As Mark’s latest blog mentioned, things are taking longer to develop than we first anticipated and some realities of farming are starting to hit home.
However, I thought that rather than dwell on the frustrations and obstacles we are facing, I thought I’d focus on the positives of our site and choices we have made.
Yes, we are exposed, and a windy site. This is great for disease control! It means that to control botrytis, powdery and downy mildew and other nasty diseases that plague vineyards in the UK and worldwide we rarely have to spray fungicides. Due to plenty of air movement within the vineyard we have the luxury of less disease risk than most sites.
We have very little topsoil, in some places as little as 20cm before we hit the chalk. This is great for vines; worldwide vineyards are planted on some of the poorest soils, which cause a lack of vigour, which in turn is great for fine wine. All of the finest wines are grown on soil that is considered less than ideal for other crops. Lack of vigour in the vines causes them to gentle stress, helping them to produce superior fruit.
We have used Fercal rootstock, this has the highest tolerance to chalk soils of all the types of rootstock available. It is slow to get established but has a deep rooting system, which means it will get its “feet” down into the chalk. It also ripens quicker than other options, which enables us to produce better quality wines with less pressure at harvest time.
We have great biodiversity, something Richard is far more capable of explaining than I am. What it does mean is that we plenty of natural predatory insects that are able to control the populations of unwanted species without the need to intervene chemically. Once again reducing our need to resort to spraying to control these pests. The main thing is we don’t have beasties like the one below which can plague some vineyards overseas.
The photo is from Gayle Shulte in the US who discovered this in their vineyard, it is the caterpillar of the Pandorus sphinx moth and I can only imagine what a caterpillar this size could eat in a day!
Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager
It doesn’t rain it pours…
With sunshine that is, what a pleasant and welcome change to finally see the sun for more than a couple of hours, and plenty of warmth to go with it.
Some of the more sheltered areas have visibly taken off, some vines have put on an inch or so of growth in the last week alone.
We are still marking out and putting posts in, although held up by a few breakdowns they are going in great. All the young blocks are now cultivated to keep the weeds down while last year’s vines are trying to head towards flowering, while others that don’t have flowers are putting on reasonable shoot growth.
We also have made a start on picking up flints from the area around this year’s planting. Last year the guys managed to pick up 60 tonnes of flint which will go into the building of the flint barn. We should get at least that this year, even if we don’t get anywhere near that tonnage of fruit! It’s a long slow and dusty process at this time of year but at least it beats doing it when the ground is frozen.
It’s no secret that the weather over the past few months has been rubbish. Given that we’re now in the middle of meteorological spring, and it’s the beginning of June, when will it properly warm up? It’s of little comfort that its not just us suffering, reports from Champagne, the Loire, Germany and even as far south as Provence and Tuscany are stating below average temperatures with vine growth well behind where they should be.
Usually the meteorological spring comprises of 3 months, however March as most of us would rather forget was a winter month, and not just a normal winter month, it was a colder than average winter month that then decided it would extend into early April. So by default we should see a late, long and hot (ok maybe warm) summer as the jet stream moves into a more normal position, bringing with it more settled weather. June at least is looking slightly better with the daily minimums starting to pick up at the end of the first week.
So what does all this mean for the vineyard and vines? Leading up to budburst in vines, key factors that are needed are adequate soil moisture (we’ve had plenty of that) and sunshine with temperatures above 10°C (growth occurs when mean daily temperature exceeds 10°C).
Now that spring has finally decided to rear its head from the depths of winter, I can safely say that we have finally hit budburst properly on all varieties across both the existing and this year’s plantings in the last few weeks. Not just budburst either, we’re starting to see some decent growth, the Riesling and Pinot Meunier are again looking good in the warmer parts of the vineyard with the Pinot Noir not far behind. Our poor old Chardonnay, which is on the more exposed slopes, has actually started well and has surprisingly even growth.
What we now hope for is that settled weather we’ve been missing for the past year, pretty soon we’ll be seeing our vines flowers become more exposed just waiting for the sunshine. Meanwhile, we’ll be enjoying the new green growth, the warm spring days, and the growing intensity of the sun. In these gentle spring days you can almost hear the vineyard growing. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this continues and slowly develops into the summer we’ve all been hoping for. One thing that working in vineyards has taught me over the years is that no two years are the same, and even a slow start can eventually change into a wonderful year, and yes, there’s still plenty of posts to go in.
This was the second year of planting and much larger than last; in fact we put in half as many vines this time round. Over 8 days we managed to get all 85,000 vines planted (with a little help from our friends at Vinplant) but this year we weren’t planting in the lovely weather we had last year. Instead of temperatures in the mid 20’s and T-shirts, we were subjected to frosts in the mornings, snow on a couple of days, and temperatures struggling to get above 5 degrees, not to mention the layers of thermals, coats, and beanies.
Despite the cold we had a magnificent run of planting and the vines look fantastic. A big thanks goes to Volker and the team at Vinplant without whom we wouldn’t have such lovely straight rows, also to the guys in the vineyard here at Rathfinny, early starts, long days and manhandling vines all day out in the cold isn’t the most fun but there wasn’t one grumble. And finally to Liz and Jamie, for keeping the team supplied with plenty of hot food, coke and chocolate, much needed moral boosters on those bitter days.
Now the real work starts, staking and tying up of the vines has begun, as well as the marking out for the posts. The first end posts have already started to go in. We’ve even had a “little” bit of rain to help settle the vines in. I am constantly reminded of last year when I suggested we needed some rain and it virtually didn’t stop for 6 months. I won’t say a word this time around!
Cameron Roucher, Vineyard Manager
Just prior to Christmas on what was a dark day for All Blacks rugby, Mark and I sat down and estimated how long it would take us to prune the vineyard.
The less said about the rugby the better, but it turned out to be an incredibly accurate estimation of pruning. 5 weeks is what we thought, that’s allowing for plenty of rain days. Well we finished pruning the vineyard in 4 and ½ weeks- not too bad!
Finally I am able to say we’ve actually finished something! It seems we’re always nearly… or about to… or going to…
Since then the vineyard wires have been repositioned ready for this years growth, and the guys have been clearing scrub on our HLS land prior to the end of February cut-off for scrub clearance due to the bird-nesting season. This area of the farm is where the ponies were earlier in the winter and is where we are trying to re-establish chalk grassland from a largely overgrown grass sward interspersed with those lovely thorny plants blackthorn, hawthorn, gorse and brambles- it makes clearing not the most favourite job on site.
We’ve also welcomed a new permanent team member in the vineyard Rick Burrows, who started toward the end of the month. Welcome aboard.
My favourite time of the vineyard year, pruning is such a wonderful and important part of the vineyard calendar.
Pruning at Rathfinny started on the 4th of January, and our pruning team of Felix, Ian, David and (when not dragged away for other jobs-like blog writing) myself have been getting through the vines planted last year. We even managed to get Mark and his brother Philip out for an hours or so – although they struggled with the early start; they ambled up raring to go just as we were about to break for morning tea!
As I write this we are just over half way through the whole vineyard, most of the vines are being cut back to two buds to enable them to push strong healthy shoots this spring, and hopefully a small crop. The vines that have done well over the summer we are laying a short cane on the fruiting wire.
We’ve also had the ground preparation for next year’s planting begin, many thanks to our contract farmers, The Ellis’s and their staff, for giving us a helpng hand with (slightly) bigger tractors than are needed in vineyards.
On top of all this we’ve also had Richard Bartlett and his team back who have planted all our trees across the property to plant even more shelter belts in anticipation of the 2014 planting.
There has been an increase in news lately regarding last summer’s rain and the effect it will have on food and in particular nutrient levels in food. We’ve all had the question asked of us: how are the vines?Vines, trees, and other long term crops fair a little better than most short term crops.Although in general, nutrient levels have been leached over the past year, we take a more long term view of nutrients and try to keep them in balance as much as possible so that extreme weather events, such as last year’s rain, don’t effect us. Whereas crops that are seasonal and rotated each season have to add the nutrient they require for that season, so when something like last year’s rain comes along most growers will struggle to either get the nutrient on or predict nutrient requirements for the year. The better growers take a more holistic approach and ensure nutrient levels in the soil are at a level where they can easily be maintained.
Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager
Wine writer Hugh Johnson once called vineyard soil “the unseen dankness where the vine roots suck.” It is an often forgotten part of our process. I recently attended a seminar on the subject of soil, which got me to thinking about the many different facets of soil and why it is so fascinating.
Ok, so not everyone finds soil interesting, but consider this:
- To the farmer, soil is where crops grow.
- To the engineer, soil is a foundation on which to build.
- To the ecologist, soil supports and connects the ecosystems.
- To the archaeologist, soil holds clues to past cultures.
- to crafts people, like potters, soil provides clay to make things.
- Soil is all of these and more. Soil has been called “the skin of the earth” because it is the thin outermost layer of the Earth’s crust.
- Like our own skin, we can’t live without soil.
- Soil is the basis for all life on earth, not only delivering 90% of the food produced it most importantly delivers ALL the wine.
And through the complexities of soil we get different characteristics in our wine.
Soil (or more specifically vineyard site) is part of the trilogy of what makes a great wine, the other two pieces of the puzzle being grape variety and human input.
In a vineyard site there will always be a troublesome patch that under performs or an area that consistently produces a higher quality than those around it.
Given that if the varieties and clones are the same, this will most likely be down to soil.
While we say that here at Rathfinny we have between 15 and 30cm of topsoil over a chalk base, the truth of the matter is there is variation through the fields. Not just physically but biologically, and chemically. We are trying to work around this variation by setting up our blocks with the help of surveying the soil prior to planting.
The guys from Soilquest have just been on-site to EC map our upcoming planting. What this does is build up an accurate field map of soil variation and nutrient status by measuring electrical conductivity to two depths; we then analyze representative soil samples from each soil type zone.
This enables us to pinpoint areas of similar soil type when we set out our blocks and in turn maintain a more even and easier to manage block.
A true farmer doesn’t just grow crops, but farms the soil.
By Cameron Roucher
As the end of my first full season in a vineyard in England comes to a close I wonder what next year will bring for us?
News of some producers not harvesting due to the poor quality of their fruit and others not even having any fruit to make that decision, leaves the rest waiting for a break in the weather to harvest.
Difficult growing conditions have plagued the 2012 harvests across Europe, with reports of a significant drop in vineyard yield’s from Champagne to Bordeaux, even in Spain and Italy. This year’s UK harvest compounds a series of challenging weather events for farmers – including the worst drought in 50 years in the US and a heat wave in Russia which have led to warnings of rises in food prices globally. In the UK, the cool and wet weather over flowering in June and July both reduced and delayed the fruit set leading to smaller crops and delayed ripening in UK vineyards.
What the general public tend to forget is that a vineyard is just another form of farming (our tractor’s are just smaller). Like any weather dependent industries we are just as liable to good and bad years, which is part of the beauty of wine, it gives us the challenge of trying to make the best from what’s thrown at us, and looking forward to the years when it all goes as it should. It also means we have no two years the same. So here’s looking forward to next year!
The vineyard team has been working in all conditions this summer, with winter yet to come. They’ve done a great job of getting all the posts and wire in to support the vines – a mammoth task. They’ve just got a bit of general maintenance to do before we start to prepare next year’s planting, removal of fences and adding fertilizer adjustments. As well as our normal tasks we now have to work around our contractors for the next 12 months while they build the winery (although they are great and flying along at a terrific rate) and it doesn’t make it easy having to work around diggers, dumpers and trucks to-ing and fro-ing. Soon they’ll be into the pruning, which granted won’t be for a couple of months until the vines are fully hardened off and dormant but as with everything it will be upon us before we know it.
Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager