On Wednesday morning we had a couple of fields in Kent. By mid afternoon we had an actual vineyard. We have, finally, planted.
Planting a vineyard is the end of the beginning in the career of a vigneron. It comes after anything from months to years of planning: site selection, research, choosing consultants and viticulturalists to work with, selecting and ordering the vines and preparing the land.
The day itself forms a paragraph break.
What comes after is 10 times more frightening. I can only liken it to the feeling when you've brought your first newborn child back from the hospital in the new car seat, and you're left thinking "now what?"
Before planting everything remains theoretical and contingent; once it's done and the vines are in, that's it. Not only are you committed to running a vineyard for the next few decades, but you have also set in stone the varieties, clones and rootstocks, the planting density and row width and therefore the machinery you will be able to use.
So as of the 20th April 2022 we are committed to:
2.2m row width and 1.1m vine spacing
Downslope (E-W) row orientation with a headland of about 10 metres
1,200 Pinot Meunier clone 924 on 41b rootstocks
1,000 Pinot Meunier 818 on 41b
700 Pinot Noir 375 on 41b
700 Pinot Noir 115 on 41b, and
1,500 Melon de Bourgogne 1057 on SO4
What about the day itself? What was involved?
A very cold start. My son James and I travelled down the night before and stayed over in the site caravan which has no working heating and managed a not entirely comfortable 5C indoor temperature by dawn. By just before 8am the planting team were on site and setting up.
Most vineyards in Europe are these days planted by machine. We chose to order our vines and planting through Sam Barnes, of the Biddenden vineyard family, who has rapidly made a name for himself buying up and deploying some of the most modern mechanised vineyard kit in Britain. His planting machine is a rather satisfying Heath Robinson contraption pulled by a large tractor. In the middle is a small ploughshare and a slowly spinning wheel which - fed by hand by two people either side sitting in chairs - pushes the bare rooted vines into the ground in perfectly straight lines. That's it, pretty much. The technology is rather clever - I think it may be GPS steered - but it looks reassuringly agricultural.
The machine travels up and down, up and down for a few hours. You stand there, feeling a little surplus to requirements, as the field gets slowly and relentlessly covered in vines and, on a sunny spring day like we had, your face and neck get slowly and relentlessly sunburnt. Unless like James you sensibly confine yourself to the caravan for most of the day revising for your exams.
Vinayard planting is still a novelty in England so I had the welcome distraction of a few visits from curious neighbours during the day, including Jim and Lyndsey from the opposite hillside who are planting a hectare or two next year as the Pett Bottom valley fast becomes a local vineyard hub, and Henry and Nick from Defined Wine in nearby Bridge. My only real job for the day apart from unlocking the entrance gate was to make occasional decisions on what to plant where and how far down the hill to go. In the end we were left with 200 spare Meunier grafts. We may put a few of these in at the bottom, but the rest will move on to grace some other sunny slope somewhere in the country.
The final result is we now have a vineyard. But at this stage it looks more like an early season asparagus field. Long low ridges of disturbed soil with little wax covered sticks poking up about 10 centimetres into the air. They don't look very robust. Frankly they really don't look like they would ever come to much, but I'm assured that within a couple of weeks they will start forming little furry buds and bursting into leaf. Which will then be zapped by May frosts if today's worrying weather model runs come to fruition.
Now the stress and expense really starts. When you plant a crop, unlike buying a new car or house, your investment isn't insured. If the vines fail to take, or get decimated by the local deer herd (or nicked by vine thieves...does such a brand of criminality exist here yet?) then not only are we out of pocket by a lot, but we have lost at least a year and probably 2. If the vines burst out in the next 2 weeks and then a hard frost hits the vineyard, well that might be curtains. The young vines are as-yet weak and unestablished.
We shall do what we can to mitigate these risks but not everything is in our control. Still, there are a few jobs to do to turn the site into something resembling a proper vineyard: fitting vine tutors and rabbit guards before those first juicy leaves pop out, then getting trellising in later in the summer. We have an electric fence on-site now and are watching with trepidation whether this is enough to deter the deer. If not, then it's expensive deer fencing.
A few short term decisions to make: how often to spray fungicide this summer, and what to use; how to manage under-vine weeds and what to plant in the vineyard alleyways; how to manage the unplanted margins and pack as much biodiversity into the space as we can manage.
Then a few longer term plans to start making. And eventually, bottles of wine to sell.