Owning a vineyard is, I've discovered, a popular talking point for colleagues and friends. "How are the vines" is a novel icebreaker I suppose, more interesting than enquiring after one's health or asking about a recent holiday.
This year I've been struggling to know how to answer. It's either "fine, growing nicely" or "suffering a bit from the drought I'm afraid", but there's not much else to say. Because the first year of a vineyard's life is really quite unexciting. There are no grapes let alone any wine to talk about. It's a field with some plants in, which have more or less foliage depending on how damp and warm the weather has been and how well they've been able to pull up nutrients from the soil. Frankly, Season 1 of The Vineyard is a bit of a slow burner.
Now it's October and the wine producers I follow on social media have been busy posting pictures for a couple of months. From early August to late September these are largely of grapes. The freshest, juiciest most Instagrammable ones of course - I've not seen much sign of shrivelled botrytised bunches or yellowed leaves.
We start with the first signs of veraison (ripening), then steadily juicier looking grapes occasionally covered in decorative nets and usually backlit by late summer sunshine. There are frequently dogs in the shot. By early October we're on to action photos of harvest, and then through the round window scenes as the grapes get unloaded at the winery and crushed into tanks. The timing of the posts gives an insight into which are the hotter sites and which ones need all the time they can get to eke out enough ripeness.
Meanwhile at Little Bursted it's just leaves. Some rather brown and shrivelled, most green enough. Leaves, and weeds. Thistles as far as the eye can see. No veraison, no harvest, no winery shots. No dogs. And those icebreaker conversations tend to run their course when I explain that no, I don't yet have any wine. It'll be 2024 until the first crop and probably 2026 or later before anything - even the still wine - gets drunk.
So my review of the year is a little thinner than others, but here goes. This is what we did in 2022, what happened to the vines, and how we approached sensitive subjects like crop nutrition, weed control and biodiversity.
We used herbicide a couple of times this year. We sprayed then cultivated and harrowed the land in early April ahead of planting. Should we have opted for no-plough planting to preserve soil structure and fungal networks? Maybe, it would be an interesting experiment and it's worked elsewhere. But we didn't, we cultivated, and in hindsight I'm glad we did. Competition from other plants killed off a number of our vines in the July and August drought, and the small row of Albarino we'd planted the year before with no ploughing was choked off and on death's door by midsummer. That will hopefully be it for cultivation now though.
After the plants went in it scarcely rained, but leaves started appearing within a couple of weeks. Luckily there were no late frosts to knock them back after budburst, because mid-April is a risky time to plant. We passed the time trying to shore up defences against deer: I got a quote for full fencing that was just too unaffordable for a small plot like ours, so we improvised with a 1.5m high double electric fence powered by a battery in the far corner and a little solar panel. It keeps sagging and needing to be re-tensioned but through the summer we saw no signs of deer. Either the fence is working or they never bothered to try. I'm heading there this week and the local Whatsapp group reported a large stag in the road this morning. He'd better not have got in.
May was fairly wet and warm enough, June started reasonably, but then the heat and drought began. I explained the sad state of affairs by mid-August in my last post. A few of the vines perked up in September when the rain finally reappeared but a lot of the damage has been done. A number of vines will not survive to see 2023, mostly the Meunier on 41B. We'll wait until year 3 before replanting.
One good thing about a drought summer is an almost complete lack of disease. Most English vineyards were able to go light on the fungicide this summer unlike in 2021 when downy mildew took over or 2019 when a wet harvest brought on bunch rot. We sprayed nothing until September when we gave the overgrown undervine area another dose of herbicide and put a little sulphur on the vines along with some foliar nutrients. No mancozeb or other synthetic fungicides, no copper, but vines rarely need much care in the first year anyway and this summer was a very clean season.
We left the margins uncut through the year. That's easy enough and it brings the insects. By August the fields were humming with crickets. Crickets are fine. So are the butterflies. Less so the large wasp nest under one of the vines, and I've been unnerved by sightings of a fruit fly whose markings look suspiciously like those of the iniquitous spotted wing drosophila.
Now we just wait for winter. The vines are slowly colouring and will soon lose their leaves. There's no harvest, no shrivelling bunches missed by the harvesters. Just a few thousand plants which range in size from vigorous triffids weighing down their vine tutors and entwined with their neighbours to bonsai specimens that haven't even escaped the rabbit guards. How we prune this mishmash next year is something I've not quite got to grips with yet. Some vines with thick canes are easily strong enough to be left at fruiting wire height (though we don't yet have the trellising up - we waited until global steel prices started to subside), but others are feeble and need to go back down almost to ground level: 2 buds above the graft is normal. I expect we'll probably cut everything to 2 buds for consistency.
This week we're cutting some hedges down to chest height to improve cold air drainage at the foot of the vineyard. I'll be checking on the electric fence, getting some repairs done to the caravan before winter, making sure the water is still flowing and generally pottering. Or staring on in despair at a scene of devastation if the stag got in.
Next year, Season 2, should be a bit more eventful. The vines will be bigger, they'll have trellising to climb up, they will need some canopy management and probably some more fungicide. I'll be spending more time with the agronomist and experimenting with organic and biological controls. We'll have to come off the fence and decide whether to invest in a tractor. If we do, we need a lockable shed. Which might need planning permission. There's a lot to think about.
Later in 2023 we may see a few grapes on the odd vine, though we'll be dropping most of them if they do appear. Perhaps we'll take a mini crop to bring home and make into a demijohn or two of still wine. It will be an early indicator of how warm or cool the site is, and whether Melon B will actually ripen.
We still haven't decided what to do long term about ground cover and weeds. Spraying glyphosate is incredibly easy and effective, but heavily frowned on. Undervine cultivation
disturbs the soil and can damage young plants. Mulching works nicely but builds up ridges around the trunks. Sheep are great, and we plan on grazing the land over this winter, but having them there during growing season feels difficult.
So that's where we are, after a year. The first dormancy is nearly upon us. The fields will soon squelch with winter mud. Join us for Season 2, starting next February.