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).