After a seemingly endless string of good news stories about English and Wales vineyards and sparkling wine particularly, it’s rather a shock to come across a somewhat less positive one. Entitled ‘Sobering Outlook for English Fizz’, in something called Wine Searcher, it starts very bluntly indeed, ‘Despite all the hype surrounding English wine’ (no mention of Welsh wine), ‘very few are actually turning a profit.’ Later in the article the writer says, ‘Can English sparkling wine overcome the considerable challenges that lie ahead, and how many casualties there will be along the way?’ Richard Halstead, CEO of analyst firm Wine Intelligence puts it even more bluntly, ‘there is no doubt that investing in English fizz offers many golden opportunities to piss large amounts of money up against the wall.’
It, the above, all seems to boil down to mainly the problems of the weather, small scale, that means vineyards don’t have the chance to carry forward (they sell all that they make – and some they don’t, but sort of pretend to, in my experience) and a lack of a rich backer with plenty of patience. Oh, as if that wasn’t enough, the prices of sparkling wine are too high. Very true this last part, we very, very rarely buy sparkling English wine.
It makes me glad we have few / no thoughts about trying to make our vineyard anything other than a somewhat expensive, and at times quite frustrating, hobby. Profit, ha. We don’t need a financial return to supplement our pensions. Which is as well because, relating to the above, the weather we have can be diabolical (please note you Southern softies), to call our vineyard ‘small scale’ would be to greatly exaggerate its size (500 vines and half an acre), and the only backer we have is us and we are definitely not rich. So all in all let’s just keep it simple.
But therein lies the story of this month’s blog. It doesn’t seem simple at all even for our small enterprise. Take our last visit. At first sight the vines are doing nicely, the weather up North has been reasonably kind so far this year and, as I said in the last blog, there are plenty of ‘buds’ on all the four year old vines including ones (Solaris) that haven’t given us any grapes before. So, at first glance, all good. However, on closer examination the vines from which we have removed the protective tubes or rather not replaced the ones that, after being cut down their length so we can take them off to remove the unwanted stems that are growing in the tube (and you can’t just lift the tubes any more now the vines are growing bushy), are being abused.
This probably amounts to between a third and a half of the vines. It seemed the vines that were unguarded were not being attacked by our wabbits, initially that is, until this last couple of visits and now I can see where the little b—–s have been chewing the bark around the bottom of the vines. My understanding is that this will bring about the demise of the vines, i.e. kill them. Certainly this is what has happened with some of the unprotected willows. At the moment, with the vines, this doesn’t seem to be happening, as I say they look nice and healthy but of course if we don’t do anything and leave it too late, there will be no recovering from this, the vines will be goners (as one or two of them already are but, and here’s the confusing part, the ones that are clearly dead don’t appear to have been chewed at all. You see what I mean about confusing – the ones that ‘should’ be dead aren’t and the ones that shouldn’t be, are.
So what to do? Do we put the tubes back on? This would be a huge pain and not maybe necessary, perhaps. What I’ve decided to do might seem a little puzzling to the outsider. I’ve bought some wire netting in a roll (see photo above in case you were wondering what it was) and I intend to cut this up into strips, wrap it round the base of the vine and secure it with plastic ties. These will have the advantage of being shorter and therefore liftable and see-through so we can see what’s going on. Whether this turns out to be a sensible idea, wasted money or, whether we’ve waited too long, and the next time we go up, next weekend, it will all be too late and the vines are unsaveable, I really have no idea. I will keep you informed.
In the meantime, all those semi-sensible vineyards tasks, the ones we signed up for and mostly understand, carry on at this time of year as any normal vineyard owner would expect. So we are de-suckering, i.e. pulling off all the unwanted stems that grow at the junctions of the canes and the stems. You don’t want lots of different shoots, rather the idea is that all the goodness of the vine goes into a limited number of ‘branches’ and hence, hopefully, weather and animals permitting, into a restricted number of bunches of grapes. But that’s in the future of course. In addition to this task, which Mrs Summerhouse enjoys but I do not, there’s the tying up of the ever-growing shoots themselves. Many of them are two or three metres in length and the last thing you want is these flapping around and being damaged in the wind of which there is plenty and, I have to say, I’m a little disappointed by the performance of our willow windbreaks. They look nice and bushy but when the wind is blowing and you stand behind them, protection is what you might call minimal. In addition, there’s strimming and weed-killing although I have to confess we pay our neighbour to do this.
What with our neighbour and Mrs Summerhouse, it’s a wonder there are any tasks for yours truly to engage in. But that’s OK I see myself as chief strategist, which is code for prime worrier about what to do about the vineyards natural enemies – wind and wabbits. I will shortly spray the vines with fertiliser if we ever get a wind-free day, that’s my kind of job. If, and I repeat if, we get any grapes and they ripen, I will then be in a position to strategize / worry about how to stop the bloody birds from eating them. Maybe you were thinking that when you retire it might be fun to set-up your own vineyard. Well, don’t let me put you off, retirement is a time for new challenges, confusing though that may be.