Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Harvest Report 2017

Our harvest this year was completed almost two weeks early, with the last grapes picked on Friday 13th October.

The English weather has been even crazier than normal this season. We had a particularly warm start to the year, which resulted in early bud burst, but then had the worst April frosts we have experienced since planting the vineyard in 2009. Many of you will remember pictures of some 900 candles (boujies) on the vineyard, which we use to try and raise the temperature. Whilst these helped, and are normally effective against ground frosts, we also suffered an air frost which is very difficult to do anything about and many of the vines were damaged. Vineyards throughout the south of England were affected as well as vineyards across northern Europe as far south as Bordeaux.

The good news was that May, June and July were the warmest we have experienced, which resulted in excellent fruit-set. Many English vineyards suffered botrytis (rot) towards the end of the season but Alex and Dominic's excellent vineyard management (and of course our biodynamic approach!) meant that we suffered much less than most. Overall yields were about 40% down but the quality of the fruit was some of the best we have ever picked. Thanks to all the team and our many volunteers who helped make the harvest an overall success.

We are looking at some new technologies to fight the frost that we hope to be trialing next year. English wines generally are going from strength to strength and our wines continue to win international awards. All we need to do now is control the weather!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Vines in 17th century Albury!

(c) Trustees of the British Museum
We just discovered this amazing etching of Albury from 1645 in the British Museum archives, which shows vineyards in the background!

Albury; stump of old tree in the foreground at left, with wooden fence behind and swans swimming in the lake beyond; vineyards, arched building and seven persons walking by the water in the background; first state, before '8' added to lower right. c.1645 Etching

The Albury Estate tell us that the etching was done by Wenceslaus Hollar and shows the Park prior to the work of John Evelyn before Henry Howard, later 6th Duke of Norfolk in the 1660s and 70s. There is an entry in Evelyn's diary of September 23rd 1670 in which he says:

"to Alburie to see how that Garden proceeded, which I found exactly done according to the Designe & Plot I had made, with the Crypta through the mountaine in the parke, which is 30 pearches in length, such a Pausilippe is no where in England besides: the Canals were now digging, and Vineyards planted".

Thank you so much to Dominic Crolla at The Surrey Explorer for finding this gem of information. Think we might put this etching on the wall in our visitors' barn...

Friday, 28 April 2017

Formidable frost sweeps through Albury

This week has certainly been a challenge, and possibly one of the hardest we have faced since planting the vineyard eight years ago. It's been a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by wine producers in the country, and yes... at this moment we are indeed asking ourselves whether we were mad to try and grow vines in England.

However we are not alone. This time last week, we read about the devestation caused by frost to vineyards in Champagne with heavy hearts, and growing anxiety over what might come our way. And we were right to be worried; the freezing air frost hit us on Monday night and we jumped into action, lighting 'bougies' (French for 'candle') and burners throughout the vineyard.
Bougies light up the vineyard
The above picture doesn't do justice to the sight of 500 candles lighting up a vineyard at 2am (this video might give you a better idea). And there's the irony. We can't help but wonder at the beauty of our vineyard at this time, whilst finding ourselves unable to question how can something so beautiful be so cruel? Frost is one of the most deadly of Mother Nature's forces as far as English and Welsh vineyards are concerned. No matter how prepared we think we are, there's always a curved ball. Followers of the vineyard will know that frost at this time of year is always a concern, and that this isn't the first time we have lit the bougies. Why so bad this year?

Two factors have played a role this week: firstly, the fabulous sunshine we all enjoyed in March caused buds to burst two weeks earlier than they did last year. Whilst this could have resulted in a fabulous crop, had the weather continued in our favour, the frost that followed affected buds already quite developed in their fruit-bearing journey. The second twist of fate lies in the complexity of the frost itself. Whilst a ground frost, as we have experienced in previous years, can be battled relatively effectively with the use of bougies, we also suffered an air frost which is a different beast. Sweeping through the vineyard, it freezes anything in it's path within moments and even an army of 700 bougies find that a near impossible opponent to defeat. 

Sadly, the effects are already apparent. We estimate there to be around 80% damage to buds across the vineyard, with the worst affected area home to our Seyval crop. 
Seyval buds burnt by frost
A couple of healthy Chardonnay buds have escaped
Many people ask is how we know when to rush out to the vines on frosty nights, and how low temperatures have to get to really worry us. Our weather station  is a vital member of the frost fighting team, sending us text messages when temperatures fall towards zero, alerting us to the potential for damage.
The weather station
As a genral rule, the buds will cope with temperatures as low as -1C, but damage starts to happen after that, and you can expect 20% 'kill' at -2C and 90% at -3C. This is all fairly predictable if you have a ground frost on your hands, but this week goes to show that surprises can strike at any time; at one stage we had all bougies lit, confident in their ability to keep temperatures stable at around 0.5 degrees celcius and, within minutes, north-west winds boasting gushes of air as low as -4C rushed through with such force that none of us could do anything to prevent their damage. 

So what's next? And can we take any positives from this situation? The answer to that second question is yes on many levels. We are truly overwhelmed by the reaction to our news on social media this week, and the support shown to us by so many loyal followers of the vineyard. Even a small glimpse of our Facebook and Instagram feeds will give you an insight, and for this we are so grateful! We take comfort in the fact that we are not the only ones - sadly, vineyards across the South of England have all been hard hit and our thoughts are with all our fellow wine producers. 

Healthy Pinot Meunier buds give us hope!
And there's still hope! Some buds have escaped altogether, and the damaged vines will (fingers crossed) develop secondary buds and, whilst these may not be as fruitful or have as much time to ripen, they give us hope for a harvest this year. 
(My granddaughter, Poppy, has chicken pox so I have put her to work this week to take her mind off it!)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A threat to our honey bees!

This week, our bee-keeper Sergio made us aware of a new threat to the bees. Vespa velutina, sometimes known as the 'Asian hornet' is an invasive non-native species from Asia. It has recently arrived in France where it is spreading rapidly. As a highly effective predator of insects, including honey bees and other beneficial species, it can cause significant losses to bee colonies, other native species and potentially ecosystems.
The Asian Hornet

Asian hornets were seen in the UK in 2016. A single specimen was trapped in Somerset and a nest was destroyed near Tetbury in Gloucesestershire. The hornet makes very large nest, usually high in trees and man made structures, sometimes closer to the ground.

Asian Hornet Nest
The Asian Hornet is most likely to be found in southern parts of England (it may be able to cross the channel from France) or in goods among which it could be accidentally imported (such as soil with imported pot plants, cut flowers, fruit and timber). It is active between April and November (peak August/September). It is most likely to be found near to bee hives!

Asian Hornet, 'hawking' for honey bee prey
What to look out for

Vespa velutina queens are up to 3 cm in length; workers up to 25 mm (slightly smaller than the native European hornet Vespa crabro)
Entirely dark brown or black velvety body, bordered with a fine yellow band
Only one band on the abdomen: 4th abdominal segment almost entirely yellow/orange
Legs brown with yellow ends
Head black with an orange-yellow face
Vespa velutina is a day flying species which, unlike the European hornet, ceases activity at dusk

If you think you have seen an Asian Hornet

Take a picture and email it with details of where you saw it and your contact details and email it to alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk. Do not under any circumstances disturb or provoke an active hornets nest - the hornet stings! You can find out more about the Asian Hornet here.

Monday, 17 April 2017

What to do with our pile of poo?

Burying the cow horns in December
Followers of our blog will remember that at the end of last year we buried cow horns on the vineyard that had been filled with manure from local organic cows (here's a reminder of what we did!). Cow horn manure renews and improves the fertility of the soil. You can see a video of us filling the cow horns last year to find out more.
Digging up the cow horns
During the winter the manure fermented and earlier this week we dug them up the horns so that we could use their nutrient rich contents. As always, our premier cru wine club members bravely volunteered to get their hands dirty! Our new vineyard assistant Dominic also got involved - what a way to start a new job...
The contents of the cow horns
We emptied the contents of the cow horns, dynamised the fermented cow manure in water, and then sprayed it on the vineyard. According to the biodynamic calendar this ideally needs to be done on a full moon before Easter, so Tuesday was the chosen day. This mixture is called Preparation 500 and it primarily acts through the soil and the root system to strengthen growth, enabling the vines to connect more strongly with minerals in the soil, encouraging a sense of terroir in the grapes and ultimately the wine.
Nick, Alex and Dominic with our Premier Cru wine club members
We have also sprayed a tea of equisitum (horsetail) on the vineyard which helps to surpress fungi back into the earth, hopefully reducing the threat of downy mildew. As the growing season progresses we will spray horn silica on the vines to help their growth and development.  Our compost piles are developing well having been mixed with cow pat pit which is made by mixing cow manure with crushed egg shell and basalt dust, then fermenting it with preparations 502 to 507 for three to four months in a 12 inch deep pit lined with bricks. We hope that this preparation will stimulate soil activity and enhance the humus forming process of the soil. It also helps to initiate the fermentation of manure and activates organic matter conversion in compost. Research carried out after the Chernobyl disaster showed how it helped reduce the effects of radioactive fallout on land where it was applied.
Equisitum (Horsetail)
More and more vineyards in Europe, Australasia and South America are now adopting a biodynamic approach. Whilst some see it as madness most sommeliers now recognise that biodynamic wines are some of the best in the world.

On another note, we have had bud burst on the vines for a couple of  weeks now so frost watch has begun!
Bud Burst

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

To the Power of Poo

Everyone knows there’s nowt like old fashioned farmyard muck to get gardens blooming and crops flourishing. But a single bucketful of cow poo to fertilise a whole 12 acres of vineyard?  This is not your average muck spreading spree. 

Last week, the vineyard was the scene of a fertility ritual on Friday. The practice itself only dates back to 1924, but it draws on a concept of harmony in nature that goes back millennia: A pile of clean, hollowed out horns from female cows lay waiting for a team of enthusiastic helpers to fill them from that one bucket of fresh organic cow dung.Watch us explain why in this video!

This ritual is fundamental to the practice of biodynamic agriculture founded by the Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner who promoted ‘spiritual science’ in the 1920s. His biodynamic agriculture was the first of the organic agriculture movements and dealt holistically with the whole natural circle of soil, plants and animals, including, importantly, cosmic forces.

As our regular blog followers will know, we believe in the power of biodynamic farming for soil fertility and plant health. Though we are one of few to practice this in the UK, we are not alone. Major supermarkets Tesco and Marks and Spencers follow the biodynamic calendar when the buyers do their wine tasting. The year is divided up according to the lunar influence into leaf, flower, root and fruit days and fruit days are regarded as the most auspicious for wine drinking. It is believed that the wine actually tastes better on fruit days. 

So back to those cow horns, each now neatly packed with poo. We carried them up through the vines to a pit where they were laid carefully to rest, mouths pointing down so that they did not fill with rainwater and go mushy over the winter. They were covered with soil and the burial finished with a pile of stones to deter animals. And there they will stay until April or May, when they will be lifted out again and their precious contents emptied out. 

By then, the manure will have a completely different consistency – dark and crumbly and according to biodynamic principles, packed with cosmic forces. Finally, cricket ball sized roundels of the dung are dissolved in barrels of water and the liquid gets sprayed on the vineyard. Like homeopathic medicine, a little is said to go a long way.

We bury horns at three places around the vineyard. The horns are from female cows as they are the most fertile animals and they absorb the cosmic influences. The best way to describe it is that when we spray it, even though it is only a tiny amount, it acts as a trigger to regenerate tired soil and improve its fertility.
We have actually seen first hand in France and Australia the difference between the quality of soil on biodynamic vineyards and that on chemically sprayed ones. It is the difference between living and dead soils Many of the great vineyards and wineries around the world are convinced by the biodynamic approach, including Domaine Leflaive and le Roy in Burgundy, Coulee de Serant in the Loire, Beaux Freres in Oregon, Hensche in Australia and jean-Pierre Fleury in Champagne.

"But does it make a difference to the wine?" I hear you cry! Well, if you ask us, biodynamic practices in the vineyard encourage a natural harmony between the earth, the vine and the cosmos as nature intended, without the need to use systemic chemicals. We believe that this results in a more naturally healthy bio-diverse and sustainable vineyard, producing better quality fruit and ultimately better quality wine, with a unique sense or place or terroir.