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An Eternal Fight between Man and Plant

Things continue to move apace in the vineyard. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Vines grow like absolute triffids when the weather allows.

In their natural habitat – which is not Chudleigh – but the near east, they have evolved to climb up and sort of take over unfortunate trees, using them as a sort of trellis as the pair of them fight for sunlight. This has in turn incentivised prodigious growth in vines and your correspondent to invest in a collection of hedge trimmers.

This has been something of an eternal fight between man and plant: wine making in Mesopotamia is 8000 years old. It also tells us something about the ingenuity of people who really need a drink, and possibly the psychology of humans, as the development of wine predates the invention of the wheel by a least a couple of thousand years. One has to keep one's priorities in order.

What can the discerning vine grower do to prevent all of this growth taking over his life and making his vineyard look like a jungle? There are quite a few options, but they mostly boil down to picking the right site to plant them in - vineyard site selection is key. Now, you would imagine that, given lots of nutrients in the soil make them grow prodigiously, choking off the supply would help to reduce that growth in a way that is desirable. Not so fast, many of those nutrients perform vital roles in the plant (and us, for that matter), reducing their availability can therefore be very harmful to the plant. You can also be pretty confident that a paucity of nutrients will be patchy – in areas of feast there will be the aforementioned triffids growing, in areas of famine, the poor things will be clinging to life – making an already ungovernable crop even harder to manage.

What are our options then? If we are going to plant our vines in a traditional wine making region, this should be fairly self explanatory as the best sites for planting vines have been long identified by trial, error and the mistakes of our ancestors. If we are going to plant vines in non-traditional vine growing places – such as Chudleigh – we are going to have to get our thinking caps on.

A really excellent way to prevent vines from growing too quickly is to have a field in southern Europe or similar that has a finite supply of water falling from the sky. This works really well, as the vines can be stressed uniformly and gently, while the nutrients that it needs are still available to it. If you are fortunate enough to have your vines planted in a field that doesn't have quite enough water falling the sky to keep the vines happy, but are able to irrigate, so much the better. You are able to add the water to the ground prescriptively in this case, ensuring the vines grow at the desired rate. As an added bonus, you may add nutrients to this water on its way to field. Water that arrives at ground level also means dry leaves, and dry leaves means less disease.

A brief note on irrigation. Before we landed in bucolic Chudleigh, we researched the possibility of going to make wine in the Limari Valley in northern Chile. It is half way up the Andes, near the Atacama Desert and is considered to be nearly as good a place for wine making as Chudleigh (interestingly, Chardonnay does well there too). The land is very well priced there, but the water rights are twice as expensive as the land. And if they disappear with a change of government, so does your vineyard. Which would be altogether depressing.

If you have spent any of the last ten years outside in England, you will have noticed that the concept of a restricted supply of rainfall is about as unlikely as it is hysterical, what happens in places where it rains?

Near the start of my education in wine, I was stood in a vineyard around the college where I was studying. I asked the vineyard manager/lecturer what sort of attributes the vineyard we were stood in had going for it, and was surprised to hear that this particular vineyard had exactly one attribute in its favour: it was literally next to the building that housed the class rooms. He further added that if I was on the lookout for a field in which to plant vines, this would be an excellent example of where not to plant vines in any circumstances.

I very much enjoyed this conversation, but it was also very instructive. This accessible field in question was flat, which prevents water and ground frost from draining away, it was also almost solid clay all the way to the centre of the earth. You will know that clay loves to retain water, it also like to keep hold of nutrients, which can make managing the availability of them problematic. It is also cold, keeping the roots cold in turn, which can prevent the proper development and ripening of grapes in a process that I daren't explain less I lose you to sleep.

Taking this advice on board, and once we had put our dreams of living halfway up a mountain on the other side of the world to bed, we went on the lookout for a good site in England for wine growing.

We have discussed recently why one might wish to to own the top of the hill for a vineyard in terms of frost prevention and having one's trellising blown over on a regular basis. Water drainage works similarly, but below ground level, keeping the vine's feet as dry as possible.

One really important feature that we were also looking for was plenty of stones. This has confused a string of local farming types over the years, who wouldn't dream of growing anything other than grass for happy cows in a field such as ours. Demanding that the soil be ploughed as deeply as possible, encouraging yet more of the buried stones be liberated, didn't help either as traditional farmers would be looking to bury these or remove them entirely.

What's with all the stones? Well, if you want to grow very enormous carrots or billions of apples, having roots that can grow unimpeded is a great attribute to have in a field. When you are attempting to grow something that will grow two feet when you aren't paying attention for five minutes, it's a complete nightmare. Stones make life hard for our intrepid triffids, allowing us to keep them fit and healthy without having to spend all of our time hacking them back. Happily the stones also help to keep the roots warm, helping with the ripening of grapes.

If you ever find yourself in a well established wine making region, be sure to have a good look under your feet, it's unlikely that you won't find a few stones doing the vineyard worker's job for him.

Huxbear Vineyard in May
Huxbear Vineyard in May

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