We're starting to see the onset of berry ripening around site, known as veraison. It's at this stage that the grapes transform from being small, hard and green to taking on colour and swelling up. Our main priority at the moment is planning ahead for our first harvest, which we anticipate will be towards the end of September. Until then we will continue to monitor the health of the grapes, looking out for any signs of disease or other pests, as well as regularly testing for sugar ripeness.
The gloriously warm weather we have been enjoying throughout June and July is certainly visible in the vines. They have shot up and the berries are now pea-sized across site and approaching bunch closure in various places. Given that this is only our second season, the number of bunches is incredible to see - there are widely as many as three bunches per cane, and as many as four bunches per cane in some spots of the most vigorous Bacchus field! However, given the immaturity of the vines, we have to consider carefully the potential impact of the lack of rainfall coupled with the heatwaves. Our weather station last recorded rainfall on 31st May, 8 weeks ago. While this lack of rainfall has its benefits, including encouraging the vines to send their roots deeper into the soil, helping to ripen the berries and minimising disease pressure, we have to be responsible in terms of what to expect from our first crop. There is a risk that, in the absence of rain, all vegetative growth will cease and the canopy will be insufficient to support and adequately ripen the crop. Accordingly, we have decided to carry out some green harvesting, which essentially involves cutting off select bunches to ensure that whatever crop we keep can be sufficiently supported. While it's a shame to lose some fruit, it's important that we don't over-stretch the vines and that we're creating a sustainable foundation for many more fruitful years to come!
The vines have now flowered universally across site and most varieties are at the fruit-set stage. It's great to finally see the start of what will be our crop for this season! Now we can start to estimate our likely yield at harvest this October.
Now that we have budbreak we've been keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast for any risk of frost. This week sub-zero temperatures during the night were too worrying to ignore, so we were out in full force lighting bougies to help to protect the coldest part of the vineyard from frost damage. It was quite a sight to behold! With a bit of luck, we should be out of danger now for another year...
It's a very welcome sight to see budburst all across site. Chardonnay, a renowned early-budding variety, was the first to burst, with Bacchus falling a close second. The arrival of budburst sees us planning ahead for the many viticultural jobs that have to be done over the following weeks: planting new vines and transplanting mature vines, slug pelleting all two-budded vines, before moving on to bud rubbing and shoot selection, one of the largest jobs in the vineyard calendar.
Now that we're into February, we're taking advantage of any pockets of dry weather to get pruning. Our main objective this year is to prune to create a crown which will form the foundation of our vines for generations to come. Aside from harvest, pruning is the biggest job in the vineyard calendar year. It's crucial in order to arrange the vines on the trellis, to make mechanical operations easier, and to carefully manage the leaf-to-fruit ratio in order to maximise the quality of our crop. It's exciting to be hands-on with the vines again after a long(ish) winter.
The cold weather has set in and the vineyard is looking like a winter wonderland. The vines have entered winter dormancy and are preparing for budbreak in the spring, as are we! Our top priority in the new year will be pruning, to establish a good foundation for the vines for the coming growing season. Wishing you a Merry Christmas from all of us at Pookchurch!
The vineyard has taken on a different look now that Autumn has arrived. We've been taking the opportunity - between the many bouts of rain - to sow a cover crop of grass seed and oat, which we're hoping will improve the soil structure and nutrient availability for the coming season!
The vines are in very good health, thanks to a long, warm spell followed (just in time) by rain. The same rain is less welcome now, in early August, but it has helped growth, the availability of nutrients and establishment of root systems. So, for all the difficulties in getting the tractor and sprayer out in the mud, the vines just keep growing! So much so that the second and final shoot tipping is just coming to an end. It’s a big job on a large vineyard at the best of times, but the April frost has meant that vines have been developing at different speeds in different places, and every job has required at least two ‘passes’. Still, we will look back and think of it as a successful season, and the vines did what they had to do in their second year!
April saw the vines get off to a flying start, only for the night of the 26th to damage around 70% of them with a heavy air frost. There was little which could have been done about it, not that it’s much of a consolation to know that! The ones which miraculously survived the night of sub zero temperatures are doing very well, and a month on from the frost, the not so fortunate vines are staging a recovery. Helped by a seaweed stimulant, and some warm weather and eventually rain in May, there’s now enough new life in the vines to find at least one strong shoot. They’ve still got much of the growing season to catch up, and we’re optimistic!
The trellising team finished a few weeks ago, but the effects of tractor and trailer wheels on the bare land through the winter months are still to be seen. So one of the early jobs is to level out the headlands and the aisles, even though the ground is really too dry and hard to make it ideal. Not even the weeds are happy growing, and the earth looks more lunar like than Sussex Weald! Local farmer, Andrew, has done a great job of the headlands, and for the next two or three weeks, we’re running the vineyard tractor through the aisles with a harrow. Some rain would be helpful. And the hundreds of native hedging whips which have been planted would be grateful too. Tim Bennett’s rigged up a makeshift bowser to try to keep them alive.
Sam Moore at Visual Air took an aerial picture of the barn area last May, when the old barns were still standing. He was back a few days ago, to get a similar shot of the site, with the new barn structure, before the roof was installed. What a difference! He’ll do us a favour and come back in April when the whole site should be finished and landscaped. I must get one of these drones! While he was up there, he took a few more of the vineyard and the landscape, and it all looks rather stunning, even in winter.
The old barns stood on this site for many years, but have finally been removed. The site for the new building is clear and ready for the foundations to be dug. If the weather’s helpful, the new barn (at 25m x 12m) will take just a few weeks for the contractors R&B Construction to complete and be ready in time for the arrival of machinery and our first team member in April! It’s an exciting time and it feels like we’re about to embark on a new chapter.
The end of the year arrives (how did that happen?) with lots of activity at Pookchurch. The persistent trellising team have finished 5 of the 9 fields and are now in the southerly block. They’ll have a break before resuming in January. In the meantime, there are hedges to be trimmed and trees to be thinned. And while someone’s up there, we decided to install some new homes for bats and barn owls in the mature trees near the old barns. Thanks to Kevin Rodgers the tree surgeon, pictured wrestling with the barn owl nest box in a beautiful mature oak. We now have bat boxes for groups of summer visitors and also for smaller British bats. Thanks to The Ecology Partnership too, for their advice on the best boxes and where to put them. Next year we’ll go hunting for droppings! Well, someone will.
As we move into autumn, we’re focused on the physical structure of the vineyard. The bridleway running through the site has been surfaced, making it useable during the winter months. The trellising system is being installed, but with over 20,000 posts to position carefully, it’s a job which will extend into the winter and the new year. And the drainage contractors are back, this time dealing with the water which runs to the eastern edge of some parts of the vineyard.
Demolition of the old barns, and construction of the new general purpose building will keep us occupied through the winter and into spring, when there’ll be a functioning centre for the operation. Just in time for the 2017 growing season!
The bridleway and footpath give riders and walkers the opportunity to follow progress, and as a result, we are visited by the occasional horse, but many dogs and their owners. This saluki (Maisie) is a frequent visitor, and seems to like being on the same side of the fencing as the vines. We’re not quite sure how that happens either.
The creation of the vineyard has changed the local landscape, and continues to do so as the infrastructure is still being built. We have seen this year how the new fencing becomes weathered quite quickly, even the stakes and tubes look less prominent, and most of all the vines fill out to soften the wonderful geometry of the vineyard layout. There is something strangely pleasing about the sense of order which the vine rows create in contrast to the centuries old less formal landscape.
The weeds did extremely well too, with various parts of the vineyard favoured by contrastingly different types. No doubt we’ll also discover how the vines fare differently across the 70 or so acres. But for this summer, the weeds provided added interest, with the southern fields most liked by various members of the thistle family, including many award winning milk thistles, such as this one pictured here in September.
Our progress at Pookchurch moved from preparing the land at the start of the year to planting in April and May. The vines have done well, helped by a wet June and a warm end to the summer. In July we selected the strongest shoots to encourage stronger growth and root development, and reduce crowding in the tubes. Removing 120,000 tubes ( and then replacing them) is a lot of work, but was done in two weeks by the Vine Works’ team.