Elastic Bands and Good Intentions

Hello again. The last time that we met the weather was unseasonably warm and the fields were drying their way up nicely and well on the way to a summer state of something approximating dry land. I have noted that the Cricket World cup is about to start in England, and as you cannot play cricket in the rain, it has therefore taken a bit of a nosedive. I have everything crossed that we don’t have the horror show that we endured the last time that we were churlish enough to attempt to stage an international sporting event (in 2012 for the Olympics); the second the news readers start banging on about “Barbecue Summers”, I’m taking four months off and giving it up as a bad job.

No matter, as long as the weather starts to behave itself by the start of next month when flowering happens, we should be fine. The mildew might be fairly tricky to deal with and it might put the harvest back a bit, but we should be fine.

Last week we made it half way through an allegory about why you should never buy things that are suspiciously cheap. Now, you may not have the dubious pleasure of owning a vineyard, but this is also a good lesson for life, as it will almost certainly prevent you from causing unnecessary harm to the environment by having to buy multiple inferior products and scrapping them willy nilly. It should also help to prevent buying things that are demonstrably rubbish.

Never one to miss an opportunity to load up on junk or to fail to learn from history, I had carefully ignored all of the warning signs. I had bought countless tools from our local hyper discounter that weren’t fit for the job. You know, the sorts of things that they reject for being “gifts” in Christmas crackers because they would be more of an insult than a gift, and obviously less useful than a packet of improbably small playing cards or that mind reading plastic fish thing.

I’d had the lot. A hacksaw that wouldn’t cut through a single bolt and now had a perfectly smooth blade, check, a set of snapped bolt removers that go in your drill and appear to be made out of some sort of grey butter instead of metal, check; and that was just for one job. They are all now rusting away in the garage, not teaching me any life lessons. When it came to the new mower for the tractor? You can bet your mortgage that I bought that sucker on eBay. I would obviously have bought it locally, but the range at the turbo charged pound shop down the road doesn’t stretch as far as agricultural equipment.

I can still vividly remember – all those years ago – coaxing the driver of the delivery wagon up our overgrown lane and watching him unload this magical device. A device that was going to give me the opportunity to boot the strimmer into the literal long grass and save me masses and masses of time. I ran my uncultured eye over it and it looked okay. It had big old blades for destroying the most obstinate of weeds, a wheel on the back and it was green, which is a nice sort of colour. See, I told you that we didn’t really know anything about this sort of thing (bitter experience has been an excellent tutor).

I had this suspicion that it might not be the Rolls Royce equivalent of mowers when the chain thing on the back fell off on our very first outing. Logic told me that this wasn’t an indispensable part of the unit as it was still cutting the grass quite nicely, so it went off to live with my collection of useless rusting tools. Some more bits have fallen off it since then, and yet it continued to cut the grass in an almost entirely straight line. We have even performed a little maintenance and repair on it since then too, which seems quite indulgent on a machine that is (presumably by some sort of divine will) still almost entirely working normally, but we all have our little foibles I guess.

You will no doubt imagine my surprise when it jettisoned something for the hundredth time and it actually stopped chopping the grass down. Okay, beating the grass into submission, we have a lot of stones on the land, and no amount of time assaulting the blades with an angle grinder makes them look like anything other than a pair of clubs. The mower had stopped cutting the grass because it had dispatched one of its blades and was proceeding to have some sort of fit at the back of the tractor.

Had this much-abused and low cost machine finally had its day? Was it time to go out and buy a proper one that would retain all of its parts? Not a bit of it!

In the last ten years we have become pretty canny at putting things back together after they fall apart and fostering relationships with useful people who are prepared to offer advice in return for alcohol. After spending an increasingly incoherent lunch with one of these excellent people, we discovered that all I would have to do was buy some new blades for the mower, buy a welder, learn how to use that welder and devote several days to the project and I could have the old girl back to her former glory. By simply spending approximately the same amount as we would have on a proper mower and paying myself nothing in the process, I could have a not very good mower, that’s not the sort of deal that any normal person can back away from.

After just a couple of false starts, we managed to get the mower operational and the vineyard looks absolutely resplendent with its new haircut. I think that I might even be able to weld the chain thing at the back back on, whatever that’s for.

Powering into the Growing Season

Hello again. Isn’t everything looking a bit nicer outside? I have heard legend about the lovely bit of weather that took hold of the country around Easter, but this is our first opportunity to enjoy some sunshine and associated fair weather accoutrements* at home. Why is it our first opportunity to enjoy nice weather at home? Because we cleverly booked ourselves into a house in Spain when that was happening and enjoyed some torrential rain and a bit of low wattage flooding instead. I’m off topic, but for the record, people who live in Spain will tell you that their roads do not need drains, but their roads do need drains; it was a toss up between coming back from the bar on foot or renting a canoe.

*gin and tonic.

We did just get to catch the end of that nice weather in April and were astonished by the way that everything had grown in the week that we were away. There was blossom all over everything, the trees had all sprung into life and the vines had started to look a little less startled and had started to behave a bit more like they are supposed to at the start of the growing season. There were now proper leaves on the shoots, things were starting to progress, which was nice after watching them for the previous month become a frost risk and then sort of slam the anchors on.

Now, I’d be telling fibs if I were to suggest that they haven’t done much since Easter, but as we have discussed previously, cold weather makes for soporific vines. And it has been cold, until this week, I could count on the fingers of one hand how many times that I have been able to stride out into the fields wearing shirt sleeves, the vines have responded accordingly. We have a really sheltered spot in our larger field, at this time of year you can usually actually see the Chardonnay shooting up on a day by day basis, but even they are dragging their feet a bit this year. If history tells us anything, it is that this might or might not have some impact on the quality of the harvest this year.

You know what else has really gotten a wriggle on in this lovely weather? The weeds. This wouldn’t normally have been much of a problem for us, as under normal circumstances we would have climbed aboard the trusty tractor and obliterated them with our slightly less trusty mower; but these are not normal circumstances.

We take care of the weeds directly underneath the vines by spraying them off with weedkiller just before the start of the growing season, and then periodically see them off through the growing season with a strimmer. This is a solution that works reasonably well, the maintenance with the strimmer is pretty quick as the vast majority of the grass is gone and you only have to whip off a few weeds here and there. In the dim and distant past, I had the bright idea of clearing the area up and down the rows with a strimmer too. There is a reason why this is not common practice in vineyards around the world: it is because it is terrible idea. It takes forever because it is roughly analogous to trimming your back garden with a pair of scissors, and equally rewarding.

I’m getting ahead of myself. All those years ago, I found myself in the middle of a growing season armed with a ridiculously inappropriate strimmer because we had initially decided that we were going to keep the rows between the vines clear of grass entirely and had a device that was very much suited to that job, instead of a mower. We had made this decision as our fields are absolutely full of lovely stones. For your average arable farmer stones are not good because they make your carrots wonky and smash up your equipment, but for your vine grower, they can be a big help. Stones and bare earth help to reflect sunlight into the underside of the canopy (where the grapes are), and, if you are blessed with dark coloured stones – as in our case – they can retain the heat from the sun during the day and release it slowly, helping to keep the vines warm overnight.

So far, so good, eh? Correct. Those are all excellent reasons for not having any grass in your vineyard. What the text books don’t tell you is that once the grass is gone there is nothing stopping the rain from collecting the soil from the top of your hill and depositing it at the bottom of your hill and off down the road, if you happen to have some hard standing at the bottom of your hill. As an added bonus, the soil that you have just chopped up with your harrow/cultivator/rotavator is all lovely and soft, which facilitates this great soil exodus nicely.

A couple of goes with the harrow told us that it probably wasn’t going to be a goer, which brought us to repurposing the strimmer – which was arguably even less of a goer – so we bought a mower for the tractor. Now, at this point I had decided that we had wasted quite a lot of time, and let’s be honest, money, on working out how to keep the rows tidy, so we didn’t exactly push the boat out on our new mower.

And, the predictable consequences of that are quite a long story, so we shall cover why buying things that are not of good quality is a bad idea next week. Enjoy the sunshine!

Stuttering into Spring

Hello again. Last week we covered the weather last winter, and either the possible weather for this summer, or enjoyed a cryptic examination of some sort of mental breakdown on my part. This week we are going to discuss what comes immediately after winter. Summer. And then a bit more winter.

After an absolutely superb growing season last year (that’s two episodes back if you’re interested), things appear to be falling back into the traditional English groove. We spent the second half of the winter pruning while looking suspiciously at the vines. Now, there are any number of reasons to look suspiciously at a vine, but in this case we were paying close attention to the buds on the canes that we were leaving attached to the vines.

I have mentioned before that our vines have this nasty habit of pretending to start growing in February. The very moment that they see the first bit of sunshine, the buds swell up and sap begins to pour from their pruning wounds – little or no sap comes out of the ends of the canes that are pruned when it is really cold. This winter things were only slightly different from usual in that sap was absolutely gushing out of the ends of the canes for literally days as we rushed to finish off the pruning and the buds were easily big enough to knock off as we were tying those canes down.

I don’t think that we have covered why one might need to finish winter pruning by the end of winter before, so here goes. There are obviously practical reasons to get the pruning done in a timely manner, as there are generally other things to get on with later as the growing season starts. If you aren’t charging around replacing trellising, murdering weeds and coaxing Lazarus, your ancient tractor, back into life* at the start of the growing season, I put it to you that you don’t have slightly too many vines to take care of, and should have a long hard look at yourself in the mirror.

*I might just have inadvertently compared myself to Jesus there. No matter, there appears to be a bit of that going about on the internet.

The main reason why it is important to get all of those vines pruned is because the canes that we keep long need to be bent over and tied down onto the fruiting wire – that’s the one that runs along the trellising, just above the trunk of the vine (about waist height). When the vines are properly dormant, that’s a piece of cake as the buds are pretty tiny. When the vines are running headlong into the growing season, the buds are larger and less robust so when the canes are twisted around the fruiting wire, it is very easy to knock them off. A shoot will normally emerge from the place where that bud was knocked off later in the growing season, but it is unlikely to have any flowers (and therefore, ultimately grapes) attached to it, which sort of defeats the object of looking after them all year.

And when you are really late and the shoots are actually growing? Forget about it. The tiny shoots are just desperate to fall off the canes, so with one clumsy twist, it is actually possible to knock the lot off, necessitating a good shout at the innocent vine, which probably doesn’t do either of us much good. This all means that winters that arrive, do their cold and soggy thing and disappear in April are very agreeable in terms of winter pruning, as it allows us to get the lot done with a bare minimum of shouting.

They are also very acceptable in terms of the biggest bad guy of the lot, frost. 2018 was a real tonic after the utter carnage that happened in 2017, when many vineyards lost the majority of their crop both here in England and in most of northern Europe on the same evening. The delineated change between “not growing season” and “growing season” and the spectacular summer of 2018 ensured that much of the previous year’s misery was forgotten as vineyards around the country collected tonne after tonne of perfectly ripe grapes.

This year, for once, our paranoid fears about the vines trying to grow in the middle of winter turned out to be not entirely paranoid. We spent most of the end of February and the beginning of March wandering around absolutely convinced that they wouldn’t start growing until the appropriate time, it’s generally the first couple of weeks of April before they start doing something meaningful. But the evidence of the imminent arrival of something green on the vine became harder and harder to deny when the buds went from their woolly state, to a pink colour that indicates that bud burst is about to happen; it is already time to start keeping an eye for frost at this point, as these buds are also vulnerable to the cold.

And lo, on the 15th March or thereabouts, the Chardonnay vomited forth row after row of tender young shoots, just waiting to be clobbered by the frost. Up to this point, I’m pretty confident that I was still telling everybody that would listen that there was absolutely no chance that the vines would be growing at such a reckless time of year. You’d have thought that I would have become accustomed to their villainous nature by now, but apparently not.

We have gotten away with murder frost wise over the years. While our peers have suffered horribly, in spite of some pretty enthusiastic work on their part to beat the frost, we have got off very nearly scot-free. We are blessed with a few natural advantages here that seem to work well for us. One is the fact that we are at the top of a small hill. This is important as cold air, er, happens higher up, it then flows along the top of the land to lower areas, bringing the frost with it. It follows that if there isn’t land above your vineyard, there is no cold air to import. (It also follows that the wind will blow unimpeded across the land and smash your trellising to bits on a regular basis, more on this pretty much constantly in previous, and let’s be honest, probably future instalments.)

Another big advantage is that most of our vines are planted on south east facing slopes, on a convex hill. The importance of the south east facing part is perhaps obvious – it is pointing at the sun as it comes up and as the sky is invariably clear when there is frost, the sun warms up the air rapidly and we can say goodbye to that heavy, cold air that causes frost. The convex part is also important as “pockets” in concave slopes prevent that cold air from flowing down the hill, causing it to collect in one place and frost to start to form. If those pockets don’t exist, the cold air flows down the hill and goes off to do frost on somebody else.

Interestingly, the parts of Burgundy that have been planted practically forever are invariably found on south east facing slopes, so one imagines that frost has been ‘entertaining’ vignerons for a very long time indeed. Anyway, that’s all a round about way of telling you that we managed to dodge that icy bullet practically completely unscathed again, in spite of some pretty industrial strength provocation.

Home Brewed Delusion

Last week we discussed 2018’s rather unusual growing season, from its dramatic and late beginnings, to its rather more benign and sunlit conclusion three weeks early.

2019 has so far had a more formulaic feel to it. Barring a couple of sodden weeks*, it has been an insipid sort of affair in Devon. Winter was neither especially wet, nor especially cold. I can definitely remember there being a period in the middle of February where I was absolutely convinced that the vines were about to start growing as the sap poured out of the pruning wounds and we nervously performed winter, ahem, “winter” pruning in our shirt sleeves; but they remained dormant. This definitely wasn’t the first time that I have thought that this was going to happen, so it’s possible that vines aren’t quite as awkward as I keep insisting that they are to anybody that will listen.

*The “vehicles that have become hopelessly stuck in a soggy field” (VBHSSF) rating (that I have just invented) remains steadfastly at one for the year to date. I’m afraid that this is a much, much lower number than normal, as my reckless and enduring optimism insists that I attempt to take on all but the most waterlogged land, with predictable results.

This may or may not have ramifications for the rest of the year. The farming sooth sayers around here always have some sort of crack pot idea as to what the climatic events of one month/year/decade mean for the next. Purveyors of these home brewed weather prediction methods must make absolutely sure that whoever they are prophesying to is unlikely to have the opportunity – due to the passage of time, or the fact that they are a tourist – to point out that their method of climatic prediction is perhaps less than perfect when the exact opposite of the predicted weather is happening at the allotted time. Then again, spoiling everybody’s fun like that is hardly playing the game anyway, is it?

Needless to say, having a spent a reasonable amount of time with these excellent and hard working chaps has inevitably driven me to develop my own demented method of long term climate prediction. It’s either spending time with them or all the Radon gas around here, one of those things is definitely to blame. Whatever the case, I proudly introduce you to the “There is only so much rain that can possibly fall out of the sky in any given year” method of future rainfall prediction.

Now, the bright ones amongst you will have already noted that clouds are not in possession of calendars. You may have also guessed that I am in receipt of no metrological training whatsoever, and you would be absolutely correct. But, but, but I’m absolutely convinced that dry winters seem to mean wet summers. Admittedly, I am not armed with much in the way of evidence.

Since we planted (that’s in 2007 for reference) we have had a pretty good run of it in terms of summers. It appears that across the historical wine producing world that the improving growing season is something that has been happening for quite some time. The “Good” and “Bad” years in more marginal wine producing regions (read: Burgundy and, to a lesser extent, Bordeaux) have been replaced with varying degrees of “Good” as the warming climate simplifies the ripening process. At the same time, for many areas, this has moved the growing season forwards into frost prone parts of the year – more on this next week.

I digress, all this means that my very excellent method of rainfall prediction is missing a few data points. Okay, a lot of data points. The one glaring one that I do have is the accursed, disgusting and altogether nefarious 2012. We had an exceptionally warm and dry winter in 2012, I distinctly remember attempting to plant a hedgerow around the house (that was at the time looking a little lost in the huge field that it lives in) in the February and the ground was like iron. The plants obviously died immediately in case you were wondering.

Having confidently strode out into the fields in normal, not waterproof clothes through much of the winter, we replaced them with a rotating collection of clothes that were very much waterproof for the better part of the summer. In November, we eventually picked the few grapes that had made it through that year’s sodden flowering and tossed them directly into the bin.

And guess how many cars I managed to get stuck in the field in 2012? None. Not a single one. What does this mean for 2019? Well, with a VBHSSF rating of one, it should be okay, but not stellar. The sun will definitely come out, but it will also rain quite a bit too, you just see if it doesn’t*.

*Top tip for the amateur sooth sayer: when you are stupid enough to put your predictions on the internet and leave them there, ambiguity is key.

A Potted Guide to 2018

Hello again! It has been a long time since we last met, so apologies for that. As to why we haven’t seen each other for a long time, I can definitely remember starting to build a new website at one point, and then the growing season started and everything sort of came over all, um, busy.

You will remember that we had a peculiar sort of spring last year. Winter 2017/18– in Devon at least – had that sort of industrial strength Old Testament feel to it that is becoming customary. It never really seems to get particularly cold any more, which, while it appeals to my burning desire to turn the heating on as little as possible, makes winter pruning a fairly miserable and soggy event. Then, just as our attention was turning towards the annual spring frost panic, we had a couple of enormous dumps of snow that nicely knocked the vines back into dormancy. By the time that the vines were growing, we were well into May and the risk of frost was in the rear view mirror. This allowed us ample opportunity to get on and concentrate on panicking about whether or not the vines would have time to ripen the grapes in the truncated growing season.

These fears were weirdly unfounded. I think that we have discussed before that the vines start growing really early in our part of the world, owing to all the water that surrounds Devon and its proximity to the end of the Gulf Stream. I’m generally convinced that this is good a thing, allowing the vines to steal a march on the year and allowing us to pick the grapes nice and early at the end of summer. This is obviously never the case, but when one stands alone in a field all day, a bit of positive thinking is never a bad idea. In reality, harvest is normally just before winter happens.

What tends to happen is that the vines start to show a bit of leg in early April, or even the end of March – cough, cough, I’m looking at you 2019 – and start to grow. At this point, we are obliged to start taking care of them as the new growth is more than capable of getting itself sick, and of course, frozen.

When the opposite happens, as it did in Spring 2018, for the first time ever, everything is kind of in flux. You know that it is probably for the best as the risk of frost diminishes massively and that the vines will undoubtedly sort themselves out in time for the end of the growing season. There is always that nagging doubt about this whole season turning into another 2012, where you pick the grapes in November, before tossing them all in the bin. We are usually gearing up for the growing season in April, so in 2018 there was also a certain amount of wandering around looking for something to do. Well, something other than snowball fights and snowman construction, obviously.

You will also recall that last summer was an absolute peach. The sort of summer that you remember happening every single year when you were a child, in spite of there being absolutely no metrological evidence for it. Within days, we went from wandering around in a scene from a Christmas card to confidently packing away all of the winter gear and thinking seriously about a pair of shorts. And it didn’t stop there either. There was a seemingly never ending supply of sunshine, barbecues and caravans on the A38 throughout the whole summer and the vines not only caught up, we spent quite a lot of time at the end of the growing season hacking them back.

As well as keeping the vines happy and healthy – they are natives of the near east, so don’t need much in the way of water and don’t much care for the cold – sunshine through the flowering season also means that all those flowers turn into lovely grapes (rain impedes this process). There were absolutely loads of them everywhere! Cue nervous excitement about where we were going to put all the wine and whether or not we should start removing some of those grapes to ensure that the vines would be able to ripen the rest. This is called green harvesting and we will probably cover that this summer, so there is something to, ahem, look forward to.

On account of the cracking summer, we rolled the dice on not removing any grapes and started to notice that, in spite of the late start to the year, strange things were happening. I was wandering around our German patch ‘en famille’ (and ‘en beer’, if I’m being honest) and noticed that the Siegerrebe was looking suspiciously ripe. On closer inspection, a bird had even had a nibble at a couple of grapes. This was very strange indeed, as it was the middle of August, and birds have this nasty habit of only eating grapes that are just about ready for turning into wine.

I rushed off to grab my refractometer – this is a device that does not take batteries but tells you how much sugar there is in your grape juice, apparently by magic – and the Avian Ingestion Method of Sugar Determination was absolutely correct. The grapes were very nearly ready to pick. Fast forward to the first week of October and all of the juice has been crammed into the winery and most of it has been turned into wine. Exciting times, it’s almost as if we live in some sort of non reckless wine making region!

All being well, we will meet again next week to discuss more contemporaneous matters, when vines start growing in the middle of winter. Here’s hoping that the rest of the year is exactly the same as the last year though, eh?

18 Months of Winter

At this point in our journey from spring 2017 to now, I was intending to recap what happened last winter. I would probably have discussed the three months of winter pruning and given the reasons why we do it and have explained how we do it. I would probably have also explained the other bits and pieces of work that are required around here to get everything ship shape for the start of the growing season. Unfortunately, every time that I think about winter 2017/2018, I have to go and have a nice sit down in a darkened room.

Suffice to say that a sustained period of really old testament rainfall fairly early on put paid to my ambitions of taking our new (to us) 4×4 with me winter pruning to act as a sort of mobile shelter/cafeteria, when it started travelling in a direction roughly perpendicular to the one in which I was intending as I drove across the fields. When it finally started looking like it might dry up a bit, we had a couple of very entertaining snow storms in March that cut us off entirely from civilisation and put paid to our ambitions of not having our new 4×4 parked in a bank half way up the lane to our house.

Joking aside, this atypical – certainly in these parts – period of cold weather at the start of the year changed the mood among vineyard owners substantially when compared with 2017. Old hands here will remember that vines start growing when the weather gets warmer and that they don’t care what time of year it is. More sensible types of plant will begin growing when there is a specific period of daylight, but vines will power along in the middle of February, just as long as the temperature tells them to. Conversely, if the climate elects to dump a foot of snow on them in the middle of March, it acts as really compelling evidence to a vine that it is still the middle of winter, compelling them to batten down the hatches and hang on a bit before they start growing.

This is in stark contrast to 2017, when a fairly insubstantial winter – it barely froze at all – followed by a period of warmer weather encouraged the vines into action really early. This invariably leaves the winery owning vine grower in two minds. It will either mean that the vines will power on through the growing season, the grapes will ripen tremendously and create some absolutely superb wine. Or it will mean that the over-enthusiastic shoots will be frozen to death, there will be little or no grapes and the vintage therefore won’t happen at all. The latter happened to most people in 2017 (and to some people in 2016 too), so most people appear to have been very happy indeed to have had a spot of snow in return for non frozen vines.

It occurs to me that I’m stuffing quite a few words into the mouths of our peers. It’s undoubtedly the case that people were celebrating a proper end to the winter, which helped to mitigate the potential of frost damage to the vines as stated; it is very difficult to prevent frost damage if nature intends to assert itself, and horribly expensive to attempt to remedy. I’m arguably in a minority of one person who actually thinks that an early start to the growing season has anything more than a tiny effect on the quality of the grapes at the end of the season. It probably has rather more to do with me digging around for positives for what could turn into an appalling disaster. In reality, what tends to happen is that the vine knocks out the shoots at the end of March, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the shoots grow to about two inches long, and then they do precisely nothing for about a month as they play chicken with the frost.

Back to this year and, at the end of what seemed like a good 18 months of winter, the sun came out, the mercury started rising dramatically, and, miraculously, the shoots all emerged at about the same time for what might actually have been the first time ever.

When we sort of stumble into spring, with the usual false starts of one stunning day, followed by three days of freezing rain, the shoots come out here, there and everywhere*. This can cause a bit trouble when picking a harvest date as flowering will happen in roughly the same order as the shoots came out, and the grapes will also ripen in roughly that order too, so you have a field full of grapes that are ripe, with some that aren’t quite there. It takes a surprisingly large amount of finesse to get a field full of grapes with the average level of ripeness that you want. Or a picking team that is willing to do everything twice without performing some sort of appalling mutiny. Loyal as our pickers are, I shan’t be testing my luck.

*For the record, if it’s cold and sunny, the Chardonnay in our prime location (South East facing, about 20 degrees) go first, if it’s damp and warm, the Siegerrebe (which is a parked in a less salubrious location) go first.

I am told that the poster child for this uniform vine growth is Hungary. Your correspondent travelled there one year in February and was greeted by utterly bone chilling -20C weather on arrival to an utterly enchanting Budapest, replete with whopping great chunks of ice floating down the Danube. The weather was to some extent mitigated by the fact that there was an incredibly well stocked wine bar not five steps from the hotel door. Upon opening the curtains of the hotel room as we were preparing to leave, we were astonished to see that the previous night’s monochrome city had disappeared and been replaced with one running the full colour gamut.

It was incredible. The previous day’s foot thick snow had disappeared and was running in torrents down the streets and there were only medium sized ice bergs in the river. As we climbed aboard the aircraft, it was nearing shirt sleeves weather. Now, I’m not saying that Devon was exactly like that before or after, but it was a bit like that, which in turn promises to make picking that fiddly harvest date a little easier this year.

Harvest 2017: Inside the Winery

Now that the grapes have been picked, our tanned and exhausted vigneron may remove his boots and put his feet up until it is time to start the winter pruning. In a climate as cool as the one we are “blessed” with in Devon, this period of relative indolence lasts for about five weeks. Further south, where harvest is earlier, it might go on for as much as two and a half months – or longer if they have chosen to start pruning later, as tends to happen in vineyards that are blessed with staff. Given that your correspondent spends the entire month of November wandering around like a lost child, trying to work out what normal people do during the weekend, it’s probably as well that this is kept to a minimum so that he may keep himself out of too much trouble.

It is much the same story in the winery. Most of the really hard work happens concurrently with the harvest. The grapes appear from the fields and then the fun starts. Given that we have given up on still white and red wine production for the moment (more on this later), the crusher/de-stemmer – to the uninitiated, this is a large, and frankly terrifying, machine that smashes bunches of grapes into stemless, grapey porridge – is now, for the most part, surplus to requirements. The grapes are therefore loaded directly into the press – a rather less terrifying machine that squishes grapes gently, removing the juice only – in whole bunches.

While smashing grapes to bits sounds like an appalling indignity for something that you have spent the previous six months nurturing, it is absolutely essential if you wish to extract some colour (and certain flavour compounds) from your grapes. If one wishes to make soft, rosé wine, this porridge will sit around for a period of up to 2 days, where the juice will pick up some of the colour from the red skins. For reds, we will start the fermentation in the porridge, allowing the juice to pick up even more colour, but also tannin (body and pleasing bitterness) from the skins.

If one is attempting to produce quality sparkling white wine, using the crusher/de-stemmer is generally considered a bit of a wine making sin, as the rather industrial machine can also help to extract unwanted flavour, harshness and colour (in the case of red grapes used to make white fizz), so our top quality wine maker is obliged to shun it. This causes a bit of a space problem.

Remember when we discussed that looking after vines with almost no crop on is about as much effort as looking after vines with lots of crop (hurricanes smashing the trellising to bits excepted)? Well, it’s a bit like that with the harvest. If there are lots of grapes on all of the vines, you clip away with your snippers and the boxes are full just as quick as you say “Do we have enough of those boxes?”. In disappointing years – I’m looking at you, 2012 – there is a lot of walking around with a half empty box.

Given that last year was a really decent one, the grapes turned up, piled on the back of the knackered and complaining pickup, from the fields as our pickers removed record amounts of them in a relatively short time.

This isn’t a huge problem when the grapes are going straight into the – admittedly massively oversized for our purposes – crusher/de-stemmer, as it gobbles through them, merrily turning them into grape porridge by the tonne. If one is fortunate enough to be making red wine, that grape porridge is then pumped into a red wine tank and does fermenting and becomes wine. If one is unfortunate enough to be making white wine, that grape porridge has to be pressed immediately and that usually means a bottleneck. Well, it does in our winery anyway, as we can only manage to ram about a tonne of it into our press.

In practice, this means that everything grinds to a halt and everyone stands around looking for something to do, until some bright spark goes mining in the fridge for beer and the conversation improves as the work output goes off a cliff.

“But we are ignoring the preposterously enormous crusher/de-stemmer this year” I hear you cry, “what are the beer consuming ramifications when one doesn’t use it?”.

I’m afraid that the beer consuming ramifications are even worse. When one is obliged to shun the grape smasher, the grapes must go into the press looking very much like they did when they were removed from the vine, and that means that they take up quite a lot more space than grape porridge. Even with the most enthusiastic encouragement, our wine maker is hard pressed to ram half as many whole bunches or grapes into his press, so he is obliged to discuss buying a larger one with his increasingly inebriated volunteers. That said, the juice is appreciably more delicate and very much cleaner (although you do get a little less of it) so the effort is absolutely worth it.

Once this juice of tip top quality has been squished out of the grapes, it spends 24 hours sat in a cold tank, where any dirt and gunge that has made it through the tiny slits in the press collects at the bottom of the tank, before the clean juice is pumped off it and into another tank. It’s then time for a fermentation, where juice that is destined to become a bottle of sparkling wine is treated in pretty much the same way as wine that is destined to become still wine. Everything changes at bottling, and we are doing that soon, so you will no doubt know all about that presently.

I promised to discuss our decision to switch to an entirely fizz based model (for the moment at least), but I have probably already overstayed my welcome. Suffice to say that it’s pleasingly explosive and what the market appears to want. Oh, and one can only bear being asked “So, where is your fizz?” so many times.

Havest 2017

Having dealt with most of the growing season in 2017 last week, it is time to move on to the most important part of the year: harvest.

Harvest always, always, always brings a mixture of emotions for the vigneron – well, this vigneron anyway. It marks the end of a season of hard work and the vigneron knows that the grapes will be in the winery and become somebody else’s problem in no time. In the immediate short term however, he is going to be spending his time running around after pickers, fretting about the condition of his grapes and casting a suspicious eye over the surrounding area. It is important to wander around pointing at local woodland and cursing its owners for not cutting all their trees down, as the sort of birds that eat grapes don’t much care for people, and the sound of demented rambling generally helps to keep them on their toes.

Due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is run, our winemaker looks rather a lot like the chap who runs the vineyard. The winemaker has also been busy in the run up to harvest. The winery is the cleanest that it has been all year, the tanks have been boiled to within an inch of their lives, the equipment is looking shiny and lovely and there is a nice big space in front of the door for the pickers to drive in and drop the grapes off (and, if history is any guide, they will also be dropping off much of the soil and leaves from the vineyard along with those grapes). He has his winery sundries, he has analysed the grapes, he knows what he is going to be turning those grapes into, he is ready.

I mentioned last week that harvest in 2017 started about a week early. It had been such a strange year, we watched our anticipated harvest date going backwards week after week through an absolutely sodden summer, and genuinely thought that we might end up with another 2012* style write off. Salvation came in the form of lovely late summer, which got everything moving again and we were absolutely counting our blessings as we saw the sugar in the grapes rise, and the acid moving in the opposite direction.

*Those of you with long memories may remember that 2012 was the last time that English wine made it into the press in any meaningful way, as reporters zeroed in on depressed people tipping tonnes of bullet hard grapes into the bin. They really do thrive on misery.

It is usually a big relief to get the fruit off the German varieties and into somewhere safe, as they produce grapes that are thin skinned. (Does being smashed to bits in a large machine and drained count as being safe? I suppose that it’s a matter of perspective, but you get the idea.) Much like thin skinned people, they are at the greatest risk of damage. Disease is a problem – botrytis/grey mould at the end of the year – and the thin skins also make them a firm favourite with wasps, small birds and pheasants (along with any dog that isn’t being properly monitored).

Removing the crop from these vines in 2017 was extra good as there had been a bit of additional disease around, owing to the weather during the growing season. A cool and wet growing season is absolutely perfect for the production of downy mildew, which is a sort of kissing cousin of potato blight. In vineyards, this can cause the grapes to split as they ripen, and ultimately the leaves to fall off the vines. As the leaves are the primary sugar producing engine, this isn’t a big help for getting that sugar into the grapes. As an added bonus, those split grapes are an absolute magnet for wasps and even more disease.

As luck would have it, we learned our lesson in 2012 and our downy mildew game is now absolutely solid. In spite of some serious provocation, the vines were pretty well clear of downy mildew. Did you spot the “but” coming? Well, the people who make the decisions about what we are allowed to spray onto our vines removed one of the products that we used to control powdery mildew. Apparently that product was quite good, as, with it gone, we had some powdery mildew pop up in the vineyard for pretty much the first time since we planted and we had an absolute nightmare murdering it. I was fairly confident that we had it all dead by the time that we were picking, but it’s always nice to be absolutely sure.

I also mentioned last week that there was a lot of fruit on the vines. The Chardonnay in particular was absolutely laden with grapes – and since our Damascene conversion to sparkling wine this was undoubtedly a good thing – as far as the eye could see there were bunches and bunches of lovely, heavy grapes. The sort of heavy weight hanging from the bottom of the vines that would unquestionably add much needed ballast to the canopy in it’s never ending attempt to smash our trellising to bits.

The man from the government who figuratively looks over my shoulder in the winery is a nice man who wanted to know a little more about the practicalities of wine making. He obviously wanted to learn from the best, so he booked himself in to do a spot of literally looking over my shoulder in the winery. Along with some grape picking because, well, nobody gets away with standing still here for more than five minutes in October without being handed a basket and a pair of picking snips.

Now, it hasn’t escaped my attention that accepting the offer of work from the man who marks our homework was a potentially disastrous decision, but we thought that on balance that it was probably worth it; not least as we try to keep applications of Vimto and petrol additions to wine at an absolute minimum around harvest.

I think that we had made it into his second day of picking when the weather forecasters started advising people to start thinking about maybe not going out unless you have to and to panic buy every single loaf of bread and pint of milk in the shop. At this point, we had taken most of the crop in, which was a good thing as the vines in leaf make an effective enough sail for catching the wind, egged on by the ballast of a couple of hundred kilos of grapes, they make an exceedingly provocative proposition to a hurricane.

Nevertheless, our man from the government proved to be an absolute wizard at dodging smashed up bits of flying trellising and we had the last of the grapes onto the back of our pickup* and into the winery in no time, marking an end to probably the most idiosyncratic, but ultimately successful, year that we have had here.

*For the long term reader, the pickup is still going, but has started to vomit huge plumes of steam. Coupled with its knackered exhaust that makes it sound like a tank and its general terrorist-chic condition, it really adds to the air of professionalism around here.

If television has taught me anything it’s that you ruin the next episode at the end of the previous one, so, next time, we will be talking a bit about wine making, and I shall probably be whining about the winter a bit too.

Happy New Year!

Happy new year! Can you still do that in April? Let’s pretend that you can, which is just as well, as WordPress is telling me that it has been a whole year since I published one of these missives. Sorry about that, I promise to try harder.

Remember way back when we were all much younger and the world seemed a relatively sane place and we weren’t doing cold wars and that? You know, 2015? Well, as the contents of the increasingly shrill news output changes apace, things have changed quite a bit here too. In 2015, we had been making a reasonable amount of still wine that was finding its way into the homes of our loyal customers, and things were ticking along fairly well. We would have liked to have produced a lot more wine from our still fairly unenthusiastic vines – long suffering readers will be well aware that vines with not a lot of grapes on take almost as much looking after as those that have lots – but we were still managing to almost completely wet the bottom of our enormous tanks. By this point I had expected to have had the wine producers of Burgundy on their knees, financially crippled because we had stolen all of their customers; or at least to have them clubbing together to fund a bit of corporate espionage to steal our superior winemaking tactics, but one can’t have everything.

Never people to miss the wood for the trees – well, we generally find it after a certain amount of argument – we decided that something probably had to change. Enter our third (well, fourth, if you count me trying to work out which way up to hold a soil sample report as one) agronomist at the start of 2017.

I know that I covered this in detail the last time that we met, but in a nutshell he was fairly alarmed at the acidity of one of the fields, and none too happy at the level in the other field. This necessitated borrowing a spreader as correcting the acidity in particular would take tonnes and tonnes of lime. We eventually got the prescribed dose onto the land and hoped for the best. We had tried changing up a few things in the soil in the past with varying degrees of success, but had never worried particularly about the soil pH, as it was (just) within tolerance on the reports we had back from the, er, soil boffin dudes.

Fast forward six months and we are hauling tonne after tonne of grapes back into the winery and apologising to our committed (but thankfully also, familial) pickers for working them like dogs on their “Holiday”. Only joking! Right at the start of harvest, somebody told me that some enterprising/shameless chap has managed to convince high flying executives that they need to go and pick grapes to help them de-stress. Wandering around telling our volunteers that they are high achievers and that they should really be paying me to pick my grapes for me undoubtedly affected my work rate, but I imagine that it improved morale and overall output no end.

So 2017 was an unqualified success, incorporating wall to wall sunshine and lots of top quality outside time steeped in gin and tonic? Not so fast.

You might or might not have spotted some of the news coverage last spring about the appalling late frost that was clobbering much of the vine growing regions this side of Europe. There was absolute carnage as tender vine shoots were frozen to death all the way down at the Rhone valley and Switzerland. At some point, some enterprising reporter remembered that we also have vineyards, and that they probably get clobbered by frost too. Cue blanket coverage of some really horrible stories from around the country of people having their years ruined by frost. It’d be nice if they took notice when things aren’t all falling apart, but you take what you can get I suppose.

I digress, well, I digress a bit. The morning of the really naughty frost, your correspondent leapt out of bed at about eight and noted that we have managed to dodge another bout of frost for the most part; we had lost the shoots off maybe a couple of dozen vines. Now, if you are thinking that having a medium sized lie in when there is potentially disastrous weather about shows wild indifference, I put it you that you haven’t spent all day spraying a field full of vines, in receipt of a promise from the weather forecasters that it isn’t going to rain, only for that spray to be immediately washed off those vines and onto the ground by rain that definitely isn’t coming often enough. One learns to stop fretting about what one can’t change in this business, or one risks an early grave. Or one gets better at picking lottery numbers and pays somebody else to worry about it, or something like that.

After touching base with a couple of fellow growers, and expressing as much sympathy as possible, I was wandering around the vines and received a phone call from somebody at Radio Devon. They were doing a piece about a local grower who had had his vines clobbered by the frost and wanted somebody else to go onto their show and pour a bit more misery on their piece about frost. The enthusiastic producer told me that this was a great opportunity to get our name out there to the listeners. Presumably assuming that both of them were paying attention at the time.

If you have ever wondered if there is enough budget in local news for their over worked producers to make two phone calls to nail their story, wonder no longer. I was immediately invited on to have a chat the following morning. I’ll be completely honest, it didn’t immediately lead to the phone ringing off the hook with people demanding wine from our frost resistant vines – and I’m almost certain that the chap who was presenting the program wasn’t listening to a word I said – but it did lead to a kind offer from a friend to give me some media training, which was really interesting. So if the media does cover our little industry again, I shall be on hand, remembering to crowbar our brand name into the conversation and not disgracing myself. Well, probably not disgracing myself.

Since I’m in clear and present danger of overstaying my welcome, I’ll stop rambling. The rest of the year was a bit of a strange one. After the frost, the weather improved dramatically, it was hot throughout May and most of June, the vines absolutely powered ahead and were flowering in record time. Cue celebrations and predictions of an absolutely cracking early harvest, about the same time as the one in Bordeaux, with much sitting around and doing nothing in September.

Remember all of those hours we all spent sat in the garden, tending a barbecue last summer? No? Me either. July and August were pretty much a complete wash out, and it was absolute murder keeping the disease at bay as we counted our blessings for the early start to the season. September behaved itself and we managed to get the fruit off the vines perhaps a week early. But I’m getting ahead of myself, the harvest in the hurricane comes next week.

A Beginner’s Guide to Soil Science

About a month ago, our local – and extremely helpful – proper farmer arrived with an enormous trailer attached to his enormous tractor with lots of enormous bags of fertiliser and lime on the back of it. I watched in awe as he picked them effortlessly up off the back of his trailer with the tractor’s forks as if they weren’t each the weight of six well fed chaps and just about managed to get it together in time to ask him to drag half of them to the other vineyard. Which is as well, because it’s about a quarter of a mile away, and to the best of my knowledge, I can’t, ahem, pick up six well fed men. Once I had profusely thanked our occasional hero and sent him on his way full of biscuits and coffee, I went for a walk to look at our huge bags of fertiliser and devise a plan of action.

If you are unfamiliar with lime, it is used in agriculture – and in gardens – to raise the pH of soil from more acidic to more alkaline. It is important to monitor the pH of soil as it has a habit of becoming more acidic over time – usually because intensive farming requires the addition of lots and lots of nitrogen, which is essential but makes acidic compounds in the soil – and that acidic soil prevents the vines from picking up some of the nutrients whether they are in the soil or not. Soils that have lots of chalk in can have the opposite problem, as the chalk does the same job as the lime and they tend to be alkaline, which causes a whole host of different nutrients to be unavailable to the plant. The advantage with chalky soils is that the direction of travel using modern (and traditional, for that matter) fertilisers is towards acidity, so ignoring the problem tends to help these push/pull factors meet somewhere near the middle.

So where is the sweet spot? In my experience, it’s a moving target depending on who you ask. If you ask a chap who is constantly booting huge lumps of chalk out of the way as he walks around his vineyard, he will tell you that alkaline is the way to go. Astonishingly enough, the opposite is true when you interview someone who is tripping over something other than chalk. What is absolutely the case is that you can spend all the money in the world on fertiliser, but if your soil pH is out of sync too much in either direction, the vines are ultimately going to keel over and die despite your best efforts. The lab that we send our soil samples to recommends an absolute floor of pH 6, which is fairly acidic, and everyone, irrespective of what their soil looks like, will tell you that a number lower than this is bad news.

As one part of one of the fields – interestingly enough, the weakest part – had dropped below 6 and everywhere else was well on the way, we decided that it was time for action. The only fly in the ointment was that changing the pH of a lot of soil takes a lot of lime, in our case, literally tonnes of the stuff. And that’s (mostly) the end of the chemistry lesson, let’s get on to the impracticalities of getting all that good stuff onto our soil.

Old hands here will be aware of the unique way in which we have historically spread fertiliser. To the uninitiated, it involves a bucket, an eggcup and a childish obstinacy to go out and buy the appropriate piece of equipment to make this happen with the minimum of effort. There is a certain amount of logic in this approach – no, really – as spreading fertiliser directly under the vines in an area that is habitually kept clear of grass and weeds means that that fertiliser doesn’t end up feeding the grass that runs up and down between the vines and causing it to take over. As an added bonus, as you are applying it directly, you can apply less of it, save some cash and, in theory, prevent unnecessary acidification of the soil.

The huge bags of lime posed a new and exciting problem as we have never before had to apply such vast quantities. I placed my trusty bucket next to the bag of lime and stood back. Even the most naïve optimist would be hard pressed to deny that the bucket was much, much smaller than the bag of lime. I put it to my farming mate that I may have bitten off rather more than I could chew and was thinking of hiring a spreader for my tractor and the very next day, the perfect machine for the job magically arrived on the driveway. Once I had wiped away the tears joy, I was ready to farm like a man living on the leeward side of the industrial revolution.

What we were applying with the spreader up and down the rows was a mixture made up principally of lime. We had also added some potassium and phosphorous that the soil needed, but which were unlikely to make the weeds take over or undo any of the good work that the lime was doing in the soil (potassium actually helps a little with acidity). We had the huge bags of fertiliser dealt with in short order. On reflection, this should have come as no surprise as the spreader is significantly bigger than my bucket and I was putting the tractor away and trying to catch the empty bags of fertiliser that were blowing across the fields at the end of three days of not very hard work.

And here endeth the egg cup? Not a bit of it! The vines were still missing their dose of a veritable alphabet of nutrients for the year. Carefully calculating the dose of the all in one fertiliser to be precisely one egg cup’s worth per vine, I grabbed bucket, egg cup and running shoes and went back to work like it’s 1799.