Diary of an English Vineyard


Cold feet and neoprene - 10/02/2011

I never thought I would find neoprene that interesting.

But after nearly six weeks of standing on cold, slimy clay pruning vines: what can I tell you… Neoprene is close to my heart.  Gone are the days when my feet got so cold I ceased to believe they existed. Warm feet and a secure grip on the soil beneath them are both great aids to happiness when faced by long rows of vines, each in need of a good cut back to balance this year’s growth when it comes.

Winter vines show their individuality. Their strengths and weaknesses are laid bare by the absence of leaves and by the relative strength of trunks, last year’s canes, and older wood. Some is tucked up between the foliage wires and some tied down on the fruiting wires – a seemingly mad tangle that is at odds with memories of last summer’s manicured canopies and glowing fruit.

So here we are, slip-sliding on the rain-drummed slime that is Wealden clay, wishing that November’s snow hadn’t hit the grass in the alleyways quite so hard. Grass is so much nicer to stand on than mud.

Most years I end up on my bum in the mud. Luke and Liz , our vineyard assistants, are much better at staying upright but my slips are balletic and the landing generally soft. A squelch and a heave and I’m staring at another un-pruned vine.

We’ve done 2,803 so far, just under a thousand still to go on this site.

(We have another 11,000 vines, planted last year, all of which need to be cut back to just  two buds above the graft, some 9 inches or so above the vineyard floor. But I am bringing in more help for that…it’s just too much toe-touching for Liz, Luke and I alone.)

Vine in front of me, secateurs in hand, fingers still with some feeling left in them…I follow the growth, looking to see the shape of the vine, to avoid any fat but unfruitful “bull canes” , not choosing the weaker spindly canes either…searching for those that are ‘just right”, or as near as I am ever going to get on that particular vine.

It sounds slow, but the rhythm soon quickens – snip, snip, tug, snip – each is shaped so that the balance of leaf and fruit growth is just right for the vine to produce good , ripe fruit… that’s if the sun shines this year. The dead-wood is pulled free and left on the alley floor to be mulched in when we start mowing.

We look for strong fruitful canes to bear this year’s fruit. Two canes per vine:  each cut to keep between 8 and 12 buds depending on that vine’s vigour and a further two spurs (canes cut to two buds each) to provide wood for next year’s fruit. At the same time we try to correct any mistakes in last year’s pruning.

Vine-heads too high above the fruiting wire, canes that have developed on extended arms of old wood, strong growth one side and nothing the other, these are the things that prove nature’s independent spirit and challenge the pruner.

On these cold days, the next best thing to being inside by the fire is the quiet, deep satisfaction, the glow when last year’s pruning achieves just what was wanted and cane and spur selection this time round are both easy and optimal.

We get the glow…just not all the time. Vines are like that. Encouragement is always nice when hands and face are iced and it seems that the vine rows grow as fast as you work.

These vines are five years old, just coming into full fruitfulness. We’re aiming to grow the crop by a quarter – a significant amount – so attention to pruning now is the key to the crop.

Pruning is nearly finished, another few days and we are done.

The vineyard is now full of vines standing with their canes rising upwards as they grew, so once the pruning stops, tying down starts.  Each cane is carefully bent to the fruiting wire and tied on to it with very fine wire so that the fruiting wire takes the weight of the fruit and doesn’t strain the trunks.

Mindless, repetitive work on a bright February day with the promise of the growing season just starting to come, the sap is rising (a little earlier than last year we think) and the feet are fine.

No wonder neoprene matters.