With the Spring equinox almost upon us, this is a good time to sit back and reflect on the busy winter months in the Oxney Organic vineyard. No hibernation for us: we’ve spent the cold short days outside, often starting and finishing in the dark, getting the vines in pristine condition for the growing season ahead.
As we mentioned in our recent blog on pruning, the work we do over the winter is critical – it underpins the success of the vintage and the wines to come. And being organic means we have to work a little harder than most.
We literally leave no stone unturned in our ceaseless quest for perfectly ripe, perfectly healthy grapes – the essential ingredient of our sparkling and still organic English wines. Winter has been the time for heavy composting and mulching, to lock into the soil all the nutrients the vines will need for the season ahead. Where convenience producers spend their summers targeting nutritional deficiencies in their soils with a cocktail of synthetic fertilizers, we spend our winters restoring our soils to a state of natural balance, in order to avoid these ‘magic bullet’ interventions.
In recent weeks, we’ve spread tonnes of farmyard manure in some fields, as well as planning to scatter chicken pellets and compost under the vines in others. This year we’re mulching all of the prunings from the 2020 harvest directly back into the soils as well. This measure is a valuable one indeed, as it helps to create a ‘closed loop’ system of nutrition in the vineyard.
Over the course of the growing season, a vine takes up large quantities of nutrients from the soil and many of these end up stored in the canes removed during pruning. Multiply this effect by 57,000 vines and suddenly you have tonnes of nutrients leaving the vineyard soil every season. Chipping and mulching those pruned canes back in over the winter is the most efficient way to return them to the soil. As usual, the natural method is the most elegant solution.
Weeding is another spring job we undertake mechanically not chemically. Our German manufactured weeder will be hard at work among the vines, lifting weeds, rotatating and aerating the soil as it goes. This aeration introduces subterranean oxygen essential to the growth of aerobic organisms and the suppression of harmful anaerobic ones. Just as importantly, it removes waste gases arising from the breakdown of all that lovely organic matter.
We allow grass to grow between our vines as it helps to maintain soil structure, locks in nitrogen and stops the vineyard turning into a mudbath. However, winter is the time to get the grass in check. Long grass in spring can be a real problem, as it tends to catch frost, especially at the bottom of a slope.
Frost is the biggest nightmare for most English producers. If it catches your vines after the buds have burst, they freeze and die overnight… and with them can go a large percentage of your harvest – we lost around 70% of our crop to frost in 2017. To guard against this hazard, we employ our team of mowers – a flock of Romney sheep – to munch the grass down to size over winter.
So these are the measures we take to prepare the ground, but there’s plenty to be done to the vines themselves ahead of budburst. Following pruning in Jan/Feb, the remaining canes must be secured to the fruiting wire for the growing season; a job known as tying down. Plus the trellising must be checked and organised – some wires tightened, some replaced, and the fruiting and foliage catch wires positioned at just the right heights.
With all of these early-season jobs carried out, we can approach the equinox ready and relatively relaxed about the growing season ahead. The carefully counted buds on the vines should burst in April, after which we spent the next few weeks nervously checking the weather stations every night for frost warnings. Spring is a wonderful time of year, but until the risk of frost has passed, no fingernail is left unchewed in the viticultural community.
In the meantime, all is well and we’re enjoying the explosion of life returning to the vineyard. It won’t be long before you can join us and see it for yourself – our vineyard tours will be up and running again every Saturday from 17th April. Follow this link to check availability and book your place!