Diary of an English vineyard

(by Jonica Fox)

Nature is partying in installment four of Jonica’s blog about life on a newly established English vineyard.

The vines are unseasonally advanced, the flower beds are in full bloom and the vine-munching deer need to be kept at bay – but can she persuade Gerard, Luke and Ben to pee on the fence posts..?

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 4 – May 2011 (text and photos by Jonica, editing by peter)

The darling buds of May are fading fast – after all, they were all out and in full flower in April thanks to this endless-sunny-days-of-childhood spring.

Now, mid-May, the vines are three weeks ahead. I’m already beginning to work on harvest plans. Careful forecasting and organisation is needed to get the right people at the right time and enough of them to make picking tons of grapes by hand a pleasure not a punishment.

There’s plenty of time for growth to slow: a cool, wet month (like August last year) will put a break on ripening and harvest dates can shift back. And plenty of time for things still to go wrong.

By the end of April our woodlands were fringed with fountains of frothy blossom, hedges frilled with Queen Anne’s Lace and verges spangled with Star-of-Bethlehem. The woodlands below the vineyards were dense with bluebells and the drone of bees.

Now, wildflowers are abundant, hedgerows exuberant and garden plants competing amongst themselves for ‘best-in-show’. Nature is partying this year. And so am I…in spirit at least. It’s an exhilarating start to the productive year. The vines are in full growth and I am pondering reducing the crop load with a ‘green harvest’ (picking off the baby bunches after flowering and fruit-set) to improve the quality of the bunches we keep and manage the yield per vine.

There’s nothing more refreshing than slipping through the lower gate and following the footpath into the woods – green, blue, cool, smelling damply fragrant – and looking up into the bright, dry vineyard, all tubes and metal posts, warmth and endless bending, snipping, straightening and shuffling along to the next vine. The contrast is delicious.

The established vines have progressed to shoots and ‘bunches’ – the buds getting ready for flowering next month. Or, if the weather holds, the end of this one. Then, hopefully: fruit-set (pollination).

This is the time when our Pinot Meunier shows its seemingly flour-dusted leaves (Meunier meaning the Miller’s Pinot) and makes identifying its rows so easy. It’s very hard to tell the other Pinots apart until the bunches form and ripen.

Last year’s planting has burst into growth with enough buds for us to choose the strongest for this year’s single cane. Last month’s newly planted vines have rushed to catch their older siblings up, despite only 5.2ml (0.2 inches) of refreshing evening rain since planting. They are OK for now but rain is needed. Soon. Before the next Bank Holiday.

Fruit-set usually coincides with Wimbledon (and rain!) but will be earlier this year. Dry weather with a very light breeze is ideal; we don’t rely on bees although they are welcome.

Vines drop their pollen once the ‘caps’ on the buds come off and a little breeze to shake the pollen and drift it over waiting stamens is what we dream of. Good fruit-set is the key to a good harvest although there’s plenty that could go wrong between fruit-set and picking.

Up on the new vineyard the deer fencing is going up. Three-metre posts are pounded in (one metre below ground and two above) and wire mesh strung between them to keep the vine-nibbling demon deer out. The fences are tight into the hedges so that we can let the hedges grow through and then cut them; this will reduce the visual impact of the fencing.

The only area that worries us is the hedge-line on the western edge, visible as one drives round the bend toward the vineyard and from local footpaths. Here the new fence-posts will stand out from the much lower hedge so we are thinking of adding a line of flowering trees to soften the view in time. The posts will dull down and being wooden and are an appropriate material for such a pretty spot, but there is always the shock of the new.

A six-foot fence is a good deterrent but can still be jumped… Luckily most deer are lazy and will turn away. Occasionally they find a favourite spot to jump and then we add natural deterrents – human hair hung in a pop sock is a good one as deer are very sensitive to smells. A high-nitrogen product such as lion’s poo (oddly available in nicely designed boxes from garden centres) seems to help.

I try to persuade Gerard, Luke and Ben to politely pee on the fence posts in one corner where the deer have learnt to leap in, to add to the anti-deer miasma. I hope they do….I don’t quite like to check.

We wouldn’t mind if the deer took a bud here or a leaf there but deer are super-destructive and have no planning-for-the future functions – once they get to a vine they chomp it. For that munched vine, there is no tomorrow.

The trellising has been going in: bonk, bonk, bonk as each post is pounded into place before the wires are run and fixed. By the time we finish there will be over 20 km of wire strung between the posts. One fixed wire to bear the weight of future fruit and two double sets of movable wires to contain the canopy: the leafy shoots and canes and create the familiar hedge effect of vineyards in full growth.

For me, this is the worst phase of viticulture. A bare field of posts and plastic vine-guards gently rattling in the breeze waiting for the vines to grow and clothe the trellis. Once we get growth on the wires all will be different. Verdant. Elegant. Pastoral. A field full of life.

Back with the older vines, we’ve been digging soil samples to check nutrient content and pH before deciding what to do to keep the ground in good heart. The samples are now with the agronomist’s lab and I am hoping we are going to solve the mystery of a patch of ground that spans 5 rows where the vine-growth is markedly less strong in the established vineyard. It’s something in the ground but what? A bit of scientific fact-finding should help us out.

We have also taken samples of the leaf (actually: petiole, the rib linking the leaf to the cane). They are being dried and analysed – the equivalent of a blood test. Once we have the results we will adjust our nutrient programme, fine tune it and measure the effect with future lab tests and the simple evidence of fruit quality and quantity at harvest. All of this is worth the effort if we grow better grapes and build the yields.

Whilst I think about the grapes, the memory of our recently tasted wines runs through my head, thoughts surface and filter down and will eventually gel into this year’s wine making brief. We will count bunches and estimate picking weights (using data from previous years such as average bunch weight per variety and clone) and add all this to the harvest plans, setting the period (first or second week of October…maybe) but not the date quite yet. It will be earlier than 2010, which was a week later than 2009, but how much earlier depends on the weather for the rest of May, in June, July, August and September.

Plenty of time for anything to happen.