I'm going to start this post by talking a bit about our vineyard's terroir. If you've read the rest of the site you'll note that it's a mixture of periglacial head deposits and clay-with-flints, over chalk bedrock. The French call clay-with-flints "Terroir de Silex" and it's most famously associated with the wines of Sancerre although there is a fair bit of it in other regions including the Marne Valley.
Ah, terroir. Lovely crumbly stuff on a hot summer day. Imparting its ancestral magic into the wine. But like all terroirs ours has a winter version too. In winter, unless you're planted on sand or gravel, your terroir is a type of mud.
It's now the Rasputitsa, the Pett Bottom mud season.
Mud takes many different forms and textures. There's the deep squelchy farty sort, totally waterlogged but holding its shape. You step in and lose a wellington boot. Rich in organic matter, dark brown, commonly spotted next to farm gates; the slippery superficial liquid sort, of pure grey or yellow clay, forming a sort of slick on the paths and splash marks up the side of cars; the dark, textured forest type with its mould-scented leaf mulch and twigs that looks like it should be shovelled up and spread on your back garden. The stuff you all spent far too much time in during those lockdown walks in 2020 and 2021.
Then there's ours: cake. We have fudge cake for terroir with impressive adhesive properties. It's not slick, it doesn't squelch, it clumps and clods and sticks. That's the stuff I accumulated several kilos of around my wellies yesterday as I trudged... no, trudging implies forward movement: as I edged up and down the rows of first year vines yesterday attempting to make progress on pruning.
Because it's pruning time, and I'm attempting to do it myself.
The first year's prune doesn't require skilled labour. Unless the vines are particularly vigorous you cut them right back to two buds above the graft ready to start the whole growth cycle again next season. This helps them to focus on putting down roots and building up reserves rather than prematurely branching out and fruiting before the trunk is strong enough.
The good thing about cutting back down to 2 buds is that so long as you can count to 2 this doesn't require a huge amount of expertise. Just human labour and some sharp secateurs. The not so good thing is that it involves bending over at each vine and reaching all the way down to ground level, lifting the rabbit guard and making the cut then standing upright again.
Backache starts within minutes. It steadily worsens with each vine. After a while the thighs and calves start to go. That's just the first row.
I get into a rhythm of sorts. Each plant takes me between about 10 and 25 seconds depending on how many shoots and leaves there are to snip away. The easiest ones are those that didn't grow much in the summer, which is a lot of them in this far corner of the Meunier field. Wherever the weeds did best the vines did badly. Some barely made it past 3 leaves. I'm starting at the end of field 2 and working my way back towards field one, ending with the comparatively fecund Melon B.
It's usually quite satisfying to get into a rhythm in a monotonous job and steadily tick off the progress. This is the kind of mindfulness exercise people pay good money to enjoy on drystone walling holidays. That's not how it feels pruning the vineyard. In the back of my mind is the whispering anxiety. Of properly doing my back in, or of running out of time and having to buy in some labour - I have made 3 trips to prune now and managed a total of 11 rows, out of just over 90.
Nothing so far has more clearly brought home that fundamental truth for the vineyard owner: that it is either a labour of love, or a money pit. It must help to live on site, which we don't. Popping out the back door and pottering around for an hour doing 2 or 3 rows of an evening when the weather's dry: that's the way to do it. Driving over an hour and then trying to get as much as possible done before dusk or rain sets in then driving back again isn't.
Once a first year vine has been pruned it's a little safer for the rest of the season. It's been windy and the gales have bent over a lot of the bigger canes and their metal tutors and probably done some damage to the plants. After pruning they are free to sit snugly in their little planting hole and rest. The rabbit guards on the other hand are now free to fly off into the hedges when the wind gets up. Once a guard is gone the hungry rabbits move in and carry out a bit of further pruning, 2 buds being just too sticky-outy for their liking. And the red deer. There will be a later blog post on these handsome vandals. Then it'll be spring, budburst and frost time.
Wish me luck as I work my way slowly across the fields. Wish my back luck. I'll be back in the spring with more heartwarming tales of bucolic vineyard life.