If you’re not, yourself, a vineyard owner, you probably thought there would not be much going on in a vineyard at this time of year. The vines are dormant and so are the owners of those vines. Right? Well, as always in life, the answer is yes and no. In my last blog I told you I was going on a winter pruning course – that was a week ago now. A Monday and a day not without its challenges. The course was held at Yorkshire Heart Vineyard about a 40 minute drive from our house but a world away in terms of ambitions. Chris and Gillian, the owners and kind organisers of this course, have about 10,000 vines and take their vine growing and wine making very seriously. Gillian won Wessex Vineyard Association (WVA) wine-maker of the year this year, no small achievement.
We, on the other hand, have about 500 vines, have won zilch and don’t look likely to if this year’s experience is anything to go by. The ‘highlight’, as you may have read in an earlier blog, was the birds eating 80% of our grapes. Still live and learn. We’re growing grapes at the very margins of what is currently regarded as possible. We cannot afford to take things too seriously because failure is probably more likely than success. That said, working at the margins means you do have to pay careful attention to certain key areas of grape growing. When you’re on the edge you have to make the most of whatever sun and warmth is gifted to us. Which is where winter pruning comes into the equation. More of which in a moment.
We are developing a motto or a slogan which reflects our set-up. It will feature on our label when we get round to the bottling part of the exercise. It will be something like – from adversity comes quality. We definitely have the adversity part. We’re not the only people who try to make wine in the face of adversity – other areas of the wine world have droughts, floods, high altitudes, low temperatures, pests and diseases, etc. It seems to me that these areas try to work with their particular form of adversity rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Perhaps Canada making ice wine is an example of this. We have wind (wind wine, well, it’s alliterative but not much more) which limits what we can do, hence my view that we would make something a bit different – orange flavoured wine is my current idea. We’ll see. But getting any grapes to ripen depends on, among other things, getting the right balance between sun on the leaves to produce the chlorophyll the plant needs to grow the grapes and sun on the grapes themselves to ripen the grapes so we can pick them and make marvellous wine. So this is where the pruning comes in. Pruning at this time of year makes the difference between a balanced and an unbalanced vine. That means the right amount of leaves to grapes. I think we got this wrong this year and so learning more about this aspect of vine-growing is important, which is why I spent a day at Yorkshire Heart vineyard trying to learn about this surprisingly complicated area.
The course notes are clear, they say ‘Pruning enables the vine to be well-organised on the trellis so that : the plant can capture the maximum amount of light (particularly important in cooler climates); Leaf bunching is avoided’ (i.e. too many leaves shading certain bunches – you don’t want your bunches ripening at different rates), also ‘reducing disease and increasing yield and quality.’ The notes go on to say, ‘Unpruned vines produce many short shoots further and further away from the trunk; many small bunches of high acid, low sugar berries, irregular yields.’ You get the idea and, let me say, there were a lot more notes than this. I’ll try and narrow the whole thing down. At its simplest you need to know your canes from your shoots, your spurs from your buds. You need to know how many buds to leave on the one cane you have left (this is called the charge. It entails counting how many healthy canes you have on the plant before you start pruning and this number (of canes) roughly tells you how many buds to leave on the shoot (which will become cane). Confused? Well, I have to admit I was a bit and this confusion or feeling like a rather stupid school-boy, is something I’m getting a bit tired of in my quest for greater knowledge. See also jazz classes and blogging and dogs. There is so much opportunity in my retirement plan to feel thick.
I didn’t feel helped by our tutor, like all very knowledgeable people he did not, as they say, wear his knowledge lightly. In his proper job, he is a lecturer on a vine growing course which shall remain nameless and I’m guessing he’s used to talking to students in a devil may care fashion. I’m also guessing, either the other participants knew more than I did, or they covered their ignorance better than I did. You’re always torn at these things between asking a question and risking appearing and then feeling stupid or letting something go that you wanted to know about. I tend to try and ask questions and risk the mirth of tutor and my peers. Two examples of our tutors, what shall I call it, bluntness, not suffering fools gladly – first, was in the practical part of the session when we were required to have a go at this pruning business. I cut my canes, he took one look and said – that’s a terrible cut, this without humour or irony. He was right of course and ragged cuts can kill the plant so I didn’t mind him pointing out my shortcomings, but I’d like to think, if our roles had been reversed, one day please God, I might have said something like – well, good effort, Peter, but next time try using the blades of the secateurs rather than the handles. Humour helps sugar the pill and so, in my opinion as a retired psychologist, facilitates better learning. Just thought I’d mention that.
Another small example, yes, I know I’m too sensitive for my own good, as I said above, the first thing you’re required to do when pruning is count the number of shoots on the plant before you start. How hard can that be, I looked at the plant, the plant looked at me and I count three and a small one. Three and a half I suggest when he asks the charge (how many). No, he says, quite brusquely I thought, that’s seven (he decided that each of the ones were worth two, Ok fair enough and I know he was trying to get round everybody, but just a little more gently for my delicate ego. Anyway what with the complexity of it all and our tutor’s bluntness and he wasn’t even from Yorkshire, I was quite glad to get away but not before scoring all areas of the course at the highest score. What a coward I am. It’s about the funding and I wouldn’t want my sensitivity to affect their funding.
In my next blog I will tell you about the reality of pruning our own wind-swept vines, 500+ feet up in the Yorkshire Dales. We have already had a bit of a practice and I can tell you that our vines bore little resemblance to Chris and Gillian’s, but that’s for next time. In the meantime we have Christmas to look forward to in the short term and the whole of our retirement in the, hopefully, long term.