Diary of an English vineyard

(by peter & Jonica Fox)

Susie and I are delighted to announce a new regular feature on this site which we’re calling ‘Diary of an English vineyard’.

Judging by the amount we’re asked about UK wine, especially the fizz, by media and wine lovers alike (most notably during our wine events), there’s a healthy interest out there for this kind of personal insight into the world of growing and making wine in southern England.

For this regular blog, we’re very lucky to have secured the services of Jonica Fox, committee member for both the South East Vineyards Association and the WineSkills Viticulture Technical Committee. Jonica and her husband Gerard run two vineyards in East Sussex planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier destined – they hope – to make fizz of the highest renown.

To set the scene, this first instalment is preceded by a bit of general personal background (written by me) and then Jonica’s own vivid explanation of how she and Gerard came to be wine growers. The latter features one of the best evocations of English sparkling wine I think I’ve ever read.


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 and Jonica sits on the committee of the South East Vineyards Association.

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


Setting the scene

We decided to plant a vineyard on a summer’s day in 2003.

Gerard and I were in the daisy-dusted meadow on the south-facing slope below our High Weald home. We were admiring the rich carpet of butter-cups, moon-daisies and sneezeweed (prettier than it sounds) waving gently amongst the grasses. The rams had gone, victims of foot-and-mouth precautions, and the land was idle.

I was idle.

This displeased my husband.

With a gentle smile, he suggested that a vineyard would be a good idea. Good use of the land; an enjoyable job for me.

“OK,” I said, “but I know nothing about vines”.

“You can learn,” he replied.  “You’re good at growing things.”

So off I went to Plumpton College to learn all about it.

And learn I did – I came back hooked. Dinner waited whilst assignments were completed. The trashy novel was replaced with viticulture text books. We planted a season later, me one page ahead at any time. The vines grew despite us, mistakes made and then resolved – my very first pass with the mower hitched behind the tractor took out two of the trellis poles. Happily, no one was there to hear me swear.

So why did we do it?

English sparkling wine was earning recognition. We liked the idea of making a really good, lift-your-spirits joyous sparkling rosé wine. A wine that captures the bluebell woods, the first spring primulas, the cuckoo call in summer and the broad oak leaves of August: redcurrants and cherry orchards on the nose, and a smile on the lips.

I think we’re getting there.

We have two harvests under our belts. We have wines maturing gently in cellar, tank and barrel. And now it’s time to re-start the vineyard work to bring the grapes to a sweet harvest once more.

Our vineyard year starts with pruning the vines, channelling their energy to produce the best fruit possible…


Chapter 1 – February 2011

I never thought I would find neoprene that interesting.

But after nearly six weeks of standing on cold, slimy clay pruning vines: what can I tell you… Neoprene is close to my heart.  Gone are the days when my feet got so cold I ceased to believe they existed. Warm feet and a secure grip on the soil beneath them are both great aids to happiness when faced by long rows of vines, each in need of a good cut back to balance this year’s growth when it comes.

Winter vines show their individuality. Their strengths and weaknesses are laid bare by the absence of leaves and by the relative strength of trunks, last year’s canes, and older wood. Some is tucked up between the foliage wires and some tied down on the fruiting wires – a seemingly mad tangle that is at odds with memories of last summer’s manicured canopies and glowing fruit.

So here we are, slip-sliding on the rain-drummed slime that is Wealden clay, wishing that November’s snow hadn’t hit the grass in the alleyways quite so hard. Grass is so much nicer to stand on than mud.

Most years I end up on my bum in the mud. Luke and Liz , our vineyard assistants, are much better at staying upright but my slips are balletic and the landing generally soft. A squelch and a heave and I’m staring at another un-pruned vine.

We’ve done 2,803 so far, just under a thousand still to go on this site.

(We have another 11,000 vines, planted last year, all of which need to be cut back to just  two buds above the graft, some 9 inches or so above the vineyard floor. But I am bringing in more help for that…it’s just too much toe-touching for Liz, Luke and I alone.)

Vine in front of me, secateurs in hand, fingers still with some feeling left in them…I follow the growth, looking to see the shape of the vine, to avoid any fat but unfruitful “bull canes” , not choosing the weaker spindly canes either…searching for those that are ‘just right”, or as near as I am ever going to get on that particular vine.

It sounds slow, but the rhythm soon quickens – snip, snip, tug, snip – each is shaped so that the balance of leaf and fruit growth is just right for the vine to produce good , ripe fruit… that’s if the sun shines this year. The dead-wood is pulled free and left on the alley floor to be mulched in when we start mowing.

We look for strong fruitful canes to bear this year’s fruit. Two canes per vine:  each cut to keep between 8 and 12 buds depending on that vine’s vigour and a further two spurs (canes cut to two buds each) to provide wood for next year’s fruit. At the same time we try to correct any mistakes in last year’s pruning.

Vine-heads too high above the fruiting wire, canes that have developed on extended arms of old wood, strong growth one side and nothing the other, these are the things that prove nature’s independent spirit and challenge the pruner.

On these cold days, the next best thing to being inside by the fire is the quiet, deep satisfaction, the glow when last year’s pruning achieves just what was wanted and cane and spur selection this time round are both easy and optimal.

We get the glow…just not all the time. Vines are like that. Encouragement is always nice when hands and face are iced and it seems that the vine rows grow as fast as you work.

These vines are five years old, just coming into full fruitfulness. We’re aiming to grow the crop by a quarter – a significant amount – so attention to pruning now is the key to the crop.

Pruning is nearly finished, another few days and we are done.

The vineyard is now full of vines standing with their canes rising upwards as they grew, so once the pruning stops, tying down starts.  Each cane is carefully bent to the fruiting wire and tied on to it with very fine wire so that the fruiting wire takes the weight of the fruit and doesn’t strain the trunks.

Mindless, repetitive work on a bright February day with the promise of the growing season just starting to come, the sap is rising (a little earlier than last year we think) and the feet are fine.

No wonder neoprene matters.