Diary of an English Vineyard

(by Jonica Fox)


Part 3 of Jonica’s blog about life on a newly established English vineyard sees 5,600 vines get planted before lunch (with the help of lasers and Carl the butcher), while there’s also an exciting tasting of the new wines…

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.

Part 3 – April 2011 (text and photos by Jonica)

Yesterday we planted 5,600 vines before lunch.

Just like that…

Of course, we’d been months in the planning and preparation. Our vines were chosen last autumn, careful attention paid to selecting clones of the various Pinots (Noir, Gris and Meunier) before picking those that best suit our soils, aspect and microclimates and to give some complexity to the eventual wines.

These get grafted onto rootstocks that protect the vines from phylloxera – the evil aphid that wiped out so many European vineyards a century-and-a-half ago.

The vines arrive in boxes as bare-root plants. I shifted them quickly from pallet to car and down to the village load by load where they were stored in the butcher’s cold store at between four and six degrees to stop them sprouting buds before they are planted.

On planting day we usually start loading and shifting vines at about 6am. This time Carl the butcher delivered them to us, in field on the dot of 8.00am. Gerard, Luke, Liz and I had a chilly start.

The field had been spread with chalk and fertilizer and harrowed to a fine tilth the evening before. Dry on the top after six rainless weeks but plenty of moisture below the surface to give the vines a start.

We plant by machine. Our planting team come from Germany, always with some tractor-drama in play by the time they have crossed the channel. Often, it’s a key part breaking – last year the challenge was to find a forge-with-welder-working open on a Saturday afternoon. This year, a tyre shreds. We call every farm-tyre supplier in the South East to try to find a rare road/field tyre for a JCB Fast-trac when the sun is shining, there’s the Royal Wedding and we are in the midst the longest bank holiday ever.

We failed.

They still have no spare tyre.

The Fast-trac is fitted with GPS and laser guidance. Once the first line is laid across the headland, each row will run perfectly parallel, 2.20-metre alley width, 1.28m between each vine. All in absolute symmetry.

Set-up takes time. After that, it’s fast, the most important thing being to ensure that vines are ready for loading and that they go in in the right order and numbers.

I need to know that each row is, for example, Pinot Noir clone 777 on rootstock SO4, so that in the future we can measure all the data we vine-growers thrive on: date of bud-break through to crop weight, natural sugar level, berry colour, number and colour of seeds, pH and more – all per clone.

Pinot Gris goes in first. It’s robust and ripens well so is doing extra duty as a wind-break for the more sensitive Pinot Noir, which gets the optimal middle ground on this field with Pinot Meunier on the far side and a final couple of rows of Pinot Gris where the field margin is narrowest and there is a touch of shading from our neighbour’s woodland.

The tractor revs: a glorious deep growl.

The lads on the back feed the vines into the wheel that drops them at precise intervals into the furrow that closes behind them, leaving waxy stubs just visible above the earth.  They scoot down the field, loose the wire guide and reverse back up at break-neck speed ready to reload and go. Reload and go, repeat, repeat, repeat. Whizz, zoom, Paaaaaaaa-nic…

Did we get the calculations wrong? They look as if they are halfway across the field with only a quarter of the vines in place.


We pound across the headland to the far side for a different perspective. (And to count our paces for a rough and ready calculation of how far out we might be…)

Did we get it wrong? Did we really get it wrong? Bit sweaty now; then phew… It’s the angle and the nerves. All is fine and the vines go in steadily. We are left with just enough over to replace a few failing vines from the 2005 plantings and fill in a couple of gaps from last year.

Lunchtime is fun – a picnic off the Landrover bonnet, lots of bonhomie and Vineyards4U.de go off in micro-convoy (Mercedes G Wagon, bog-standard rusty white van and gleaming Fast-trac) to plant at nearby Piltdown in the afternoon having done another perfect job for us.

And so the planting day ends with one of those rare moments of pure happiness that make cold feet, raw hands and all the time spent nurturing our vines feel so worthwhile. While Luke and Liz accurately measure buds and shoot growth on their pruning trials on our older vines, Gerard and I drive through deep-set, new-leaf dappled lanes to the winery.

It’s time to taste the wines we are working on with Will, our winemaker.

First up: 2010 vintage, a richly copper-pink rose ‘base wine’ (before secondary fermentation in bottle). It’s the first time we have tasted it since fermentation finished last November. It is delicious – my eyes water and throat tighten with pleasure and relief. I have to taste again; sip, pause, think and then try to project forward to what this wine could and should become.

Can we improve on it… more time in tank? Blend in some of our barrique (oak barrel) reserve? How long on lees, two or three years? Longer? How will it change and progress? This is when I wish I had a lifetime of wine-making behind me instead of just a few years. Having faith and building understanding – it takes more determination, more passion, more time than one thinks.

And then the barrique wine: darker pink, more complex, richer in the mouth and only the most gentle of back-notes of oakiness – an experiment I am very pleased with.

Finally, with very wary out-door removal of the crown-cap (bottle fermented wines build up to six-bar pressure, enough to take your eye out if the cap spins your way) our first vintage 2009 meets the light of day with foaming wine gushing forth as if delighted to escape its confinement.

We catch it in our glasses, let the initial foam subside, sniff, sip, taste, think, sip again. My smile says it all…. And Gerard’s says even more. We all relax. This is a good start, the wine is good: it sings on the nose and dances on the tongue.

We agree to taste again in November and do dosage trials then – but first impressions are that we can keep the dosage level low. We drive back home through the blue-grey hills of Sussex by deep-cut steams and bluebell woods, past coppices and shaws, hedges embroidered with flowers and sunlit fields of verdant green.

This has been a perfect day.

A royal wedding-day of rest and then we hustle to get the stakes (tutors) and vine-guards on, one of each per vine.

Push, bend, slide, straighten, pick up a stake and guard, push, bend and keep going. 5,600 times. The point of this is to greenhouse the newly planted vines and keep marauding rabbits off the buds as they burst in to shoots and grow. There’s nothing a rabbit likes better than gourmet vine leaves. And nothing I like better than the absence of hungry rabbits…

Meanwhile, back in the established vineyard, this extraordinary weather has brought the vines forward by about three weeks. The wires are garlanded with new shoots, this year’s grapes are already visible on the shoots and we have started bud-rubbing already.

Tell someone you have spent the day bud-rubbing (especially if at a dinner party) and you get an odd look. All we are doing is taking unwanted shoots off the vine trunks and thinning crowded shoots at the vine-head. Attention to detail now delivers a real difference in fruit quality by harvest time.

We work in fear as well as wonder.

A May frost will hit this advanced, exciting growth so hard and wipe out our potential crop. Checking weather forecasts is scary, sick-making and so far at least unknotting, a slump of relief before the fear builds again.

No frost, light rain , no frost, light rain, no frost , light rain… please. This spring’s mantra constantly echoing in my head.

So we go on, bud rubbing, weeding, tightening wires, replacing rotten posts, starting to mow, working on plant nutrition.

The cycle of growing, of hope and panic.