As the sun continues to beat down on Devon – and everywhere else by the sounds of it – this feels like as good a time as any to do the harvest report from 2022.
Unless you were living under an air conditioned stone all of last year, you will be aware that 2022 took all of the temperature records, ripped them up and threw them in the bin. The British climate – in its inimitable fashion – waited until everybody was able to leave the country on holiday and did a pretty good impression of the Costa del Sol for weeks on end last year. Was it all plain sailing? No it was not.
Right at the very start of the season, just as the vines started to emerge from their winter slumber, we had some frost to contend with. If you are at all acquainted with journalism within the wine world – or have just happened to tune into Radio 4 at the right time of day – you will be aware that frost is the absolute scourge of the vine-grower. Shoots frosted at the start of the season die, and are ultimately replaced by buds that yield a fraction of the number of grapes that the original ones would have, worse, those grapes are also unlikely to ripen by the end of the growing season.
Historically, we have never had much of a problem with frost. This has happened partially because of luck, and it's partially good planning. When one wishes to avoid the cold weather, it is generally a good idea to be on at least nodding terms with the sea in general and the Gulf Stream in particular, both of which help to moderate the temperature throughout the year. Our particular chunk of Devon is also at the top of a smallish hill, this helps us fight off the frost in two specific ways: 1) ground frosts (the usual type in the UK) forms as a layer of dense, cold air from the ground up. This layer of air will flow downhill until it reaches an obstruction and collect there, people at the top of hills can marvel as this frosty air goes away and becomes somebody else's problem. 2) exposed hills are windy. Even the slightest of breezes on cold nights can be a big help as the air above the land is warmer and can help to break up cooler spots.
Taking this on board, we are therefore technically very unlikely to have much trouble with frost. That has proven to be the case over the years, we haven't ever really seen much in the way of frost damage. We were pretty sanguine about the cold air that arrived in March last year as the earliest varieties – Chardonnay and Bacchus – were yet to make an appearance. Unfortunately, they were just developed enough to be at risk and we took a bit of a hit in a few spots.
After the frosts, the weather warmed up nicely and the vines started to thrive. But there was a small bump in the road during all this lovely weather, naturally this happened at the worst possible time and the flowers on the Chardonnay and Pinot noir ended their season fairly soggy. In turn, this knocked the yield for those vines back a little further, but I suppose that if you are going to be clobbered, you may as well get it all out of the way in one year, eh?
Once that cold, wet period moved away, things really started to warm up and we moved into a pretty spectacular summer. We have discussed this before, but it bears repeating: vines absolutely love gin and tonic weather, practically nothing the British summer can throw at them will do them any harm. Properly established vines can go pretty much right the way through a growing season without rain, and will bask, no, wallow, in any amount of sunshine that is thrown at them.
The wild temperatures were a bit of a bonus for them too. 30C+ is a pretty effective way to kill off downy mildew – probably the worst of the problems that we have in the UK – when we experience days above 30C, it really helps to keep the fungicide use down, allowing us to spend the savings on medicinal gin and plenty of ice.
30C and brutal sunshine is less good for your correspondent. I'm absolutely British about hot weather, marching back out into the sunshine after lunch at 1PM having drunk about a pint of steaming hot coffee. However it occurred to even this reckless ignorer of good sense that I might end up doing myself a serious mischief if I continued to just pretend that I wasn't going to collapse at some point. I initially started to sneak off into my tractor, but as she is nearly as old as I am and has air conditioning consisting of an opening window, that wasn't doing either of us much good. There was nothing for it, I would have to start working like a Spanish person. It was all a little strange sitting around in the house in the day time, but it all got a little easier when the kids started their summer holiday and we were able to knock out a couple of hours of Fortnite while it cooled down outside.
Things remained pretty clement throughout the season, and we had harvest in the bag before the end of the first week of October. This is especially gratifying for the vineyard owner as he may immediately stop worrying about the army of enemies – birds, diseases, unattended dogs – that are just waiting to do mischief to his hard won grapes and get on with wine making; where problems are very much self inflicted if I'm honest.
We shall be discussing the ramifications of this exceptional year and our choices in the winery next time.