Snapshot from our farm and vineyard – a small personal blog. (scroll down for earlier posts)
Week 7 – Frost!!
I didn’t expect to be writing about this again, especially not in mid May. Suddenly the forecast was for an end to the gorgeous temperatures and arctic weather heading our way on a wind storm. We could see one big frost event forecast for Tuesday but then along came a second on Thursday and a third on Friday. We are used to fighting to save buds in April and we understand their cold tolerance. But this was different, we had shoots up to 20cms long.
First the vines were battered for 24 hours with north winds and given a proper chilling. Then, Tuesday morning we had a whoppa! Not the normal cold snap at dawn, but a full-on air frost. Temps were plunging at 1am, four of us frantically lighting bougies as fast as we can. This was harsh, an aggressive cold air attack. The next day fortunately gave us a night off and time to move every bougie into the most strategic positions and grab every half can and dregs from the shed and get them into position for consecutive nights forecast on a Thursday and Friday. Thursday was every bit as cold but due to the lightest of wind whispers the temperature drop was slower and we didn’t have to light till 3am. This proved strategically wonderful, we could use up the tin ends and stitch them in to get through till 6am saving full cans for the next night. Friday was the longest. We were lighting by 12.30 hardly worth going to bed and the best part of 6 hours alight. Somehow we make it through to dawn, just.
There’s damage on a few outside rows. I’m sad for this loss, but overall it is small. And, with reports coming in from other vineyards across the country of frost devastation we count our lucky stars. We’ve battled minus 2 to 3. Others weren’t so lucky with minus 4-5. A tough, stressful and sleepless week for English winegrowers everywhere.
Earlier blogs in this series – Week 1 onwards…
Week 1: Isolation starts…
It’s eerie. The spring and summer of tours and tastings, events and festivals has evaporated from the diary. Not just wine and farm related ones, but things we love to do too; our daughter competing her pony, and avid mountain bike outings for our son.
The calm that has descended is not altogether unpleasant. The pressure is off. But how long for?
We worry for the small businesses we work with, cafes and restaurants and local pubs. The phone has stopped ringing and tour bookings and cellar door dates are suspended. We’re too small to be stocked in supermarkets however we plan to offer local doorstep deliveries and online sales will stay open.
We have completed the winter pruning and have finished tying down the canes as a family, working together in the vineyard with space between us. Here we can chat, catch up without contact or visiting each other’s houses.
On the farm, there’s dry weather. For the first time in months we can get onto the fields. Spring drilling is underway. We weren’t able to plant any crops in the autumn due to the saturated ground and continuous rain so it’s a huge relief to be sowing.
Our pedigree Hereford herd of cattle that graze the water meadows and chalk downs are due to calve in a couple of weeks- a time of vigilance and long days, we hope our tiny team stays well.
As farmers are on the key workers list our children could stay in school (a lifeline for many) but ours are old enough to be useful and we’d rather be together. Today is the last day at school for the foreseeable future and they will need to motivate themselves to put in the 5 hours of daily learning!
One week of later….
Spring sowing has gone well; the barley and beans are drilled and rolled and the landscape looks masterpiece tidy. Our family farm is 1800 acres in the South Downs national park near Winchester – mostly wheat, barley, OSR, beans and our 10 acre vineyard with champagne grapes, plus a fair amount of chalk grassland and water meadows grazed by our traditional pedigree Hereford mums. The cows have started to give birth, our first ones arrived earlier this week and will keep coming over the next 4 weeks. The boys stay in the herd until they are fully grown and go for beef. The girls will stay forever, our mums of the future.
A right of way goes past the farmhouse and all the way up the farm lane joining the South Downs Way and is criss-crossed by a large network of footpaths, bridleways and green lanes. There is a steady trickle of couples and families walking and cycling, taking their daily exercise.
Our seasonal workers have returned home so I’ll continue with the hand work in the vineyard; it will get done, just more slowly. My next job will be laying out the candles for frost fighting.
The children have done a week of home schooling and now are on Easter holidays. Being located where we are they have relative freedom and space when not surgically attached to their devices chatting with friends!
Lockdown week 3
A particular upside of lockdown has been the range of delicious and abundant local produce delivered to our door including fruit, vegetable and salad boxes and the sourdough bread and pastries from the farm shop. ‘The Cheese Stall’ is usually an artisanal market stall now cleverly working together with small Independent traders to provide a wonderful selection in one doorstep drop. Mutually delighted to find each other, a quick phone call to licensing to check how we could join the collaboration and Raimes is now dispatched from here to join their other deliveries of incredibly good cheeses, eggs, bacon and locally roasted coffee.
Easter has encouraged me to discover more luxury local produce and we’ve found gorgeous handmade chocolates and some unique wines from a local restaurant delivering mixed cases from their cellar. The quality of what we’ve eaten has been far superior to normal and there’ll be no going back.
We now have 22 calves born, half way through. And budburst across the vineyard. The hot weather has propelled the buds out of their woolly protection and we are off with vintage 2020. We spread 1200 bougies through the vineyard on Sunday; we will light these environmentally friendly candles should temperatures plunge below freezing in the early hours. Now begins frost watch and a few sleepless nights.
Week 4 – frost fighting and wind
With early budburst we are on frost alert for longer this season. Any still night with clear skies will be a danger. It is common for us to be 3 or 4 degrees colder than the forecast in our rural spot. The buds at this stage can sustain -1 for a short while before damage will start to take hold.
Our choice of control is bougies (candles) spread through the vines. We have a weather station in the coldest part that I can monitor from my phone and I set alarm calls through the night to check the temperature and speed of fall. I prefer to build a sense of what’s coming than rely on automated alarms. At some point – maybe 1am, often 3am we head to the vineyard. There we have several normal garden thermometers giving us details of variation across the sites. We hold off for as long as we can before lighting and choose the coldest blocks first, rarely having to light everything at once. Bougies are expensive and we only have so many to last us, and no idea how many cold nights are yet to come – it’s a tactical game and wrong decisions can be costly.
When we decide “go” we march up and down the rows, the two of us with a long handled blow torch, flip off the candle lid light the cardboard wick and on to the next (up to 1200). We power walk, fuelled by adrenaline! It takes us 2 hours to light it all, timing is everything. The flames are very safe & controlled each with 8 hours of burn that can keep the micro climate around the delicate buds a good 2 degrees warmer than the surroundings. We are aiming to keep temperatures above -1. The coldest spell is at sunrise but as soon as temps are safe we set off again up and down the rows putting the lids back on which extinguishes the flame and enables us to use them again for a few hours another night.
Last week we lit twice, we registered -3 to -4 in the early hours of Monday and -2 to -3 on Tuesday morning. Thankfully the buds came through with hardly any damage despite taking some risks on Tuesday. My Fitbit awarded me a hiking badge for 30,000 steps consecutively!
This week we have high pressure and clear nights all week – usually a worry. But the lovely brisk wind is keeping everything safe overnight as temps can’t fall away.
We need to be well into May before we can relax. Frost watch goes on.
We are up to 32 calves now, just 10 to go. The oldest ones have moved from the nursery paddock to one of the larger water meadows with their mums. One thing I love to see is the way one cow will lie down among several calves and ‘supervise’ whilst other mums get their heads down and eat.
The vineyard buds are strong and growth is ahead of usual. Whilst we are still at risk of frosts, and without tempting fate, I want to get on and rub off the buds that are growing in the wrong place so the vines energy is going into the ones that will fruit.
Without access to my usual team of workers it dawned on me that my perfect temporary workforce was available right inside our own farm gates. We have about 10 horses here on DIY livery. Together we’ve been carefully caring for and exercising our horses with social distancing within our yard setting for weeks. Mostly self employed in impressive fields of their own this crack workforce are strong, used to working outdoors in filthy weather, have incredible core strength from hours in the saddle, are unbelievably resilient putting up with their (four legged) taskmasters, come super clad in technical weather appropriate clothing and gloves, and willingly turn out at all hours. And they don’t need to travel, they’re already here. We have completed the first vineyard pass in record time!
PS I would like to thank everyone who has generously offered help. I am keeping a list and will be in touch if we need a supersized team, and am incredibly grateful.
Week 6 – Reasons for a celebratory drink
The blackboard outside the wine barn is there to catch the attention of walkers and cyclists. We have had lots of local orders and we make doorstep deliveries between 5 and 6pm when we get back from the vineyard. We place the box on the doorstep, knock and stand well back. Sometimes people will share their reason for buying:- it should have been one couple’s wedding weekend; a medical qualification for another; an amazing trip that would have been. You are suddenly reminded of the things people are missing out on.
The vines are looking better than I’ve ever known for mid May, the buds that were tiny two weeks ago are now a good 20cms long and growing exceptionally fast. An Arctic weather-front has arrived along with buffeting north east winds. We are back on frost watch.