Life on a Vineyard

Life on a Vineyard – All Angels Vineyard, Enborne, near Newbury

The owners of this property are stewards only, merely passing through time, but it is an honour and huge responsibility to be part of its history. The Darley family fell in love with the House, its ponds, its ancient oak trees, its paddocks and views. Time, effort and money was spent engaging the foremost specialists to restore the House to its true beauty and integrity both inside and out.

The more observant reader will now have guessed where the name of the wine came from: the parish church of Enborne. Choosing a name that reflects the history of the locality was not easy – but All Angels had a strength and purpose that rose above all others.

All Angels Frost Watch

BBC has Springwatch and Autumnwatch – All Angels has Frostwatch.  Which is far less exciting but you do see an awlful lot of wildlife, especially deer.  The “best” I had was almost being taken out twice in one 5 minute drive to one of the vineyards – first time by a herd of Fallow and second time by a young Roe that clearly hadn’t yet studied the Green Cross Code (or whatever it is nowadays).   Fortunately, I’ve a pretty good idea where they are likely to be.  Another time I was lighting a burner and something caught my eye: I looked up to be almost nose to nose with a very inquisitive Muntjac that clearly wondered what I was doing in “its” vineyard.  Rabbit are out and about more now though I seem only to see them around 3am.  Dawn is usually accompanied by the geese starting to move and I always stop and stare in wonderment as the skeens of different species fly low overheard calling out to each other.   Sad to say that I think the five gosling our regular geese gave birth to have been taken by fox, badger or heron – nature’s way, I guess.

I’m not easily scared by the dark as I’ve spent a lot of time in the past out at night in the countryside fishing for sea-trout and the like and I’m quite comfortable wandering past the churchyard at St.Michael’s but I almost jumped out of my skin one night as I walked into one of the vineyards about 2-30am and saw a wraith-like figure moving slowly in my direction.  My mind raced and options churned but then a reassuring voice shouted out “Allo!”.  It was Tony – Tony is an absolutely star around the vineyards: can fix anything, is more practical than anyone else I know and has an uncanny knack of being able to source materials when noone else can.  So, Tony hadn’t been able to sleep and had decided to check up on the vineyard but so as not to disturb he’d parked his car on the road and hopped over a fence —

I learnt may years ago from woodland deer stalking that the coldest part of a night is just after dawn – it sounds strange doesn’t it that it should get colder just as the sun rises but it does, it really is the “cold light of day” – and I empathise with the pheasant fluffed up like big feather balls, grumpily not moving as they conserve their energy and heat.  It makes me laugh as they move towards the frost candles we’ve lit to soak up the warmth before we put them out.

The 2021 frosts in France have been well publicised – the worst since 1947, Burgundy has been hammered again as has Chablis: losses are estimated at €2 billion and I believe France has declared a state of agricultural emergency.  Photogrpahs of their vineyards show vast areas lit up like cities by bougies but to little avail.    

The global warming (or climate chaos as I think it is better described) that has increased temperatures in England by the 1C necessary to produce outstanding sparkling wines has also led to later frosts that tie in with bud-burst.  Protecting the vines at this time is critical: to explain why, it is only necessary to look at the stats (when we were much smaller) for the number of bottles we produced from the 2017 harvest when we had severe air frosts – just 3200 bottles – and from the 2018 harvest when we didn’t have bad frosts – 23,400 bottles, from the same number of vines.  Unlike a number of wine producers, we only produce wine from our grapes – provenance is key for us as is absolute certainty about the viticulture pactices that have gone into producing the grapes: our mantra is quality first over volume.  But it means if we suffer losses from frost, we won’t do as some producers do and buy in grapes grown elsewhere for our wines.

Unfortunately, even though we may know by mid-May if the frosts have ruined the harvest for the year that doesn’t mean we can pack up and call it a day for the season: just as much time and effort has to go into nurturing the vines for the rest of the year as if they had not been affected.  It takes real motivation to work the hours and put in as much effort when you know there is no hope of a bumper harvest for that season, but if we don’t future years will be adversely affected.

In the past we have used what are called Frostguards each of which is meant to provide protection for 0.7ha (last year we got 0.1ha protection out of each given the severity of the frosts).  They are expensive to buy and to run (each takes 4 x 47kg propane tanks and that will last for 2 frost incidents).  We’ve “gone large” this year and now have: Frostguards;  bougies (12 hr candles that have to be lit – let me know if you have insomnia and want a job…); a tow and blow fan (which will cover one vineyard but no use if it is an air frost); and 40 x frost ovens that run off wood pellets, are more environmentally friendly than bougies and cover a greater area but are untested in vineyards.  Our wine is called All Angels as we are next door to the parish church of St. Michael and All Angels: I’ve often thought maybe the best protection would  be to spend the night in the church, praying…

So, how have we got on?  Well, it’s early days so I don’t want to say too much but – as I write this on 12 May, I’ve had now had 8 nights off since the beginning of April: we’ve had more frosts than in the last 60 years and only 9% of the rainfall we normally get in April.  It’s tough going and we are by no means out of the woods yet.  I get telephone alarms when the temperature drops to 1.5C and from then on I’m up all night working out the order of firing everything up according to that night’s temperature pattern, receiving updates on temperatures around the vineyards every 5 minutes and then lighting the bougies and / or ovens, firing up the Frostguards and the frost fan. 

We don’t want to use up supplies so we need to be very strategic in choosing what to use and when.  Some vineyards were already calling out for new bougies after the first few frosts and the price for one candle was reported to have gone up from c. £8-50 to £25-00 – to give you an idea, 400 candles are needed to protect 1 ha against a -4C frost.  The ovens have proved problematic, some bursting into flames, others producing just smoke like a distressed battleship but we are working with the developer to get them working – the big problem is that once you fire them up, you can’t stop them till the pellets have burnt out so if the frost is starting at 5am, lighting one of them with 15kg of pellets will mean it will run till 9am whereas it may only be needed for 2 hrs so lighting a bougie that is easy to put out makes more sense – except you may run out of bougies and wood pellets are easier to get than bougies …  The frost fan was delivered damaged and won’t be repaired till after the frosts so that aint helpful either. 

So we fire all the stuff up and wait till the temperatures are well above zero in the morning then we rush round and stop them all.  Then, remove the burnt out bougies, assess how long partly used bougies will last and replace if necessary, replace propane tanks (a 47kg tank weighs 94kg by the way), clean out the ash from the ovens and replace fire-lighters and wood pellets and refuel anything else that is needed; review the vines and assess damage and bud-burst development to see if the protection needs to be moved around / topped up in areas.  By then, on a good day it’s about 5pm and time to grab a shower (I smell like a steam-train fire-stoker most of the day), some food and then hit the sack by 8pm latest, ready for the alarm calls that will start at any time from 11pm to 2am.

For those of you who don’t know me, I used to be a partner in a US law firm: I think I’ve done more consecutive all-nighters this April than I ever did in my previous life – and it’s a lot colder and more physical.  I’ll report back on how we’ve got on at the end of May.

Let me know if you’d like to see what it’s like fighting frosts in the vineyard – happy to accommodate and we won’t even charge for the experience …

Finally, Breaking the Ground

Nine years ago, almost to the day, our first vineyard was planted at Enborne by the Vineworks team. The second vineyard by St. Michael and All Angels a few years later. And now the third!

We’ve had a number of challenges to overcome with this one from changing the use from permanent pasture in an AONB, to rain, rain and more rain. Finally, we have subsoiled and ploughed, spread fertilizer and lime and power harrowed (well James Hayes and his team at Hedge Estate Contracting have!)

 

We’ve carried out tree work (well Luke Butler at GA Butler and Sons has) to make the boundary trees safe and preserve the natural habitat for the wildlife and we even found someone there with a metal detector (he had the metal detector – we didn’t use one to find him…): as we knew from the archaeological survey we had conducted, there was nothing there!

Mid May the Vineworks team will be down again for planting. We are not planting Rondo in this vineyard but, to start with, 6000 Cardonnay, 1000 Pinot Gris (love that grape), 2550 Pinot Noir, 1650 Pinot Meunier and 2350 Pinot Blanc. For sure we will produce more All Angels Sparkling wine but we are also going to produce a still white from some of these grapes.

Next challenge: Name and a Label. Any suggestions anyone??

The Decision to Plant a New Vineyard

Last year we took the pretty big decision to take more of our land and plant a new vineyard. The land is ideal and possibly even better than our existing vineyards (so the VineWorks team tell us and they would know). But there were a number of challenges we have to overcome.

 

James and Chris at Vineworks have been great at humouring all my “what if” questions about timing but now, finally the ground is drying out and work can begin. The other challenge we have is that one border of the land is woodland and on the other side of the vineyard is more woodland, and a herd of c. 30 Fallow – fencing and more drastic steps may be required.

The new vineyard will produce grapes both for sparkling but also, due to numerous requests, still wine. The neighbouring land we have may not be suitable for vines and I keep musing about planting juniper – but we are NOT going in to gin production, honest…

First, the land was designated permanent pasture and is situated in North Wessex AONB (literally the boundary of the land…). So permission was required from Natural England. A lot of surveys and commitments later, this was granted. But by then it was September and from end September to March, it rained, seemingly incessantly. We couldn’t even subsoil let alone do the rest of the ground prep but we had to commit to buy the vines and trellising in case we could plant on time in Spring 2020.

The English Wine Joke!

I was chatting to a partner of mine in Munich the other day, telling him about All Angels and he said: “English Sparkling Wine? They’re not words you hear together in the same expression…”

Now this guy is very wordly and smart and that got me thinking back – as often I do – to the time when I made the fatal mistake of proudly telling my “buddies” about the Silver Medal we had won in the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. They are an eclectic bunch of cynical Brits, Aussies, Septics (Americans), Irish, Welsh and Yorkshire (yes, Yorkshire is a separate country – more on that in other articles) who, while they love All Angels, love taking the proverbial even more.

Now, I’ve been a lawyer a long time and am used to “bad taste” jokes (What do you have if you have a 25 seater bus with 24 lawyers on it going over a cliff? A missed opportunity… etc) but the reaction was vicious, instantaneous and prolonged – I was, as we say in our group, “being bullied”. You won’t see many of their endorsements on the website but they included “Great for cleaning out blocked drains”, “Kills all known germs” and one cure for a complaint that I’m sure the mate who suggested it would get questions from his wife as to how he knows… Love the guys and the friendship!!

So is English Wine a joke: NOPE – it is here to stay and it is of the highest consistent standard: why would the French champagne houses be buying up land in England if they weren’t worried. Try it, support it and tell the world!