New Year, new blog! It’s time to look back over the last year in the vineyard.
The first thing to say is, how incredibly lucky we are to live and work in such a beautiful, tranquil, and safe environment. With the pandemic raging all around us, we were blessed with a healthy and trouble-free year working together as a family. And, as I think we all now realise, that is the most important thing.
Out in the vineyard, however, it was not all plain sailing. There were challenges and setbacks, triumphs and successes, as in every year: if it was straightforward, where would be the fun?!
At the start of the year, as usual, we pruned and we pruned and we pruned. We’re getting more confident in our knowledge and experience with every year that passes, and so this year we took a more vigorous approach to the pruning. We reduced the number and length of canes and the quantity of “spare spurs” (left on the vine “just in case”). This was hugely beneficial later in the year, with fewer unnecessary canes, and a much more focused growth on the plant.
Another innovation around pruning time was the sale of all of our prunings into the restaurant trade for use in wood-fired cooking: it felt doubly virtuous to be recycling our waste product and to be being paid for the privilege!
Then, red letter day, the new tractor arrived! A Kubota, in boy-racer orange (so we called him Kevin). With all mod cons (power steering, brakes that work(!), a cab(!), doors (!!) etc etc), soon even Bev and Matleena were begging to have a go. It was obviously with mixed feelings that we said goodbye to Roderick, the 45 year old Massey Ferguson we inherited from Jonty, but we were happy that he ended up in a good home (who even knew there was such a thing as the “Vintage Vineyard Tractor Owners Group”??).
The arrival of Kevin kickstarted our biggest vineyard project of the year: the move to wholly organic viticulture. We are now able (at some pain!) to clear the weeds under the vines with a cultivator towed behind the tractor, so we could abandon the weedkillers altogether. Which also meant we could switch our canopy pesticide spray programme to a fully organic one. We had been gradually reducing our use of chemicals over the years, but nevertheless this felt like a big brave step. I’m happy to say that, for 2021 at least, it worked wonderfully well. We’re not going through the cost, bureaucracy and form-filling of getting certified organic, but we’re very happy to know that we are doing all of the right things to be sustainable.
As for the growing conditions, well, once again we had a funny year. It makes me wonder what “normal” looks like these days. Just look at the last 2 years… In 2020, we had an amazingly warm start to the year stimulating lots of early growth on the vines, followed by the latest, harshest frost for a generation in mid May, which wiped out 2/3rds of the crop overnight. The rest of the year was also hot and sunny, so those grapes that survived the Big Frost were super ripe. But we only picked 4 tonnes (albeit of incredibly ripe) grapes. In 2021, we had a very cool start to the year. There was no fear of frost damage in May, because nothing had started to grow! We were very worried that there wouldn’t be time for the crop to ripen. But gradually the year got its act together, we had a decent summer and a lovely long autumn, and we got out of jail with a good crop (7 tonnes of nice quality, decently ripe, wholly-organic grapes).
When we set out on our vineyard adventure, I promised I wouldn’t be the kind of grumpy farmer who is always complaining about the weather! But the English climate does set some very particular challenges…
One final, vineyard-related, but not grape-related happening last year: in September we held our first ever glamping event (in partnership with Hampton Manor Hotel). This involved the transformation of the vineyard to a Michelin star quality catering and accommodation venue. It was a lot of extra work to make the magic happen, but it was a truly spectacular weekend that gave the guests a unique opportunity to sleep amongst the vines. Not the usual sort of vineyard work, but a lot of fun.