Last time I posted we'd just planted around 5,300 little bare rooted vines in our two blocks. I got sunburned that day despite the cool weather. It was dry and the sun shone all day. Perfect conditions.
Well it kept doing that. In the month of April we had a total of 26mm of rain. There was scarcely enough to wet the ground for several weeks after planting. Still, I thought: it's coolish, the vines are just waking up and there's plenty of moisture under the surface. But it still made me a little nervous.
May was a bit wetter: 80mm. Sounds a lot, but the thing with the Pett Bottom valley is that rain seems to fall as infrequently as in the rest of Kent, but more heavily. It was certainly enough for the weeds to get going (thistles, those opportunistic little prickly bastards, appear to love the terroir), but compared with 2021 when the land was a matted jungle of thick grass and nettles things were still a little sparse.
Then June, with bright warm days and cool nights and a worryingly little 36mm of occasional rain, most coming in two showers. The thistles continued to grow, some of the vines started to poke their heads above the top of the rabbit guards, and the grass began slowly to turn brown.
And now our little slope finds itself at the end of a freak July, a high summer where nothing falls from the sky (I am on 3.2mm so far this month, which admittedly is 3.2mm more than many places in the South East) and temperatures go to places they really shouldn't.
There is a big flat red button in the corner of the English climate control room, marked "do not press". That's the 40C button. For decades, centuries probably, millennia quite possibly, people walked past the button and did what they were told. But it appears this year the temptation grew too great and some naughty visitor, sneaking into the corner while nobody was looking, gave it a push.
Our weather station has been up for a year and a half. It is well screened and pretty accurate with its temperature and rain readings. Before last week the hottest temperature it recorded was 29.6C, once last August and again this July. On Monday the 18th it smashed through the old record to 34.0C. After weeks with no rain that's a little disconcerting when you have thousands of valuable and very vulnerable first year vines in the ground.
On Tuesday 19th Little Bursted went a bit mad. It shrugged off the old 34C record by mid morning. And it kept on rising. Eventually to 39.2C in the late afternoon. It may never be as hot in that little corner of the downs in my lifetime. I certainly hope it is never as hot in that little corner of the downs in my lifetime. But science suggests it may well be.
Anything from the mid 30s up with strong sunlight is enough to scorch vine leaves and shrivel bunches. I can see the effects on the more mature vines in our back garden in London. By the end of Tuesday the garden Chardonnay berries were wrinkled like little green peppercorns and several leaves had browned and crisped off at the edges. I don't know the damage at the vineyard yet as I've not had the chance to visit, but I'm nervous. The temperature is back down to something more reasonable but the rain continues to be evasive. Perhaps the now annual tradition of a deluge once the schools break up will save the day this year.
Is this what we have to look forward to with climate change? Southern England is, as we all know, at the very margins of cold climate viticulture. Yet no sooner does the weather warm enough to ripen grapes most years than we start to see a host of warming-related scourges in summer: heatwaves and berry sunburn, new pests we rarely saw before; in spring, with mild winters bringing on early budburst, killer late frosts. The same pattern that has frequently ravaged yields in France in recent years.
All told we are probably safer from the extreme ends of heat and drought in Pett Bottom than some vineyards elsewhere. Essex and the Kent coastal lowlands are even drier; our clay-with-flints soil and chalk bedrock are more helpful for water retention during drought than some of the sandy or hard clay soils of the Weald. But I could really do with some rain soon. Not enough to bring on another 2021 of downy mildew but enough to keep those tender young roots from dying of thirst.