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.

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