Diary of an English Vineyard

(by Jonica Fox)

Following on from Jonica’s much-read debut piece for us, Diary of an English Vineyard, here is her second instalment (posted 11th March 2011).

It comes at an appropriate time, after Susie’s report on tasting the UK’s top fizz on this site attracted widespread attention and comment. The blind tasting, organised by UK wine expert Stephen Skelton MW, pitted some of the UK’s finest sparkling wines against their peers and celebrated names from the world of fizz, including various champagnes. The results made for encouraging reading for the UK’s fizz producers.

Focusing back on the day-to-day machinations of an English vineyard and its owners, this month’s blog will delight nature lovers and spring-watchers alike, with its coverage of ospreys, sneezeweed and horseflies.

Ideas on how best to deal with wasps in the vineyard, meanwhile, would be welcomed by Jonica…


A bit of background (by peter)

When Jonica Fox tired of working in media and public service she jacked it all in and retrained in wine.

With a BSc (Hons) from Plumpton in viticulture and winemaking firmly under her belt, she and her fizz-loving husband Gerard took the plunge and set up their own vineyard near their home in the stunning High Weald. They now run two vineyards either side of the village of Mayfield in East Sussex, planted to classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, from which they aim to make high-quality sparkling wine.

This is their story, told month-by-month through the changing landscapes of a vineyard in southern England.


Chapter 2 – March 2011

If February is all linear progression – vine by vine, row by row, snip by snip until the pruning is done – then March is distinctly random, a hither-thither pattern of catch-up and sit-waiting with more work done outside the vineyard than in it.

March is the gap between finishing pruning, completing tying-down and the emergence of new shoots in April.

March is evenings spent with the past year’s diaries looking at the key tasks across the coming growing season, text books and academic tracts on sustainable viticulture, thinking about cost control and crop quality, adjusting budgets, filling in the VAT return, doing the company accounts, thinking of names and labels, logos and legislation, planning the new plantings, repairing trellis and replacing rotting end pots. It’s days spent bouncing from task to task, diving into vine nutrition, taking soil samples for soil testing, planning leaf and petiole sampling (once the leaves grow).

Vine nutrition is the heart of the matter for us this year. Lots to learn, lots to think about and lots to do.

March is whizzing over to the winery several miles away to taste the 2010 vintage now that it has been in tank and barrel a while. We need to think about the blend and when to bottle.  It’s a zig to service the machinery and a zag to start our web-site project going and all the time the sap is rising, the days are longer and warmer, there’s a buzz in the air and in my blood. Things are moving.

Moving everywhere, that is, except for amongst our vines. They are still thinking about it.

It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Careful examination shows the brown protective scales slowly separating as buds move from dormancy to the appealingly named “woolly bud” stage, where a little white fluff develops. Now we can start to see what damage was done by the winter cold – how many buds are simply dead and how many are showing signs of future exuberance. It’s an excuse to trudge the vine rows on a sunny day.

At the same time, we check that this year’s fruiting canes are properly tied down to the fruiting wire and re-tie any that are at risk of detachment.  I don’t mind re-tying the odd vine on a dry day but there is a skill to doing so, bending the cane very gently, arching it little by little so that it lies along the wire and doesn’t snap off. Two things make snapping more likely: a “brittle cane” disease called phomopsis, which does no other real harm to the vine, and a dry day… vine canes are much more supple when the atmosphere is damp: rain, fog and rising sap are all good for bendiness, early morning better than a sunny afternoon.

There is a pressure of tasks to come that cannot be attempted yet. The soil is too saturated for cultivation, too wet for the tractor – it’s already compacted enough after the winter and the repetitive pitter-patter of our collective size 8’s as we stomp the rows. The grass hasn’t really started into growth but the weeds are poised. Young seedlings are emerging, emerald green dots against the caramel earth.

We like a broad diversity of vegetative life in the vineyards – everywhere except immediately around the vines. Our alleys are filled with buttercups, moon-daisies and ordinary daisies, bugle, eggs and bacon, sneezeweed, a few brave bluebells invading from the shady margins, violets and less-loved plants like thistles as well as various grasses. Our headlands harbour common orchids and primroses near the hedges and we keep one area of the larger vineyard entirely as a small nature reserve between the two fields of vines.

Gerard and I were in the vineyard this Sunday, checking pruning, checking trellis, talking about all the things to be done this season, where the budget is to be spent and where we might make savings, when a hawk-shadow chasing over the ground drew our eyes skywards.

The sun was shining warm, the ground was drying out and smelling sweet, small birds darting and tweeting, two deer in the ghyll below exploding in a panicky leaping burst to get away from us and over our heads, then there it was: an osprey, wings outstretched in awesome span. Circling, rising, seeking the thermals to help it gain height.

We stood motionless, iced to stillness as second bird came into view over the tree-tops.  It too circled and rose, turned and glided upwards, seeking an easier ride on its flight to the reservoirs. The osprey fly over us every year, sometimes we see one and sometimes we don’t but we have never seen a pair before. Just thrilling.  It made me long for late July when the red kites come off the heath-land forest to the west to hunt and shout their distinctive Keeee Keeee call, raiding our headlands and alleys for voles and field mice. It’s a timeless sense of place.

March is the key time for the first careful spray of systemic weed-killer (the same stuff that you might use in your garden). It’s carefully applied in a narrow strip under the trellising. A back-pack sprayer works well, it’s a long, long walk and takes days but there is much less risk of drifting spray. I have a tractor-mounted micro-droplet sprayer too but, at this stage, with soggy ground and very young vines whose trunks are not yet woody enough to protect them, the back-breaker sprayer is the way to go. At least for the time being. We work hard to do no harm, careful in our selection of sprays and sparing in their use. We are always very conscious that we are monoculture farmers and try to work with nature as much as possible.  That said, I am very hard-hearted when it comes to wasps…

The two bugs that bug me in the vineyards are wasps (which damage the ripening crop) and horseflies (which damage us).

I can’t do anything about the flies; they breed in the woodlands and don’t hurt anything that isn’t warm-blooded. The battle against horseflies is fought by not wearing dark colours, using pink Germolene on bites and generally putting up with the devils. But the waspy queens get lured with apple juice and strawberry jam into special bee-proof traps in the hopes that I am reducing the number of local nests. I have absolutely no idea if this really works but it should in theory – there is a logic to it and it has become part of my rites of spring.

Yes, March is the month of perpetual motion that gathers momentum and slings distraction: the sap is rising, the birds are singing and I have a spreadsheet to do.