Diary of an English vineyard

(by Jonica Fox)

Jonica becomes a weather obsessive and confirmed rain-dancer in this month’s guest blog about life on a newly established English vineyard.

A cool, damp June averts drought – at the ironic cost of a water main. Meanwhile, fingers are being crossed for the critical flowering, which will determine the all-important crop.

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 5 – June/July 2011 (text and photos by Jonica; editing by Peter)

We ended May with divided loyalties.

A seemingly endless succession of sun-drenched perfect days meant a glorious start to the season for the established vines and a truly testing one for the new ones.

My ever-lurking obsession with weather developed to new levels of tragic geekiness. Websites and animated forecasts were checked obsessively for even the slightest hint of rain; even Sci-Fi movies featuring implausibly extreme weather became enthralling.

My name is Jonica: I am a weather junkie.

And a rain-dancer. Definitely a rain-dancer.

The sure-fire way to make sure a parcel is delivered is to get into a deep, warm bubble bath, get comfortable, start a brilliant book and wait. It’s never too long before the door bell rings and it’s a wet towel-wrapped traipse to answer it.

In the same vein, the best-ever rain-dance has to be to struggle with trailers, bowsers and the tedium of waiting whilst the bowsers fill from low-pressure water pipes that are not fit for this purpose. Not that they really have to be – this is the first time ever that we have had to water-in new vines.

We went mad and bought 400 metres of hose to water vines between bowser-fills (15 litres per vine – that’s about a count of 150 muttered under the breath) and we just saved the newly planted vines from death-by-drought. Mind you, we nearly expired from the nervous strain and tedium ourselves.

I can’t think of anything duller than filling water tanks or standing by a vine counting to ensure sufficient water is delivered. Nor can I think of a greater debt of gratitude to those that helped us. Guys – thank you!

What a rain-dance it was! Just as we finished the first cycle and had three more planned, the weather naturally changed. We went from summer to November: cold, foggy and damp, far far from a blazing June. We growers are as pessimistic as any other farmer (‘too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet’) but a return to wellies and jumpers saved us and saved the vines.

Now here’s the irony. We delayed putting up the trellising to make it easier to tow the bowser round the vineyard. Rain-quenched days later we start the trellising and go straight though an unknown water-main. Feel free to laugh! The excellent water-board repair crew certainly did. Can’t blame them.

At the start of June our established vines were also finding it a bit dry, despite the clay they grow in. Tendrils were browning and drying – the first sign of problems. Sap analysis showed high calcium, another indicator of drought stress. November-in-June spurred on cane and leaf growth and slowed the mad-cap rush to flowering that had us anticipating a harvest date three weeks ahead of normal.

Cool dull June means we are closer now to a ‘normal’ year’s timing than before. That’s no bad thing: very early ripening entices wasps when they are both hungry and abundant and I don’t want to use insecticides. I never have done yet. There are still wasps around in October when the fruit fills with sugars, but fewer than at the end of summer so not such a problem.

The vines are flowering now and the weather really matters. Air movement and gravity are the key aids to pollination (vine flowers are tiny and not of much interest to insects such as bees) so warm days with gentle zephyrs are the dream.

With the exception of the recent Armageddon storm, warm days with wafting breezes is pretty much what we have. It’s too early to assess what damage if any the storm did by washing away precious pollen; the Chardonnay were at 90% ‘in flower’, Pinot Gris at 80%, Pinot Noir lagging at 50% and the Pinot Meunier only just starting. We staggered the pruning this year to try to achieve this pattern of flowering as our Chardonnay takes more time to ripen that the others.

Time will tell if we got it right. In fact, time and patience are the keys to everything right now.

We are into the long slow business of ‘tucking up’: gently arranging the individual canes that have grown from the trunks so that they are vertical and contained within the trellis wires. It’s not that easy: the canes are brittle from the early drought and we are working slower as a result. We don’t want to carelessly snap any of the canes off as they carry the fruit we are working so hard to grow.

The vineyard goes from shaggy rows to neatly manicured hedges. It’s not just the look of the thing; it’s about making sure the vines get optimal light for growth; that they don’t get pulled to pieces by getting caught as the tractor passes them; and that the canopy of leaves and fruit is just right – not shading the fruit, nor creating a moist warm microclimate that can make the ideal home for the evil moulds like Powdery Mildew.

We nip the tips off the canes to help direct energy to the pollinating fruit and enjoy the visible difference between manicured and random growth. We spend hours working by hand on the vines, long sunny-cloudy days rich with birdsong and broken up by short picnic breaks and a brief heat-of-the day doze if we are lucky.

These are the days when I love to start early, enjoying the cooler morning air and a quite walk along the rows to see what needs to be done, how the fruit is developing, if disease is lurking, which vines are thriving and which are weak, which trellis posts need replacing, what is going well and what is not… I call it work but it’s really pleasure.

This is when vineyards look romantic. Especially ours, set amongst the rolling hills and English woodlands, a patchwork of small fields, stands of oak, shaws of ash and ancient hedgerows , a glimpse of clay-tiled rooftop amongst the trees, an Oast on one side, the church spire on the far horizon. The endless shades of blues and greens that make our rolling Sussex hills so beautiful.

These are the days that put the flavours in our fruit and I start to dream of the wine that lies ahead.