Sunday, 13 December 2009

Friendly Fungi working well

Mycorrhizal fungi at work

Back in May when we planted the vines we decided to dip the roots in a product called Rootgrow, which is a mycorrihzal fungi from a company called PlantWorks. Mycorrhizal fungi normally occurs naturally in soil. It breaks down organic matter releasing nutrients particularly phosphates and can significantly increase root capacity. Unfortunately herbicides and modern farming techniques have significantly reduced the naturally occuring fungi. The idea with Rootgrow is to give new plant roots a kick start.

Last Saturday we pruned the vines and measured the weight of the prunings of 100 vines that had been treated compared to 100 untreated vines for each variety. The results were as follows:

                          Untreated      Treated        % Increase
                          weight (kg)   weight (kg)

Pinot Meunier        1.5                1.8               20.0%
Pinot Noir              2.5                2.4               -4.0%
Chardonnay           1.6                1.9               18.8%
Total                     5.6                6.1                 8.9%

It's early days and the test is obviously not very accurate. I have no idea why the Pinot Noir didn’t seem to show any real difference but overall a very positive indication that the friendly fungi are doing a good job! We will do the same test next year and also monitor the quantity of fruit produced in 2011.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Soil Food Web and Compost Teas

Just attended a facinating seminar on Compost Teas given by Dr Elaine R Ingham at Laverstoke Park.

The Soil Food Web is a diverse community of microscopic organism which live in the soil. There are hundreds of thousands of species and this biology is an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. These soil dwellers are performing important tasks that allow plants to thrive and grow. As they eat, grow and move through the soil, these organisms make it possible to have clean water, clean air, healthy plants and moderate water flow.

Not suprisingly pestacides and hebisides kill off this natural biological system. Organic farmers use composts and compost teas to help the biology recover and also as an effective treatment for disease control.

Compost teas  are made by aerobically brewing compost in a tank of water (a bit like a jacuzzi) typically for 24 hours. This allows the living organsim on the compost, including bacteria, fungi and nematodes to be released into the water which is then sprayed on the vines. Food such as Humic Acid or Fish Hydrolysate is often added to promote growth of the organisms. Kelp helps as a micronutrient and Trichoderma spores can be added to treat mildew but the downside is that it takes out Mycorrhizal Funghi (see earlier blog "Friendly Fungi").

It all sounds quite complicated but hopefully the guys at Laverstoke will be giving me some expert advice. Anyway, I'm convinced its the way to go for the vineyard. No copper or sulphur next year!

Friday, 25 September 2009

No Mud on the A25!

Philip and Gary have created an excellent new hard standing to the entrance of the Vineyard. Hopefully this will mean that tractor wheels will be washed when leaving the vineyard so that we don't deposit large pieces of mud all over the A25. We will see!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Vine Diseases and Compost Tea

Downy Mildew

The main diseases that can effect vines during the growing season are Powdery Mildew, Downy Mildew and Botrytis. Downy Mildew has unfortunately arrived at Albury!

Downy Mildew is a white down that appears on the underside of the leaves causing them to wither and die, the fruit can also be attacked. The standard treatment in an organic vineyard is a copper solution.

As the name suggests Powdery Mildew appears as a white powder on the leaves and grapes. If left untreated the leaves die and the fruit will crack. Dusting or spraying with Sulphur once every 2 to 3 weeks can prevent this disease.

Botrytis will cause fruit to rot and drop off the vine and dark patches will be seen on the canes. This usually appears during Autumn when the fruit is ripening. Avoiding overcrowding of the vines and keeping the bunches well ventilated by removing the adjacent leaves will help restrict this disease.

During last week Downey Mildew has started to appear on some of the leaves at the vineyard, mainly on the Chardonnay. This isn't serious at this stage but we have decided to spray the vines with a copper solution to try and stop it from spreading.

Next year we hope to avoid copper and sulphur by using a compost tea. This is a water extract of compost that is "brewed" to extract organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes). When sprayed on the vines an enormous diversity of these organisms dominate the surfaces of the vines thereby inhibiting disease-causing organisms from establishing. Compost tea also provides plant food which aids healthy plant growth, strengthens the plant's defence systems and, with the addition of beneficial organisms to the soil, will help the recycling of organic matter improving soil structure.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

My first Bunch of Grapes!

Maybe not the best bunch of grapes you've ever seen but they are the first from Albury Vineyard and are therefore "special". Having said that, they are of course of absolutely no use for wine production and are destined for the compost heap along with any other bunches that appear this year (and probably next for that matter).

The first grapes that will be used for wine production will be picked by hand in October 2011 (year 3) when we hope to get around a 40% yield. For the 5 acres planted so far this equates to about 6 tonnes of grapes which will be enough to produce over 4000 bottles of English bubbly. Put the date in your diary now if you want to be involved in this historic event and be invited to the Albury harvest party celebration of the year in 2011!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Battle of the Weeds is Won...for now!

Weeds are one of the biggest problems for an organic vineyard, especially when new vines are trying to get established. Its amazing how mother nature so quickly takes over with all sorts of vegetation if the land is not managed. In my case the major offenders include Rape, Charlock and Thistle.

Thanks to the efforts of Ivan and the team, Philip, Ken, Michaela her team, my brother Paul, JB, and my daughter's many male friends (a lot of labour!!) the vineyard is now fairly free of weeds and is looking good. How long that will last I don't know but we're now planning to keep the weeds at bay by using some more wood chip mulch as well as sowing between the rows with a Cotswold mix. No doubt more labour will also be required!

Overall the vines are doing very well and most are up to the first trellis wire. Michaela and the team will be in next week to do some further tying up and debudding.

It seems that I have very few vines that didn't flourish. The stats are as follows:

Chardonnay planted 2977 - 10 died (0.34%)
Pinot Noire planted 2986 - 21 died (0.70%)
Pinot Meunier planted 1723 - 9 died (0.52%)
Seyval Blanc planted 849 - 19 died (2.24%)
Total planted 8535 - 59 died (0.69%)

Not sure why a larger % of the Seyval died but overall a very acceptable mortality rate!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Mulching Begins

Gary, Philip, John (in the cab) and Darryl (from Laverstoke Park) with the spreader and the mountain of wood chip

Weeds are a big problem for organic vineyards, especially when the vines are trying to get established. After much debate we have settled on a mulch to control the weeds, comprising a mixture of green waste compost from Laverstoke Park and virgin wood chip from LC Energy. Last week we took delivery of 50 tonnes of compost and nearly 600 cubic metres of wood chip which arrived in 8 artic lorries.

We now need to distribute the stuff along the rows of vines about 30cm on each side and 10 cm high. To help us do this we will be using a special muck spreader which takes about one and a half tonnes per load. Only 150 loads to complete the job for the initial 5 acres!

Hopefully this will keep the weeds at bay for two to three years. We will be seeding an organic grassland mix between the rows.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The new love of my life!

Dick Bray, from Oakes Bros, delivers the new tractor

Slim, sleek and a right little goer...... yes the tractor!

On Friday my new tractor arrived all the way from Italy. Now that I'm on the wrong side of 50, I have discovered that a new tractor is more exciting than a sports car and almost certainly safer (and cheaper) than a new woman!

The tractor is a New Holland and is specially designed for vineyards. As it is only just over a meter wide it will easily fit between the rows of vines when we're spreading the mulch, cutting the grass and spraying the vines.

The challenge now of course is to learn how to drive the thing which inside looks like the Star Ship Enterprise with more levers than you can shake a stick at. I'm sure that by the end of next week I will be fully competent as I'm on a tractor course with my good friend John Brockwell.

Motorists and walkers of Albury should take cover!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Green Shoots - No, not the economy!

The vines have only been planted two weeks and already they are bursting into life!

I'm sure that Stephen will say that it's due to the tip top quality of the vines he has sourced, John will claim that it's down to the preparation of the land, the Rootgrow guys will state that it's on account of their product, Ernst and Jo will say that its because of the expert planting and Ivan will claim that he talked to them every day. But who cares... they are alive and growing!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Terry's Trellising

Ivan (left) and the team

The trellising is now nearing completion thanks to Mike Terry, Ivan and the team. It will have taken about ten days to install the 120 wooden end posts, 1,700 interim posts, 8,500 bamboo canes and more than 10,000 metres of wire to support the vines as they grow.

In spite of some difficult ragstone at the southern end of the vineyard, the work will be completed on time thanks to the tireless efforts of the guys in spite of the weather!

Next task is to mulch the vines which will hopefully keep the weeds at bay. The mulch will now comprise about 40 tonnes of green waste compost (20mm) mixed with 600 cu metres of wood chip (50mm).

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Planting of the Vines (Pictures)

With Jo and her Planting Team from Germany

Ready to go!

Tim from Plantworks dipping the vines in Rootgrow

The first Vine? Well almost - Stephen broke the first!

Planting of the Vines

Video of the amazing Planting Machine

Having planted 8635 vines yesterday I am now the proud owner of a real vineyard.

The planting team from Germany arrived before 8.00am led by Jo (daughter of Ernst) and by the end of the day all the vines had been planted. All in all we planted 1723 Pinot Meunier, 2986 Pinot Noir, 2977 Chardonnay and 849 Syval Blanc on a plot of about 5 acres. Rows have been spaced 2m apart with 1.2m between the vines. All the vines were dipped in Rootgrow before planting, other than a control section of 100 in each of the major grape varieties.

The planting team who did a marvelous job were helped by various experts and willing helpers including Stephen, John Buchan, JB, Philip, not forgetting Roy who did a splendid job as official photographer and providing elevenses! Thanks also to Tim from Plantworks for supervising the application of the Rootgrow.

More pictures to follow.

Next is the trellising and then control of the dreaded weeds with mulch, which now looks like it will comprise a mix of 80% wood chip and 20% green compost!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Layout of the Vineyard

As our primary aim is to produce a high quality organic bubbly, the vines we have chosen for the initial 5 acres are predominantly the varieties used in Champagne i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noire and Pinot Meunier. However we are also planting some Seyval which is a variety which does well in the UK. This will be used along with some of the Pinot Noire, to produce a still Rose. Overall we will be planting around 8500 vines with row spacing of 2m and 1.2m between each vine. As the plot isn't square this equates to 60 rows varying in length between 16o to 190 metres.

Only 10 days now before we start planting!

The Trellising Arrives from Germany

Philip Goddard on the forklift

Last Thursday the trellising arrived from Germany and is now safely stored in Philip Goddard's barn at Home Farm. For 5 acres of vines we need 140 timber end posts, around 1700 intermediate posts and a huge amount of wire.

Whilst we could wait a year after planting before erecting the trellising I have decided to get this out of the way early on and the job should be erected by the end of May.

Bunnies and Bambi Keep Out

Jeremy Curling still smiling!

The boundary fencing for the new Vineyard is nearing completion with more than 1000 metres of deer and rabbit fencing. Jeremy Curling is erecting the bunny and bambi proof fence, shown here putting in one of the many large posts around the vineyard.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Organic Conversion Process

Early on in the project I made a decision that Albury Vineyard would be organic. Having spoken to a number of organic vineyard owners in the UK and Australia I was convinced that over a period of time the organic process would produce better fruit and ultimately better quality wine. It's also much more friendly to the environment which is a key consideration both ethically and commercially. The downside is that it makes the establishment of a vineyard even harder especially in respect of weed control. Anyway, the decision has been made and the field has to now be converted to an organic regime.

I have chosen to use Organic Farmers and Growers as an authentication body, who have been extremely helpful in helping me to understand the organic conversion process for the field that will become the vineyard. Defra's Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS) have also been very useful, providing me with a half day's free on-site consultancy. The bottom line is that I can do anything I like to the land until the vines are planted but then I have to make sure that all treatments for weed and disease control as well as any composts or fertilisers that I use are certified as organic or, if an organic product isn't available, that I get a derogation for the product concerned. Accurate records of course will have to be maintained at all times!

The process is further complicated as we're only planting 5 acres this year which means that 8 acres will need a cover crop to keep the weeds at bay and add to the nutrients in the soil. As organic seeds are very expensive I don't want to convert this part of the field until I'm ready to plant it with vines. The solution is a temporary fence with a 10 metre buffer zone between the none organic land and the plants.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Friendly Fungi

I spent an interesting morning at a company called PlantWorks that makes a mycorrhizal fungi product called rootgrow.

Nearly all plants depend on a group of fungi on their roots which can increase root capacity over 700 times. Unfortunately herbicides and other modern farming techniques have significantly reduced the fungi which, when present, break down organic matter releasing nutrients (particularly phosphates) for the plants. The idea is that vine roots can be dipped in rootgrow before planting to give the natural mycorrhizal fungi process a kick start. This should help establish the vines more quickly and increase the eventual yield.

Looks like we will run a trial on the vines being planted in May. Time will tell what difference it will make but the product looks promising.

For more information visit

Sunday, 22 March 2009

To Mulch or Not to Mulch - That is the Question

Sad, I know, but I dreamt of mulching last night. For those of you who are new to the world of viticulture, mulching is not some sort of depraved sexual act (sorry kids), but is a mechanism that can be used for weed control, as well as providing nutrients to the vines.

Weeds can be a major problems in a vineyard, especially if it's organic as you can't use most herbicides to control them. Weeds compete with newly planted vines which can significantly delay early growth, reduce yield and therefore ultimately the profitability of a new vineyard.

So what to do? Well I've been trawling the web and also taking advice from various experts but it seems that there is no definitive solution to this problem. What it appears I have to do is come up with an Integrated Weed Management Programme (IWM) which involves identifying the weeds, choosing the appropriate control methods and monitoring how effective the control strategies have been. It sounds simple but the tricky bit is deciding on the control methods which can involve all sorts of activities including burning or steaming the weeds, using geese or sheep to eat them, cultivation, or mulching.

Mulching involves surrounding the vines with either a groundcover or an organic compost to a depth of between 3-5 inches to prevent the weeds getting any sunlight. I like the idea of mulching using compost but for just 5 acres we need a man mountain of the stuff and the effort in spreading it is enormous even with a special muck spreader.

If you're interested there are a couple of good articles on the web:

Hopefully my dream won't become a nightmare, being attacked by giant weeds and then drowning in a pile of muck!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Midlife Crisis and a Vineyard

It seems that a midlife crisis is hitting me hard. Not only have I decided to establish a vineyard in the south of England, but for the first time in my life I am entering the world of bloggers!

This blog is purely a selfish attempt to chronicle the multitude of tasks, issues, problems and hopefully some successes associated with setting up an organic vineyard in Surrey. Hopefully it might be of interest to English wine enthusiasts and may even be of some use to others who embark on a similar venture. If this proves to be the case then great - we will see.

The story started about nine months ago when I finally decided that I would try and make my dream of owning a vineyard a reality. I had always assumed that it would have to be in France or elsewhere in Europe but one of the few upsides of global warming has resulted in the south of England being a realistic location for producing quality wine, particularly bubbly. There are already 400 vineyards in the UK selling about 1m bottles annually and this is set to quadruple in size over the next 5 years. Vineyards such as Nyetimber in West Sussex, Chapel Down in Kent and Camel Valley in Cornwall are all producing excellent wines especially of the sparkling variety. Hopefully Albury Vineyard will be added to the list in the future.

Anyway, I've now managed to find what I hope will be just the right site within walking distance of my home village of Albury in Surrey. It's 15 acres on the southern slopes of the North Downs in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The location was chosen because it is below 100m above sea level, is well sheltered and is south westerly facing. The soil is also clay on chalk which is the same as the region of Champagne. The plan is to plant the first five acres this May with the classical Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. If were lucky we will have our first harvest in October 2011. Unfortunately that's only the start of the process, which will take at least another 3 years before "Albury bubbly" hits the shelves! Establishing a vineyard is certainly not a short term investment; it's probably a good 12 years before you get a financial return!

Luckily, I won't be relying entirely on myself to ensure the success of this venture. I've managed to secure the consultancy services of one the top experts in UK viticulture, Stephen Skelton MW. Without someone like Stephen it would be complete madness to embark on such a venture. He has already been invaluable in helping me plan the project and his many contacts have enabled us to get all the basic building blocks in place. the only advice I've not taken from Stephen is not to go organic which I'm told is a nightmare when it comes to weed control. However I'm determined to give it a go - time will tell which one of us proves to be right. I'm also lucky to have come across John Buchan who is an agronomist specialising in organic vineyards (I still can't believe that such a beast exists in the UK).

In the next few months I will be busy preparing the land, planting windbreaks, erecting deer and rabbit fencing, planting the vines and putting up the trellising. Hopefully there will be a bit of time to post some blogs!