Where do bumble bees sleep at night?
Now, if you have been thinking that our silence has been due to either (a) we have been sunning ourselves and relaxing on some tropical island or drifting carelessly on an azure blue sea or (b) just been lazy - well let me assure you that neither is correct! But - hands up - apologies for the lack of a blog - am I the only one who wonders where the time goes!
So, quick recap!
Our 2021 harvest was amazing! For the main harvest of Seyval and Pinot Noir we had over 50 people here to help, mainly our lovely locals but we also had helpers from as far afield as Stratford-upon-Avon, Wrexham and Oxford - outstanding and humbling! Everyone was amazed by the amount of grapes compared to 2020 - and we were too!
Our winery, Halfpenny Green, had arranged for a transport company to come down and pick up the grapes early morning following the harvest. And, sure enough, bright and early a huge curtain-sided lorry manoeuvred gracefully down the drive and we all giggled at how big it was! However as the crates went on, with the marvellous driver Clare managed the whole loading process, we started to get just a teensy bit worried that there wouldn't be space. With a gulp, a wipe of the brow, a nervous titter - all 15 pallet boxes were loaded - but there would have been space for only one more! Cutting it a bit fine you might say!
As we said in our last blog, we kept 5 rows of Seyval back to get as ripe as they possibly could to go to Mountain People winery in Monmouthshire where they would follow a different winemaking process. As we got into early November we realised the grapes needed to be harvested asap! Another frantic plea went out and 20 wonderful people gave up their time, at short notice to come and help us. Two of our regular helpers hadn't been able to come to the main harvest so it was fantastic that they could for this one and in those 5 rows we picked more than we had across the whole site the previous year and they couldn't believe it!
So, in total our 2021 harvest came to more than 7 tonnes!
"So what was happening after that?" I hear you cry!
Well, post harvest we do tend to crawl into darkened rooms, mentally and physically exhausted!
Once we re-emerged, however, we have been busy - honest!
I'm sure you don't want to hear about our Christmas and my seed planning for this year and the fact that we are also preparing for younger son's wedding at the end of May - what has been happening in the vineyard!
Well, the vines have been having a little rest and post harvest we left them to sleep......zzzzzzzzzzz! Back to them in a bit.
While the vines slumbered, we all took the opportunity to do some training.
Sophie and I did a remote WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) course which involved tasting wines ALL day - tough job! This was a really informative course and it confirmed that I do not have a sophisticated palate but Sophie is incredible at wine tasting! She can pick out groups (like red fruits or black fruits) and individuals flavours like vanilla, elderflower and nectarine within a wine - I think she may have been practising wine-drinking a wee bit too much! (Before you say anything, Sophie, I know - pot/kettle!) It was fascinating learning about different vine growing sites and how even sites on either side of the same river can produce wine with different notes due to a number of differing factors including when the sun hit the vines, river deposits etc (blimey - I did learn more than I thought from the course!)
Ryan and Andy undertook a vine pruning course at Ancre Hill Vineyard in Monmouthshire, where they learned that when pruning the vines you not only need to think about the coming season but also the next year and the one after that! You are pruning with the future in mind.
Armed with their newfound knowledge, our vine pruning started in December - what a surprise the vines must have got to wake up and find they'd had a hair cut!
This pruning process carried on until March and by then we could see the sap starting to flow which is the first sign that the vines are waking up.
Of course, in February, like the rest of the country we had visits from Dudley, Eunice and Franklin - the three storms. For this area Eunice brought two red weather warnings and all we could do was sit it out, look after our vineyard dogs and wait. Round the vineyard we are blessed with some lovely old trees and during the storm we saw that a big old oak at the bottom of the western side had come down over some rows of vines. When it was safe to go and have a look we went to assess the damage. The oak was huge with its top branches covering some vines and it was obvious that some of the trellising wires had snapped. Since then we have cut back what branches we could and, unbelievably, not one vine has been damaged! With the rest of the trunk we are going to have it planked to turn into tables and chairs so the big old oak is staying with us!
Now, hands up who, like me, loves this time of year? The longer days, increasing warmth in the sun, different kind of light, the grass more lush and the birds singing heartily. We have an abundance of bird life around the vineyard and it is wonderful to see and hear. Recently we have seen more goldfinches, bullfinches, woodpeckers, nuthatches and wrens. The wrens nest near the house and at either end of the patio we have two weeping cherry trees. All through the day one little wren sits at the top of either of the trees and sings with a volume to match any opera singer!
And the chiffchaffs have returned! I'm not quite sure what this says about me, but I now keep a note of when the chiffchaffs, swallows and housemartins return each year - and fret if they are late - my boys say I just like to worry........
There are definite signs of birdy twitterpation and nest building which is just wonderful. I can't quite explain why the sight of little birds putting on a courtship display or chaffinches gathering cut grass for example give such a feeling of happiness - maybe it is the sign of new beginnings.
Similarly with the trees starting to show their leaves, blossom on the flowering cherries, bluebells starting to appear on the verges, wild flowers like vetch and cuckoo flowers springing up around the field. And the cottage primroses - what little splashes of sunshine they are! The first spring we had here, we discovered that we have a primrose bank which never fails to stop us in our tracks and smile. It is beautiful! No idea if someone in the dim and distant planted them by hand or they are just native and natural but I'm pleased to say they are spreading.
So lots of signs that animals and plants are awakening and thinking about the season ahead - and the vines are the same. Here comes the trepidation!
We can already see, very clearly, the swelling buds on all the vines. As you may remember from an earlier blog, our Solaris vines are the ones most eager to get going, with our Pinot Noir a little bit more tentative and our Seyval Blanc being the teenagers of the crew and needing much more sleep! The Solaris buds are getting very beefy indeed and really don't look far off bud burst! Now you might think we would be dancing round the vineyard in excitement and anticipation at this sight but instead we are starting to look concerned with furrowed brows and pouring over long range weather apps. And why - you may ask. Well it is a fear that the vines will start chucking out lovely fresh shoots and a late frost will come along and attack said fresh young shoots.
This is what happened in 2020 when we thought we were being really clever tying down the vine canes early and watching the shoots aiming high, in some to about 6 inches tall, only to be hit by two frost events (with a night in between) in the middle of May. The first night we were in the vineyard at 3am burning vine prunings placed round the vineyard to hopefully raise the air temperature and keep the frost off the vines. We thought it had worked only to be hit again two nights later. We tried the same burning technique but you could actually see the frost coming down over the vines. If it hadn't been such a sickening feeling, we could have revelled in the beauty of the sun rising and the frost falling. The Solaris shoots, which had been the furthest on, were knocked out completely; the Pinot Noir were hit too but the Seyval woke up saying 'have I missed anything?'!
So what can we do? Well, some vineyards in the UK go down the ("yes sir I can") bougie route for frost protection. For the uninitiated, bougie is a French word for a paraffin wax candle in a metal bucket which are placed strategically throughout vineyards and lit to raise the air temperature during cold nights. However, we took the decision this wouldn't work for us. They are costly, you need a lot, they have a burn time of approximately 8 hours and you need to light them and put them out. Now, realistically there would be 3 of us to start lighting them and 3 of us to put them out - when would we start?
So we have looked at what works best for us.
We are again delaying tying down the canes, in fact we only started last week and we will watch the various weather forecasts and use our 'laundry' fleece again for the most susceptible Solaris and Pinot Noir vines - it definitely seemed to work.
There are so many weather apps out there but our most reliable source is actually someone who visited the vineyard and is a bit of a weather geek (he is based in Milton Keynes but he comes here on holiday and keeps an eye out for what is in the forecast around bud burst and harvest time especially. He's a proper guru - with followers on Twitter and everything!). He thought to contact us last year to warn us about some potentially damaging frost coming in and on the back of that we got the fleece on the vines. That sort of help is invaluable to us and gratefully received - so, budding weather people, please don't hesitate to contact us!
After a long spell of lovely weather the last couple of nights of frost have warned us that we are not out of the woods yet, but looking round the vineyard and worrying as I do, it led me to a question I don't know the answer to - where do bumble bees go at night?
Now we see lots of ladybird colonies sheltering in the bottom of the vine guards and it is lovely to watch them scrambling out to warm up in the sun. But what about the bumble bees? Where do they sleep? If anyone knows the answer to this I'd love to hear it!
So, the vineyard is waking up and we are starting tours again soon - which is always fun. We are also really excited to be launching three new wines this year with the first, a still white Solaris which will be available very soon - so watch this space!
PS We took the vineyard dogs on a weekend away to near Hay-on-Wye (absolutely stunning location!) to celebrate Ryan and Craig's birthdays. Not quite as far as the Isle of Wight but an adventure none the less - especially for Billy who absolutely couldn't work out how to go over, under or through doggy friendly stiles and had to be carried by Ryan! And they say collies are intelligent........ or, actually, maybe he is and he just wanted to be carried!
Till next time! Oh and don't forget - if you know where bumble bees shelter at night drop us a note either by email email@example.com or on our Facebook page I'll put the answer in my next blog!