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Vinegrowing Course Day 1

Posted on 2018/12/08 23:10:00 (December 2018).

[Monday 19th November 2018]
Today was the first day of the vinegrowing course, ran by Plumpton College, which I had enrolled on. The course runs over the growing year, roughly one day each month. I'd been inspired to learn a bit more about the subject by my forays down to the South Downs this year - particularly the tasting and harvest at Breaky Bottom - and to some extent by the simple pleasure of watching my own three vines grow in my back garden this year. Having had a go at winemaking with my grapes, an endeavour which looks to have been distinctly unsuccessful, I realised it was much more the viticulture side of things I was keen on. Winemaking seemed to be at least 50% cleaning!

I've also added to my long held daydream of having a house in the countryside some day the idea of having a patch of land I could turn into a little vineyard - not on a commercial scale (there's that old joke the course leader today repeated - "What's the best way to make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and buy a vineyard."), just enough to make a few bottles of wine a year for myself and maybe to share with friends and family. In addition to the orchard for cider production along similar lines. So anyway with that in mind I thought it might be good to get some training on how to manage a vineyard.

The course was held in Scaynes Hill, just outside of Haywards Heath, where Plumpton College has their Rock Lodge vineyard. There was a theory session in the morning, in the function room of the pub in Scaynes Hill, followed by a practical session out in the vineyard after lunch.

It was a 9:15 am start, and given that the pub was a three mile walk from the station, it meant rather an early start for me! Fortunately the trains were relatively convenient, and I was able to go from Kentish Town, with just one change en route. I made good use of my time on the train to read much of the first chapter of Stephen Skelton's Wine Growing in Great Britain, one of the recommended texts for the course, and today's topics tied in well with that material.

The first session focused mainly on vineyard site selection, a fascinating complex field of study in itself. It was interesting to hear myths about the importance of soil type mostly debunked - both by Skelton's book and the lecturer - just about any soil type can be made to work for vinegrowing with the right preliminary work to address drainage and mineral composition, and with the possible exception of nitrogen (which is absorbed by the grapes and has some effect on fermentation), no other mineral present in soil has been scientifically proven to actually change the chemical composition or flavour of the grapes. Any talk of flinty, mineral qualities in some wines having been somehow imparted by the particular type of soil the vines were grown in is very likely bogus. Similarly the Champagne region's talk of the importance of chalky soils (which has spilled over to some English Sparkling Wine producers, particularly in the similar soils of the South Downs) is likely overblown. The only real benefit of chalk soil relates to water - it tends to drain reasonably well, and retain pockets of water deep down which the roots of the vine can access in drought conditions. Hardly a problem most years in England (although perhaps that was of some benefit this year). However in non-chalk soils these benefits are easily compensated for with other measures.

Another thing I found quite surprising was that the growing cycles of vines actually span more than a single year - buds formed in the early summer of one year will go on to produce new growth in the summer of the following year. Bad weather in early summer can be detrimental not just to that year's harvest, but to the next year's - so the bumper crop from the summer of 2018 in England actually had its beginnings in the presumably good conditions of early summer 2017. We had an exercise towards the end of the morning where we had a table with crop outcomes we had to predict based on weather conditions at various times of the year (see here) - it was surprisingly difficult!

The group was quite an interesting mix of people - from people who had a purely amateur interest like me, to people who owned land and were on the brink of planting vines, to people who had already done so, but felt they wanted a bit more training on vine management. Also the winebuyer from Waitrose responsible for English wines was there.

After lunch we had the "practical" session, although I got the impression the lecturers we had today had been shuffled about a bit, and whilst the morning session was quite structured, the afternoon was a bit more ad hoc, with mostly just a wander round the vineyards and some questions and answers. We did at least have an exercise to complete, where we had to make an assessment of the site in terms of suitability for vinegrowing (obviously in the knowledge it was unlikely to be poorly rated overall!)... but it was interesting to see even within one site there were variations in terms of shelter, drainage, protection from pests and so on.

The afternoon session was due to go on until 4:15, but finished slightly before 4 in the end, as the lecturer seemed to have ran out of things to say a bit (and wanted to get back to college for a meeting). I don't think any of us minded particularly though, as it was a bit damp and cold and had felt like quite a long day with the very early start - so I was keen to get on with my journey back to London. One of the other attendees on the course kindly gave me a lift back to Haywards Heath station, which I very much appreciated given it was cold, wet, and getting dark by this point, and I managed to make it home just before 6pm.

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