Again I have to start this piece by admitting I had no intention of publishing it right now. But then I read an article in The Guardian, this, only one week after the article that prompted my last blog about how wonderful all was in the world of English vine growing. And this article, one week later, is about how bad things are in the world of French vine growing.
It was headlined ‘Bordeaux vines are decimated by nine minutes of hail’
“Loic de Roquefeuil surveyed what was left of his vineyard: row upon row of skeletal vines bereft of foliage and fruit, their broken branches hanging limp. ‘It’s a catastrophe. Everything has gone: the leaves, the grapes, everything. It happened so quickly. A year’s work gone in nine minutes of hail’ he said. He blinked back the tears.”
No, I’m not gloating. I only ever do this when we beat the French at rugby. I know the French have that Latin temperament that has been accused of being dramatic but my heart, the heart of a brother vine grower, went right out to him. And I thought we had challenges with the weather. It quite made me re-evaluate our future.
So, yes, admittedly there are a certain number of negatives associated with our patch of Yorkshire hillside, before coming to these let me just say, there are also one or two major positives – it was free and it was outside (it came with the barn we bought as my wife’s studio but that’s another story). Three other significant positives are – it is well-drained and it is south facing and because it is half way down the hillside it should not fall victim to frost pockets.
The main negative, as I told you last time, is its exposure. We haven’t had any hail just before harvest time but then we haven’t had a harvest time yet, so perhaps that’s to come. True it can be quite dispiriting in winter when the wind is so strong that you literally can’t stand up. Rain comes anything but vertically (probably any hail would go straight by). Yes, you think, what would be a really good idea is to plant vines right here. If I closed my eyes I could be in the Mediterranean. Apart from the small fact that I would be flat on my back or front, laid horizontal by the wind if I closed my eyes. Wind is the enemy of vines. The phrase echoes in my head. Don’t they have the mistral in the Rhone and doesn’t that drive people mad? So we have that in common with Rhone producers. And New Zealand is definitely windy. How difficult can it be? I spit on the wind although not into it.
Wind breaks I think. Trees or artificial wind breaks but wait that’s for the future. A more immediate problem is that vines generally prefer alkaline soil. Hence, in part, (although climate also plays a part) the attraction of the southern chalk lands enough like the geology of the area of champagne for French wine producers to be buying land in southern England. Even in these parts land can sell for £10,000 an acre so God knows what it sells for down in Dingly Dell land. So, yes, free is good and overrides a lot of negatives.
One of which, to return to my main theme, is the acidic nature of the soil. Its proximity to the moorlands and the heather with its acid content means a life time of spreading lime. Did I mention its height is also a negative – 500 feet at a conservative estimate – hence the moorland. The OS map says 600 but I prefer to think of it as 500, more homely somehow. Apparently you lose a degree of temperature in the vineyard for every 100 feet of altitude. As it seems grape ripening is all about warmth, we can’t afford any loss of degrees given our limited sunlight hours. The chap who ran the course said if you have wind it’s like trying to heat your car while driving along with the window open. Repeat after me it’s cheap and it’s outside.
By the way, in case you were wondering the economics of this venture, they are simple. I will spend however much I think I can afford to lose in pursuit of my dream. At the time of me and my wife being employed we reckoned a maximum of about £5,000. Well decide for yourself.
So 3 tons of granulated lime (cost £400 as I recall) are spread over our half acre. I establish a nice working relationship with my farmer neighbour he spreads the lime easily with his big spreader and this is possible because there are no posts and no vines yet. Then he ploughs 26, I think it was, furrows into which I (actually myself, my wife and daughter and prospective son-in-law) will plant the vines. My neighbour is what I would call a ‘lovely chap’ and probably the least sceptical of men which is strange given that, being a farmer, he is totally practical about the land. There’s no rubbish about the romance of planting vines.
Thing is, so many farmers have been forced to diversify that any enterprise is regarded as worth a shot. He doesn’t say a lot but what he does say –“you’ve got to try these things” – is encouraging. Secretly I think a few of the farmers round here are watching for my success or more likely failure with self-interest. I can see it now – Nidderdale, the new Bordeaux, maybe. Wow! and then the wind blows me over.
Next time I’ll tell you about the posts, the vines and the wild life!