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.