Now for an update on our vineyard, namely the 50 Chasselas vines that we (i.e. Jenny and I) planted in our front garden during the height of the first Covid lockdown in April 2020. (If I’m honest, it still feels a bit weird to be calling it a ‘vineyard’, given that the plot of vines is so tiny.)
Our vines have been in the ground for over 33 months, or three growing seasons, the last two of which have been a particularly sharp learning curve – 2021 and 2022 could not have been more different. The former was wet and cool, the latter hot and dry. Disease pressure was a problem in summer 2021. Chasselas is certainly known to be vulnerable to mildew, but the issues I had were mostly home-made. Once the shoots had reached a cuttable height above the trellis, I thought it would be a good idea to wrap them around the highest catch wires and let them continue growing. This approach, known as tressage (or braiding), means that the tips of the shoots are retained. The theory is that cutting off the tops of the shoots otherwise stresses the vines into producing a surplus of lateral shoots that will eventually crowd out the leaf canopy. And a crowded canopy means a greater chance of disease. The grape clusters also tend to be more compact as a result, which increases the risk of botrytis, or bunch rot. However, the only effect of tressage that I could ascertain was that the top area of the trellis simply became a mildew-prone, mildew-infested jungle. This was downy mildew (Peronospora), I should add; powdery mildew has been non-existent in our plot since we planted.
Magnesium deficiency was another symptom of letting the vegetative growth of these young vines continue unchecked. This manifested itself on the vine leaves, which turned increasingly yellow. This, in turn, left the vegetation even more prone to downy. In short, the vines looked a mess and were already shedding leaves by the end of September 2021. I picked up all the infected vine leaves that dropped that autumn. From all 50 vines.
I already knew that the soil in our front garden was exceedingly well drained. Any rain, however hard and prolonged, seeps down very quickly. Almost too quickly. Leaving the area directly under the vines clear of grass and other plants only exacerbated this effect. Concluding that the cumulative deluge of summer 2021 had probably leached the soil of nutrients including magnesium, I decided to fill in the gaps permanently with a mixture of wild flowers and grasses. There were various motives for doing this. From the most basic perspective, a more diverse array of green cover underneath the vines – supplementing my grass-and-clover cover between the rows – helps to retain soil moisture and aerate the soil. Extensive root systems and their vast subterranean kingdom of mycorrhizal fungi are difficult to fathom or comprehend but a boon for soil life and soil nutrition, based on what I have already seen with my own eyes. Deeper-rooting plants like yarrow and the nitrogen-fixer sainfoin were also included in the seed mixture. I additionally sowed a little dandelion separately underneath the rows. The aim was that these would give the vines some competition and help to temper their vigour. Just as importantly, a greater diversity of plants should attract a greater diversity of insects and birds, which in turn have the self-regulating effect of keeping potential pests (like leaf-munching caterpillars) at bay.
At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that the vines are divided into two distinct locations: 47 are situated in the main front-garden plot, while three grow along a narrow strip bordering our front drive nearer the road. We call this triumvirate ‘The Random Three’. Originally, the plan was to have all 50 vines in one plot, but we simply ran out of space. The Random Three lead a charmed life. Planted in quite fertile soil outside the main plot, they are each being trained up a single stake and are spaced one metre apart in a row instead of the intra-row spacing of 80 cm that applies to all the other vines. I have chosen to spur-prune The Random Three as bush vines, albeit with the aforementioned stake used to train the vegetation upwards and tie the shoots together with string. This gobelet sur échalas style persists in places like the Northern Rhône and – surprise, surprise – the shores of Lake Geneva, the purported birthplace of Chasselas. One of The Random Three, the nearest one to our house, is already living its best life and looks more than capable of supporting a whopping six two-bud spurs, or 12 primary shoots, from 2023 onwards. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure I get from shaping the vine’s architecture through spur pruning, the advantage of training a vine in this way is that the grapes receive almost 360-degree exposure to direct or indirect light. The only fly in the ointment is the proximity of one of our neighbours’ conifers. The people next door have kindly pruned all four of their adjacent conifers within the last couple of years, I hasten to add. Be that as it may, I would ban all conifers if I ruled the world.
By spring 2022, it was clear that the other 47 vines were growing up at markedly different speeds. About a dozen needed pruning back to two potential buds due to weak growth in the previous year. With the others, I generally took the two canes that had grown the previous year and cut both of these down to two, three or, in a few isolated cases, four potential buds respectively. What was generally left was a V shape of two spurs. The aim during the 2022 season was to have both spurs each producing a potential cane and spur for the next year respectively.
This approach was down to circumstance rather than design. With a fruiting wire only 40 cm above the ground, it dawned on me in 2021 that a single vine trunk would have to be exceedingly short and stumpy if I were to train the vines with replacement canes every year according to the Guyot method while having a spur branch out on either side of the trunk no less than 15 to 20 cm under the wire (see illustration near the end of this blog post). Starting with a V shape would allow me to use the space more efficiently. It would also set in motion the sideways branching that occurs when you practise a gentler form of pruning to protect sap flow in the vine.
In practice, a few would-be spurs for 2023 failed to materialise. Acrotony, whereby the uppermost fruiting buds on one-year-old wood develop first, was particularly evident in 2022. Only the top bud developed into a new shoot in one or two cases, with no growth further down. Most of the potential three-bud spurs produced only two buds. The third one at the bottom failed to emerge or only produced a little stubbly twig. Consequently, I was unable to obtain some of my desired spur positions for 2023. This is no big drama as such, but it will necessitate some creative choices come pruning this March.
Due to the tressage-induced mildew debacle of 2021, my aim for the 2022 growing season was to remove all laterals (side shoots) until the primary shoots started approaching the top wires. I had no wish to give Peronospora even a sniff. Secondly, I was going to cut off the tops of the shoots once they started overhanging the rows. The tressage experiment in year 2 was worth it for experience sake but not something I was going to repeat. Thirdly, I wanted to preclude any magnesium deficiency by applying magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) as a foliar spray at least until fruit set. This purely organic, non-chemical treatment would replenish any magnesium shortage during the energy-intensive early growth phase in May and June. Ideally, the diverse ground cover will naturally balance out the soil in the long term. We also have a composter (note to self: I need to start filling it at some point). But Epsom will do for now as a preventive measure.
In the event, the record-breaking hot, dry summer of 2022 did my work for me. After a spring without any problematic frosts, vegetative growth almost ground to a halt by the end of the July anyway. The vines were conserving energy amid soaring temperatures. Out of the 47 vines in the main plot, less than half managed to reach the top wire. I had already stopped with the Epsom salts well before July but continued applying other natural spays every so often: nettle, chamomile, dandelion and yarrow – just for basic nutrition and not for any other reason, because there was no disease pressure whatsoever, nor any major symptoms of magnesium deficiency for that matter.
I’d be lying if I said that drought wasn’t a concern. After all, the vines still have relatively shallow root systems. The 2022 vintage was also the first year to produce a crop. Admittedly, it was a tiny crop of only around 70 very small, loosely clustered bunches of Chasselas. Yet the vines coped admirably. I daresay the shutdown in growth helped them to ripen the fruit even more efficiently. While most of the vegetation at ground level turned yellow, the vines remained an oasis of green throughout the summer. If they can withstand such a broiling hot summer, this augurs well for the future. I suspect they will continue to adapt to circumstances and find their own balance in time amid the yarrow, the dandelions, the ryegrass, the wispy grass, the sainfoin, the clover, etc.
I picked my first-ever crop on 4 October 2022 – a small harvest that fitted into two large salad bowls. Half of the grapes I destemmed by hand, the other half I left as whole bunches. Into a five-litre plastic fermentation bucket they all went, filling barely half of the container. After leaving the bucket outdoors for the first night (a very chilly night), I decided to bring the harvest back inside. This was a good idea, as wild-yeast fermentation kicked in shortly after. Since then, the bucket has been ensconced in our front room and the juice has continued to ferment on the skins. I began pressing the grapes properly by hand shortly before Christmas. This process will continue for a while yet. At some stage, I will need to think about filtering the currently brown-coloured juice from the equally brown detritus of skins, stems and pips. A muslin cloth may come in useful. In the meantime, the inside of the fermentation bucket certainly smells much better than it looks. The alcoholic whiff is heady and fills the entire room whenever I open the lid. There has been no bacterial spoilage so far, as far as I can tell. Without getting too technical, the skins and stems in particular help to protect and preserve the juice from oxidation while conditioning the wine for a longer life. Whether I eventually manage to produce a couple of bottles of skin-contact ‘orange wine’ from the 2022 vintage remains to be seen.
Circumstances dictate this ad hoc approach. Maybe I will reduce the amount of skin contact in future when the crops increase in size and I upsize my ‘winemaking’ facilities and equipment into something more bespoke.
I love pruning the vines. I love the time and thought that goes into creating and maintaining their shape. This spring should see me laying down one or two shoots per vine as canes for the 2023 growing season. With a total of four primary shoots already growing from the left-hand and right-hand spurs, I will leave either four shoots to grow from a single cane (‘single Guyot’) or two shoots from each of two canes (‘double Guyot’). Either way, it will leave me with a maximum of eight shoots per vine. However, some vines aren’t quite ready for that yet. In particular, there are about three or four vines that need pruning back to two potential buds again. I suspect one of them is suffering from faulty grafting, whereby the graft connecting the European Vitis vinifera cultivar (Chasselas) with the North American phylloxera-resistant rootstock (SO4) is of poor quality. This is a problem that will have originated at the vine nursery, not in our garden. I may have to replace the vine in question next year.
Another question in my mind is how vigorous the vines really are. Growth was fast and prolific in 2021 with hundreds of litres of rain and an absence of under-vine ground cover. It was slow and meagre in 2022 amid the competition of ground cover coupled with a hot, dry growing season. I think the truth will eventually lie somewhere in between these two extremes once the vines have more years under their belt in their new surroundings. This is why I am favouring cane pruning over spur pruning for the time being, as the former affords me greater flexibility in terms of the number of potential shoots I wish to leave on each vine. Once you have permanent spur positions, it is very hard to revert to cane pruning without mutilating the vine, which is the last thing I want. Having said this, I can well imagine moving to permanent cordons with two spur positions on either side of the vine in the fullness of time. When this method works, it works really well. It usually involves pruning wood no older than two years old, whereas cane pruning can entail cutting three-year-old wood. The older the wood, the more significant the pruning wound. This is why world’s oldest vines tend to be spur-pruned.
Anyway, roll on 2023.