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 general 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.