. And the result is – as far as we can tell – the best fruit set to date. There are small bunches of grapes all over everything, especially on the Pinot Noir whose performance we have been worrying about in South Field, so we should be all set for a bumper(ish) harvest. And given that the wasps remain mostly – we saw our first one at the vineyard yesterday – absent, we might even be able to make something from our sickly and difficult to maintain German varieties for the first time in three years. I know! My cup runneth over; almost certainly with delicate and fruity German style wine.

The Pinot Noir in South Field was of particular concern as it was otherwise entirely healthy and happy, but had the unforgivable habit of not producing many grapes. Having discussed our problem with some people who have the same clone* of Pinot Noir, we were alarmed to hear that they have experienced the same problem, some of them had gone so far as to rip them up and replace them with another type of Pinot Noir. The type that we had chosen has historically been selected by French nursery type people for excellent quality and reasonable yields, and this description has been proven pretty much half right (we have been very happy with the excellent quality of both bunches of grapes from them thus far). Happily it appears that we won’t have to dig them all up after all. So I can stop pretending that we haven’t taken them out thus far for some reason other than that I have literally no idea how to remove a whacking great vine from a field armed with only a spade and a pair of secateurs.

*In case you aren’t already aware, when you buy vines from the nursery you are given a choice of variety (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay etc.) and a clone number. The clones are chosen from vines that have performed well in the past, allowing you to chose vines that crop particularly heavily, are of particularly good quality or ripen early or so on. When they arrive, you are presented with boxes and boxes of genetically identical plants that forget that they are all clones the second that you put them in the ground and (infuriatingly) start behaving completely differently from their neighbours.

Summer Visitors

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We are into the second half of our most important month and a tour of the vineyard reveals that summer is still very much on. The skies are absolutely clear, there isn’t the merest hint of a cloud, it’s arguably a little hot for work (but we have already covered that) and there are insects flitting about all over the place. The return of the insects after virtually all of them disappeared in 2012 is both good and bad news for us.

I noticed what I thought was mite damage on the vines for the first time in a couple years last week on just a few of the vines (which was the case the last time that we saw it). Insects haven’t been of particular concern to the vines at this time of year before, as the judicious use of insecticides (once ever, on a legion of wasps) has encouraged a good crop of ladybirds and soldier beetles that do an excellent job of keeping the mites et al in check. The soldier beetles seem to still be a bit thin on the ground so far this year, but there are quite a few adult ladybirds about and literally thousands of their offspring munching away on the mites that we can’t see, but thankfully they can. I saw a ladybird larva eating the black fly on a weed the other day, they are absolutely savage. And presumably extremely hungry. We had an alarming hour or two the first time that we saw ladybird larva – which had appeared in shocking numbers almost overnight and look kind of evil – and were mightily relieved to discover that they were doing us a favour. Not least because the chemical store was conspicuously insecticide free at the time.

Our discovering the new mite damage coincided with a visit from the very knowledgeable chap who sells us our chemicals. I described the damage that the mites were doing and, quick as a flash, he told me that I was talking complete rubbish, that capsid bugs were eating the vines and that we should be able to see them. I was shocked. Not that I’ve been talking rubbish these years – Lucy reminds me of that on a regular basis – but that we should be able to see the bugs that are having a go at the vines. He also told us that we would have to spray to eradicate them entirely, which would also knock out the good guys. Fortunately we have a method to remove naughty and visible insects that we developed when we had a problem with moths and their ravenous caterpillar offspring, specifically applying a thumb and forefinger to them and repeating until there aren’t any left. This method is both ecologically sound and incredibly satisfying, fingers crossed that it’s as effective on the capsid bugs as it was on the moths.

It appears that some of our resident pollinators have also returned after a year off. I have probably mentioned before that vines don’t exactly have the most exciting flowers as their petals are fused and all fall off in one go when it’s time for action. This tells us that they don’t do much in the way of attracting insects and in turn have to use the wind to pollinate their uninspiring flowers. Then again, every little helps, and in previous years we have seen (and been alarmed until identifying them also) pollen beetles and soldier beetles crawling all over the flowers and generally helping the wind out. And this year, for the first time ever, we have bees too, which are presumably off to make the world’s most delicious honey. We have considered and rejected the idea of keeping bees before as we understood that they aren’t much interested in the flowers of vines. Now that we know different, I shall be taking steps to ensure that the world’s most delicious honey is attached to my toast next summer.

The return of the charmless horse files is bad news for me in particular as they are turning me into a walking buffet car as I work in the field closest to other people’s livestock. I you haven’t had the pleasure – we certainly hadn’t until we went to live la vie rustique – horse flies land on you with a almost audible thud and then painfully bury their spiky head in you for the purposes of extracting your blood, with absolutely none of the gravitas employed by the sneaky and under handed mosquito. What makes the horse files extra delightful this time of year is that we are spending at least some of our time strimming at the moment, and when the strimmer kicks up chunks of grass and weeds onto the operator, it feels almost exactly the same as a predatory horse fly landing. And leaping about like a demented person and slapping yourself every thirty seconds doesn’t exactly expedite the process of removing the weeds from beneath the vines.

And what of the worst of our insect visitors? Vespula vulgaris, the obnoxious wasp, who lies in wait for you to tend your grapes carefully all summer and then callously eat them? He is conspicuously absent. According to the people who know about these things, he’s absent because he has yet to recover from the ravages of summer 2012. Could this summer get any better? No, it could not.

Ten Years of Gin

We were sat outside having dinner the other evening after a day spent trying (and mostly failing) to avoid marching up and down hills during the hottest part of another exceedingly hot day. The grass in the vineyard and around the house is neatly cut, the vines are looking verdant and lovely and, at the time of writing, I’m surveying our handiwork safe in the knowledge that the weather is set fair for the duration of the forecast period, nursing a gin and tonic so cold that it threatens to bond with my hand each time that I take a sip. It is absolutely glorious in our little Devonian enclave, and not even the prospect of several million caravans arriving in our quiet county at the start of the school holidays is enough to take the edge off the good time summer vibes. Not least because the school holidays are likely to consist of just one long weekend in July next year when the education secretary has finished with them. It’s days like this that make the horrors of summer 2012 possible to bear.

This mostly* unexpected bit of Mediterranean weather has taken us completely off guard, and we are having quite a bit of difficulty adjusting to the continental lifestyle that the continental weather demands (other than the gin and tonic). I’m currently charging around during office hours, absolutely brimming with steaming hot coffee and wondering why I start to feel peculiar after about half an hour or so in the sunshine. But then again, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to just sit and enjoy the vineyard at the nicest part of the day if we were out bud rubbing or mowing it in the evening and watching television or sleeping or whatever it is that Spanish people do at lunch time. Needless to say, nothing short of a crowbar will get the dogs out from the shade under the children’s trampoline at the moment, so we don’t expect them to be chasing any rabbits or deer out of the vineyard any time soon.

*I claim to be the only person who saw this extended period of excellent weather coming, after hearing the finest meteorological minds announce after their conference that we would be having ten years of rain and deciding that the opposite was very likely to happen. Possibly for the next ten years. I have told Lucy that we should probably get on and remove the central heating from the house.

So things are going well in the vineyard on account of the incredible weather, right? Correct. Taking a tour of the vines (at lunch time, so that we may enjoy the best of the relentless sunshine), the first thing that one notices is how far they have come on since we last looked. We had a visit from a friend last week who has lots of experience in English vineyards who assured us that our vines would catch up after their slow start this year. And lo, after starting over five weeks late and catching up to about two weeks behind last month, I’m pretty confident that they are now just about where they should be. Closer inspection of the vines reveals that the petals on the flowers (which are fused to make what looks like a small grape) are just about ready to fall off and expose their inner workings, kicking off the business end of the season.

Without wishing to labour the point (too late, ha!), decent weather around flowering is pretty much vital for our purposes and (quick check on the Met Office site), there is still wall to wall blue skies predicted during the period that we expect the vines to be flowering in. Our delight in the weather is slightly tempered by a lower density of flowers this year (albeit on more shoots on larger vines) which is probably the result of the miserable weather this time last year. But then again, what you lose on the roundabouts, you gain on the swings: the vines should be absolutely covered in flowers next year, and if the weather is even half way decent, they should be covered in grapes too. Whatever the case next year, it looks like our pickers will have something to do other than build us a deck outside the house and put the finishing touches on the winery building this year.

When we aren’t whining about the much needed heat and wandering about in it and complaining even more, it’s standard middle of summer fare in the vineyard. And that means cutting grass, cutting down weeds and finishing off the bud rubbing. In an unprecedented display of preparedness we managed to get most of the weeds sprayed off at the start of the season and are now reaping the benefits. Which is to say that the strimmer isn’t seeing nearly as much action as it was last year. The bud rubbing is very nearly finished (as is my back) and we are nearly into bud rubbing the new vines that were planted at the start of this season. And it’s high time that we started those, as lots of them have now grown up and out of the top of their rabbit guards, so it might even be possible to prune some of them in such a way as to allow them to have some grapes next year and contribute to 2014’s vintage. Which will no doubt be enormous.

***If you read our last entry, you may now have a headache on account of the blogging software kicking it out in one, paragraph-less lump. Apologies for any inconvenience. You might also have noticed that we have moved from weekly to bi-weekly publishing(?), it’s entirely due to time constraints over summer, we’ll be inflicting a weekly update on you when things calm down a little. You can find out when the blog has been updated here, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/HuxbearVineyard) or Twitter (@huxbearvineyard). We appreciate your continued attention.***

The Al Fresco Mower

After the glorious wall to wall sunshine, open windows and al fresco dining that we were enjoying when we last met, the weather is currently vacillating from the sublime to the ridiculous; often on the same day. One moment, we will be marching through the vineyard in the aforementioned unbroken sunshine, surrounded by more birds, bees, dogs and rabbits than Snow White had for company at the height of her powers. The next, we are running for cover from the torrential rain that has just been blown in by gale force wind, leaving only a lone black bird digging in the garden looking for worms. In fact, that’s not entirely true, at the time of writing, there is also a woodpecker out in the rain, hammering its head into the ground outside the kitchen window, but I think that it may have gone insane or something, so probably that doesn’t count.

And exactly why is summer on hold for the moment? It’s just possible that we are responsible. Not in the general way that our most local farmer insists that we are responsible, specifically that we have broken summer in Devon in perpetuity for having the temerity and stupidity to plant anything racier than a heard of cows in our fields. I think that the weather turned when our new sprayer was delivered and I attempted to spray the vines with our new super brilliant fertiliser cocktail for the first time. Fortunately the collection of weather boffins who have just announced that it is going to rain for the next ten years should help to rectify the situation any moment and we can expect, ahem, barbecue summers for at least the next ten years.

As the vines have finally started to motor, we are now moving towards the time of year that we really need some settled weather as we are about a fortnight away from when they are due to start flowering. If you weren’t with us this time last year, flowering happened at about the same time as our friends at the other end of the valley were frantically attempting to prevent the River Teign from making its way into their house, and all the rain washed the pollen from the flowers onto the ground before they could become grapes. Depending on your point of view, this was in many ways a blessing as the few bunches of grapes that did make it through spent the rest of the season being rained on, were picked in November and made a very small amount of revolting wine (which we then threw away). So at least we didn’t have to go around wasting our time spraying lots of grapes that weren’t going to make anything other than extremely sour wine. I suppose that small victories are still victories, no?

We finally had to give in and cut the vineyards last week. That short sentence doesn’t really do justice to the fun that we had making the mower work after its 6 months living in its container over winter. I had a quick whiz around the driveway and non vineyardy bits of land with the mower as they were the most needful of its attentions. Having had a couple of years off mowing (Lucy has been doing it, but now spends her weekends juggling children instead), I also thought that it would be a good idea to have a go somewhere that you can’t run into anything (read: posts, vines, dogs, children etc.). I was highly delighted that I had retained the ability to drive the tractor in roughly the intended direction, but less impressed with the mower, which wouldn’t cut any grass. Which sort of defeated the point.

This meant that it was time to take my life into my own hands and have a look underneath the mower again. The mower is attached to the back of the tractor and it is possible to prop it up at a height of about two feet, which is just enough to crawl under and investigate its inner workings. The time spent under it is usually fraught (the mower is very heavy and the tractor very old) and this was a special case as we couldn’t work out what the problem was. No matter how much I hit it with our largest spanner and swore at it, it did not seem to make the slightest difference. I looked at our puny strimmer, and then at the enormous field behind it, then back at the puny strimmer, considering using that instead of the mower. Then decided that it was time for us to break the glass and use our Get Out of Jail Free card; namely calling someone who knows how tractors work and beg him for assistance. Do you know how long it takes for someone who knows what he is doing to fix your mower? Not even long enough to have a coffee. It turns out that our problems lay on the top part of the mower – specifically the bit that stops the tractor rattling the mower to pieces. And by simply over tightening the bolts that hold that bit together, one may make the mower cut grass! So the vineyards changed from yellow to green overnight and are looking as lovely as they are easy to navigate. And I expect them to continue looking lovely until the mower rattles itself to death (one piece missing so far). It’s almost as if buying the cheapest one available is in some ways a bad idea.

Le Golden Chateau

Summer! Remember that? It has been missing in Devon since 2011, but it appears to have turned up. And we are absolutely delighted to see it back. After a winter that seemed like it was never going to end, we were sat outside the château last weekend, loitering in the shadows (lest we be cooked by the relentless sunshine) admiring the millions of buttercups that have burst into life all over the vineyard. For at least the time being (the weather forecast doesn’t look encouraging), Devon is absolutely the place to be; and by the looks of the roads around here, the caravanning population appear to agree with us.

Caravans apart, and even if it has been a little delayed this year, the start of summer is always an excellent time of year for us. There isn’t much disease around until next month or so, so there is no spraying to be done yet, you can see the flowers that will eventually become bunch after bunch of perfectly ripe grapes (well, let’s at least pretend that this is going to happen, we are going to be doing a lot of pretending this week). We can also spend much less time worrying about the weather as it’s a month or so away from flowering, so we don’t have to worry about the rain washing all the pollen off the flowers and onto the ground and the chances of there being frost around in June to zap our vines is effectively nil. Ahem, probably.

And what do the millions of early summer buttercups mean? Millions of buttercups mean that it is time for us to wheel out the old excuse that we haven’t cut the grass in the increasingly scruffy vineyard because we love to look at our (quite amazingly yellow) vineyard so much that it would be criminal to cut them all down. In reality, it is because there are lots of other things to do around here in June. So we are grateful to the buttercups for offering us the excuse to do something else; specifically crack open a bottle of gin at the weekend like normal people.

Walking through the furthest end of the vineyard that we live in, we noticed that there were still a lot of vine guards that I have not picked up yet, that a lot of rabbits still live in this field and that the established vines had not had their bark stripped off them over winter by the rabbits (which has been a problem in previous winters). This might not seem like a particularly momentous discovery, but it was a road to Damascus moment for us. As the rabbits were not eating the more established vines, it means that they don’t need the protection of guards, and guards that are safely stored in a shed cannot be blown around a vineyard and lie waiting to be collected over and over again! We were able to very quickly remove the guards from the ground and the vines and it looked so good that we were in the mood to celebrate! Although noticing that the rest of the field was full of vines with guards that I had spent the previous couple of months attaching to them with cable ties, dented our triumphant mood a little.

Up close, the vines have really started to get going and we are hopeful that they are going to catch up to somewhere near where they are supposed to be in the unbroken sunshine. At the latest estimate, they are now two to three weeks behind, as opposed to four to five earlier in the season. All of the varieties now have proper shoots on and it’s very nearly possible to chart their progress by the day from the front door. This is obviously fantastic for the vines, but it also means that the day that we start bud rubbing is drawing ever closer, so the annual ritual of staggering around like an exceedingly old person (and complaining like one) are very nearly upon us.

If you haven’t been with us for long, you won’t be aware of what bud rubbing is. Far from being an innocent sounding summertime rural pursuit, it involves bending down and removing the unwanted shoots from along the trunk of the vine (imagine taking the twigs off the trunk of a large tree to make it look nice and treeish). Which in turn means lots of bending over – 16,500 times this year – which in turn means an aching back and ham strings. Which in turn means us complaining about having to work outdoors in the stunning Devonian summer (still pretending) to some very unresponsive people who have the misfortune of having to spend summer looking out of the window of an office.

This is all very trying for us and it takes me ages to dream up excuses for not doing it and finding other things that I must be doing instead every year. I’m hopeful that Lucy will allow me to train up one (or both) of the children to help me do it next year as they are already much closer to the ground than I am. As I type, one of them appears to be attempting to chew the nose off a Postman Pat doll and the other is having a conversation with a model train, so it might just be that I have to hang on another couple of years for some help.

Away from the vineyard, we finally managed to get the final filtration on the Pinot Noir done this week, and are hopeful to have some of the bottling done next week (see, can’t get the bud rubbing excuses in too early). I am a very enthusiastic taster in the winery when Lucy isn’t looking, and am currently very pleased with the progress of the Pinot. Which is just as well, as we need to leave the tanks empty for this year’s bumper harvest, which will fill each of them to the brim (still pretending).

Staggering Into Summer

After the excitement of our surprise planting last week, it has all been quite a bit calmer in the vineyard this week. With the exception of a couple of showery bumps in the road, the weather is steadily improving as we make our way into June. The Baltic winds have receded, the torrential rain has abated and we are able to stride out into the vineyard in something approximating summer attire. And it’s probably about time that the weather sorted itself out, as my winter socks are now well and truly worn out through excess use and were ceremonially thrown in the bin last week. Oh, and the cold weather isn’t doing the vines much good either.

Wandering out into the vineyards until a couple of weeks ago left us worrying about whether the vines were going to start growing at any point in 2013; one can now tell from the front door that it is the business end of the season. Closer inspection reveals that there are now proper shoots, with actual individual leaves, on all of our varieties. And it is even possible to see little flowers on some of those shoots, which in itself is a big relief after the floods and pestilence (downy mildew) of “Summer” 2012.

You may at this point be wondering why we would be worrying about the awful weather last year affecting the vines this year. It’s because one horrible season is not only able to make a mess of one year, under the correct circumstances it can actually foul up two. As the number of flowers on the shoots are set in the previous season (by a process that I do not really understand) rainfall at the wrong time of year can cause the vine to have a reduced number of flowers (and therefore grapes) in the following year. As most of the shoots still aren’t long enough to have obvious flowers on them for us to look at, we aren’t yet in a position to ascertain how much wine we are likely to be making in 2013*. And as we don’t yet have any handy staff, or children that can count past ten, it probably wouldn’t make much difference if we could count them.

*Whether or not you make lots of wine is obviously weather dependant. If you have millions of flowers all over your super healthy vines, and then it starts raining all over those lovely flowers when they are open, the net result is the same as having no flowers in the first place.

The other big advantage with the weather remaining dry is that we have been able to tidy up the new bit of the vineyard. You may have gathered from last week’s entry that the land wasn’t exactly carefully prepared before we had it filled with vines, so it has been important to do as much of the tidying as possible after they are in. As the planting machine ploughs a furrow into the land (which it then backfills after sticking the vines into the soil), the unprepared land doesn’t cause the vines problems as they establish themselves, but the machine left a bit of a mess in its wake. We had the same problem at the far end of South Field – where the land had been ploughed across the hill and the vines planted up and down it – and we were a little concerned at the time. Naturally these vines are still the most vigorous in the whole estate. I expect that everyone will be planting in a similarly chaotic manner in future. And I will be given some sort of medal or award for brilliantly and carefully devising this system.

The first job was to dig up the vines that had been buried underneath the enormous clumps of soil and grass that were backfilled up to (and on top of) the planted vines. This is admittedly a small hitch with my brilliant vine establishment system, but you can easily find most of the vines beneath said clumps of grass and replace any with spare vines while crossing your fingers and hoping that two don’t grow out of the same hole. Once you have found your vines, it is essential to protect them. You may have noticed that the lump of wax placed by the nursery onto the top part of the vines is no barrier to the millions of rabbits that want nothing more than to eat them. Once the canes are in and the vine guards are on, it’s time to get those cable ties through the guards, or I will be chasing them all over the vineyard ad nauseam and complaining about having to do it even more ad nauseam. Then a quick whizz over the powder dry top soil with the power harrow and the land looks like it was properly prepared and no one will ever know about my brilliant planting scheme.