Another year, and another growing season to think about. We have not touched the vines since harvest but winter pruning cannot be put off for much longer, particularly as we are blessed with a period of ten gin clear blue days in January when it is a pleasure to get out in the fresh air and get those secateurs a-clicking. Last year’s cane is cut off together with last year’s shoots leaving just the chosen cane for this season standing vertically from the trunk. We have been advised not to tie the canes down horizontally on the fruiting wire until much of the sap has drained out to prevent early bud burst. November’s light herbicide spray of the grass around the vines has proved effective and the rows look clean and tidy . We create an enormous pile of vine cuttings in the field beside the vineyard which we will torch when tinder dry.
On the agenda of items to think about: a new air-assisted sprayer which we believe will give better coverage notably in the lead up to harvest when botrytis can set in. This will then mean a new tractor, as the present one only has 12 horse power — not sufficiently powerful to drive a sprayer of this type. Robert wants to sub soil alternate rows in order to break up the soil around the roots of the vines on the basis that they will have become compacted by running the tractor down the rows over four seasons. This presents a technical problem as most sub-soiling beasts of burden require at least 50 horsepower; furthermore we are limited by the 1.8m width of our rows. He likes a challenge.
We discuss whether to take the plunge and install heated wires in our chardonnay field. Robert likes the comfort of empirical scientific evidence but as the frost hit hardest when the pinot buds were at woolly bud stage, ie 2 weeks behind those of the chardonnay, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty whether the heated wires saved the buds from being zapped or they were too immature. However the fact is we had almost no casualties and each vine was well balanced with buds. We have to accept that our site is vulnerable to frost and air frost gets trapped at the bottom of each fields and has no where to escape. Neither of us welcome the prospect of another spring of getting up in the middle of the night to light smelly bougies: the first season was fun and novel, but after that it was a total flog.
I set about running a measuring wheel down each row to measure length and enter all the data on a spreadsheet. From an aesthetic point of view I would prefer to bury the bridging cables nearest the barn end of the vineyard — the pinot field looks akin to HS2 with massive armoured cables running the length of the top end. The good thing is that we have an electricity pole in close proximity to the chardonnay field but getting the cable down to the far end underground is another matter.
The quote from SSE to bury a power cable 70 metres comes in at £3,000 so that decides the issue: we will bring armoured cable, some 500m, from each heated wire circuit( each 210m long ) back up in a trench to the meter box. We go for the cheapest option from SSE which is to drop the cable down the pole and into a box — cost £300.
The search for another compact tractor begins. There are lots to be bought from Germany but how the devil do you know what you are buying. Then there is the transport cost on top. Eventually we get a call from John Buchan to say that there is a Kubota with cab for sale from an organic vineyard near to Padstow. I call the owner and ask him various questions. Clearly he is not technical and Robert takes over and speaks to his mechanic. They want £7,500 for something that has done 8,000 hours. It sounds perfect but then there is the headache of getting it back to West Berks. My trailer is too short so we borrow a ginormous one from Kintbury Holt farm (this was used for the chardonnay harvest) and hook it up to R’s BMW.
We arrive at Trevibban Vineyard armed with £2,000 in cash and a computer to make an instant bank transfer for the remainder if we like the machine. Engin is Turkish with an un-pronounceable surname. The Ottoman and the British empires lock horns in one almighty haggle over £250. Eventually a shake of hands followed by a 2 hour lunch with Engin and his delightful wife in the vineyard’s fantastic first floor restaurant — called Appleton’s. We make it to Taunton that night and crash in a heap of exhaustion (and alcohol). The following morning in driving rain we negotiate our precious cargo back up the M5 and M4 — avoiding jarring potholes in the motorway — and it is with some relief that we reach Orpenham by lunchtime tractor intact.
The case of the thieving blackbirds. Last summer, when the pinot berries were sweet and luscious, we had blackbird raids from the hedges on either side of the field. These hedges were predominantly hawthorn thus popular with blackbirds as it provided a safe haven from predators. They stripped the outer rows of grapes and started to make inroads on the next ones in before we cottoned on to what was going on. We think we lost 15% of the crop just to bird damage. The only solution we decided was to take both hedges out, requiring a 3 tonne digger and dumper. The result was rather good and such was the width of this old and scrawny hedge that we have created space for another 3 rows of vines without impinging too far onto the drive lawn. Another 150 vines planted will in due course provide a further 250 bottles! Worth the investment.
In each of the fields there are a few less fertile areas where the vines struggle and their crop is slight. There is a notable patch in the heart of the chardonnay field. We thought of flying a drone over in mid summer to view the canopy from on high but the borrowed drone sat in a box all summer! Instead we take various random soil samples to a depth of 12 inches — backbreaking as we hit flint after 6 inches — then take the samples and mix in a wheel barrow. From this we fill just one small plastic bag for each field. This is then send off for analysis for John Buchan to interpret.Given the stone we unearthed I wonder if the vine roots have just not managed to penetrate the thick layer of flint . Hopefully a dose of mineral fertiliser will do trick and they will push their roots through into easier ground.
As expected this proves to be a very busy month in the vineyard. We have the installation of the heated wire system in the chardonnay to manage with 1.5 kilometres of wires to fit, several row trenches to dig to bury the heated wire (rather than up and over on a bridge), not to mention 200 metres of trench to dig in which to lay the armoured cable back to the electric box. We hire a trenching machine and Robert can’t wait to work out how to use it. Fortunately he has plenty of room to practice as it become apparent quite quickly that you pull it backwards not forwards! Stones and soil spew out as he works methodically steering the beast down the field.
Word is spreading within the vineyard world about our revolutionary method for frost prevention — and mostly via John Buchan, our peripatetic agronomist. Today we have a visit from Sue, the vineyard manager at Bolney Estate, who tips up with David Sayell of Vitifruit to inspect our HW system. She seems impressed and makes copious notes.
In all, it takes us 3 days to install the system and 3 days to clear up the trench mess and pick up the flints. The electricians, having done one field last year, move fast and encounter no problems. Thank goodness we will not have to do this again.
The next important task is to lay the canes down onto the fruiting wire. As per last year the pinot canes prove a doddle to bend and tie down and we are finished in 2 days. Where we have short inter-nodal distances and too many buds, we put a clothes peg on the vine tutor to remind us to go back after the frost danger period is past and reduce the number of buds. This year we will lay 9 buds down for most but just 6 where the vine is being laid down for the first time.
As expected, the chardonnay vines once again prove to be brittle and non compliant to our entreaties to perform. Tony gives us a master class in how to twist and bend without snapping but even he manages to snap a few. When the canes are wet with dew or rain they bend beautifully. We toil up and down the rows for several days — 250-300 vines is about the max one can do in a day if one is being ultra careful.
I develop a system of carrying a knapsack of water on my back and spraying one section of cane vines at a time; then re-trace my steps and begin the bending process. Just enough water and they become pliable. On the final day I have my Eureka moment and discover that if I take all the rubber ties which attach the trunk to the metal vine tutor I can then manoeuvre the cane to the horizontal with a smooth bend rather than an acute one. It seems to do the trick but of course it takes time to re-attach the rubber ties afterwards. I only snap 2 canes and these are the result of being over confident and not listening if the can begins to groan under the strain. Each cane has 3 ties around the combined fruiting wire and the heated wire and one can slowly squeeze the cane so that at least 90% is in direct contact with the heated wire.
Again we use clothes pegs to remind ourselves of the need to come back to some vines and bud reduction after the frost. Robert manages to run Hungerford dry of plastic clothes pegs on one buying splurge!
The time has come to find a small team of volunteers to help us during the manic periods of the season — times when you spend solid days going down each row and cutting back shoots, only to find by the end of row 48 you have to start back at row 1. What we want is folk with green fingers, flexibility, plus an interest in vineyards. The editor of The Fisherman (Kintbury’s parish magazine) kindly puts an editorial mention in the March issue and then I place an advert in the Woodhays’ magazine. Within 48 hours I have replies sitting on my email or messages on my phone. They all sound very keen with just the right background. One couple work as professional gardeners on two large country estates yet have a background in the wine trade. Another couple (in their 80s but very fit and agile) lived in Cognac for 20 years and had their own vineyard. Bull’s eye. The power of the local press!
The trouble with unseasonably warm weather in April is that it prompts mother nature to wake up prematurely and promote early vine growth: early budding can be dangerous as we know only too well as any subsequent frosts can wreak havoc on tender buds when they are at their most vulnerable. On 9 April we registered 20 degrees at midday in the vineyard. Very warm.
We estimate that we are maybe 10 days ahead of last year in terms of bud development. On 3rd April I awoke at 6am to see a spot light on each field: this signifies that the temperature is +2 degrees or below as the heated wires have clicked on. Later I check one of the outside thermostats hanging in the vineyard and indeed the temperature fell to -1 degrees over night.
Paul Woodrow-Hill at Vinecare tells us this to the earliest bud burst he has witnessed in 30 years of working in the uk viticulture business.
Finally, after many months, we have a new working granary with running water ( and a fridge!), which will become the vineyard equipment store, workshop, and canteen. Titch and his gang of carpenters have done a grand job in re-building the granary utilising where possible reclaimed beams from the original. The frame is made of green oak, the cladding of soft wood, and this sits on 9 re-bedded saddlestones. The plumber has finally connected running water to the sink so now we have all mod cons and Tony can have a cuppa tea and heat up his lunch in the microwave.
The second part of our rationalising the storage of vineyard equipment involves building a new tractor shed to house our new Kubota baby and all the other bits of tractor equipment. In anticipation of Annabelle Louth’s wedding party in the barn we move the two tractors out of the carport on 9 April.
2nd —First herbicide spray of the year and I am pleasantly surprised at how effective the last spray was in November, just after harvest. We use only a coupe of knapsacks of Roundup to spot spray grass in the chardonnay field and then use a product called Diquot for the remaining weeds.
Robert applies fertilizer to both fields as part of our plan to improve the pH in each field.
The extract below is from an article I wrote for the Thames and Chiltern Vineyards Ass, entitled Armageddon in April.
In February we took the decision to sell off all our stock of bougies! High-risk strategy? Hopefully, not. At Winding Wood Vineyard we have decided upon another frost protection system: heated wires. Having seen an experimental installation at Ridgeview in Sussex and read about heated wires being used in New Zealand’s cool climate vineyards to good effect, we decided last year to install the system along the fruiting wires of our pinot noir. However last year, as our pinot buds were only at woolly bud stage when the worst night of frost hit they were not at their most vulnerable so it was difficult to be empirically accurate about their effectiveness. In any case, we lost no buds that year which was encouraging.
In March 2017 we took the plunge and installed the system in our chardonnay field — this involved attaching 1,500 metres of cabling to the fruiting wire. Last year, with bougies as our only frost protection, the chardonnay buds were pulverized. Of course we are no longer spring chickens and resent getting up in the night to light bougies; and secondly, we are not convinced bougies work down to -5 oc in advective frost conditions — even when they are set out at double the recommended rate per acre.
The heated wires are linked to a sensor in the vineyard, which in turn is connected to a thermostat in the electric box set to turn on the circuits at +2o (a safety margin) and heat up the wires to 20oc. The wires and the cane are tied together so the heat can travel down the cane. Thermal images taken at Ridgeview show the cane surrounded by a halo of orange. We think we are the only growers in the UK who have fully installed heated wires in our vineyard not surprisingly we are beginning to get a procession of fellow owners wanting to visit and inspect.
How did our heated wires manage with the three Armageddon nights in April? Well, if you had asked us on the morning of 26th April I would have said confidently that they performed extremely well over two consecutive nights of –4.5o conditions with minimal damage —maybe just 2% of bud losses. However the 3rd night of 26/27 April was a perfect storm: we had hail and rain in the early evening with northerly winds followed by –4.5 o temperatures over night and the conditions decimated our advanced buds. Clearly, the heated wires just could not cope with the freak combination of wet and freezing conditions. We estimate to have lost 70% of our primary buds which by the afternoon of 27th resembled dried tobacco plants. Given the unusual conditions in April this year everyone’s vines were ahead of normal — we had an average of three leaves out —and I wonder if our buds had been less advanced we would have been so badly affected. Without wanting to indulge in schadenfreude, it was interesting that other vineyards in this area, which employed no frost protection save spraying Frostec, were 100% wiped out. Whether the secondary bunches will be worth having only time will tell.
It is too early to assess the damage but we suspect that the loss of primary buds amounts to 70%. Distressingly, one of the circuits in the chardonnay fields — our best 3 rows in terms of bunch production — failed to come on the 3rd night for some gremlin reason and we have lost every single bud. We get the electricians to come in and check the connection but they too are scratching their heads as to why this circuit did not fire up. It must be human error but one thing is crystal clear: the heated wires work!
More planting! We took out a hedge last year next to row 1 of the pinot as the blackbirds used this as a launch pad for striping forays of the adjacent row of berries. First we get Matt from Kintbury Holt farm to come along with his large tractor and break up the soil with a subsoiler and then Robert rents a machine to rotovate the 3 new rows. We then install the end and intermediate posts using a post basher slung on the end of our new tractor the hydraulics with Robert turning the machine on a sixpence of the tractor — although sufficiently adroit to avoid dropping the hydraulics down on my hand as I guide the thing into position. Boy, did it hurt, but no amputation required.
The only other vineyard in the UK who is experimenting with heated wires as a method of frost protection is the well-known vineyard in Sussex called Ridgeview. They have been producing fine sparkling wine for 25 years or so. Currently they have only 5 rows connected but have seen good results from the trial and want to roll it out. We have a visit from Matt and Luke to survey our wire installation and ask lots of questions.
‘Darling Buds of May’?
It’s a waiting game to see what recovers from the devastating frosts of late April that pulverised our young buds. We are most interested in those primary shoots, which survived, as they will provide the best cropping bunches. The shoot will send out secondary and sometimes tertiary buds to replace any dead buds and of these the secondaries can sometime produce decent if small bunch of grapes. However, they may never ripen enough in our cool climates to be of use. What is clear is that we have inconsistent recovery: some vines have only two shoots whilst others have five or more.
We have Alexia, a student from Sparsholt, with us for 2 weeks doing work experience. She starts to take off all the plastic guards in the pinot, as the vine trunks are now thick enough to make them unattractive food for our rabbit population. The next step is to loosen the middle ties on each cane — which held the cane close up against the heated wire during the frosty period — to allow it to swell without digging in. A tedious yet essential job.
23th. Robert is off on his Grecian travels and I am about to go away for 10 days.
While we are away Alexia manfully continues to work her way through the pinot field taking off guards, bud rubbing, and loosening ties. You need good music to keep you sane.