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All Angels FrostWatch

All Angels FrostWatch

BBC has Springwatch and Autumnwatch – All Angels has Frostwatch.  Which is far less exciting but you do see an awlful lot of wildlife, especially deer.  The “best” I had was almost being taken out twice in one 5 minute drive to one of the vineyards – first time by a herd of Fallow and second time by a young Roe that clearly hadn’t yet studied the Green Cross Code (or whatever it is nowadays).   Fortunately, I’ve a pretty good idea where they are likely to be.  Another time I was lighting a burner and something caught my eye: I looked up to be almost nose to nose with a very inquisitive Muntjac that clearly wondered what I was doing in “its” vineyard.  Rabbit are out and about more now though I seem only to see them around 3am.  Dawn is usually accompanied by the geese starting to move and I always stop and stare in wonderment as the skeens of different species fly low overheard calling out to each other.   Sad to say that I think the five gosling our regular geese gave birth to have been taken by fox, badger or heron – nature’s way, I guess.

I’m not easily scared by the dark as I’ve spent a lot of time in the past out at night in the countryside fishing for sea-trout and the like and I’m quite comfortable wandering past the churchyard at St.Michael’s but I almost jumped out of my skin one night as I walked into one of the vineyards about 2-30am and saw a wraith-like figure moving slowly in my direction.  My mind raced and options churned but then a reassuring voice shouted out “Allo!”.  It was Tony – Tony is an absolutely star around the vineyards: can fix anything, is more practical than anyone else I know and has an uncanny knack of being able to source materials when noone else can.  So, Tony hadn’t been able to sleep and had decided to check up on the vineyard but so as not to disturb he’d parked his car on the road and hopped over a fence ---

I learnt may years ago from woodland deer stalking that the coldest part of a night is just after dawn – it sounds strange doesn’t it that it should get colder just as the sun rises but it does, it really is the “cold light of day” – and I empathise with the pheasant fluffed up like big feather balls, grumpily not moving as they conserve their energy and heat.  It makes me laugh as they move towards the frost candles we’ve lit to soak up the warmth before we put them out.

The 2021 frosts in France have been well publicised – the worst since 1947, Burgundy has been hammered again as has Chablis: losses are estimated at €2 billion and I believe France has declared a state of agricultural emergency.  Photogrpahs of their vineyards show vast areas lit up like cities by bougies but to little avail.    

The global warming (or climate chaos as I think it is better described) that has increased temperatures in England by the 1C necessary to produce outstanding sparkling wines has also led to later frosts that tie in with bud-burst.  Protecting the vines at this time is critical: to explain why, it is only necessary to look at the stats (when we were much smaller) for the number of bottles we produced from the 2017 harvest when we had severe air frosts – just 3200 bottles – and from the 2018 harvest when we didn’t have bad frosts – 23,400 bottles, from the same number of vines.  Unlike a number of wine producers, we only produce wine from our grapes – provenance is key for us as is absolute certainty about the viticulture pactices that have gone into producing the grapes: our mantra is quality first over volume.  But it means if we suffer losses from frost, we won’t do as some producers do and buy in grapes grown elsewhere for our wines.

Unfortunately, even though we may know by mid-May if the frosts have ruined the harvest for the year that doesn’t mean we can pack up and call it a day for the season: just as much time and effort has to go into nurturing the vines for the rest of the year as if they had not been affected.  It takes real motivation to work the hours and put in as much effort when you know there is no hope of a bumper harvest for that season, but if we don’t future years will be adversely affected.

In the past we have used what are called Frostguards each of which is meant to provide protection for 0.7ha (last year we got 0.1ha protection out of each given the severity of the frosts).  They are expensive to buy and to run (each takes 4 x 47kg propane tanks and that will last for 2 frost incidents).  We’ve “gone large” this year and now have: Frostguards;  bougies (12 hr candles that have to be lit – let me know if you have insomnia and want a job…); a tow and blow fan (which will cover one vineyard but no use if it is an air frost); and 40 x frost ovens that run off wood pellets, are more environmentally friendly than bougies and cover a greater area but are untested in vineyards.  Our wine is called All Angels as we are next door to the parish church of St. Michael and All Angels: I’ve often thought maybe the best protection would  be to spend the night in the church, praying…

So, how have we got on?  Well, it’s early days so I don’t want to say too much but – as I write this on 12 May, I’ve had now had 8 nights off since the beginning of April: we’ve had more frosts than in the last 60 years and only 9% of the rainfall we normally get in April.  It’s tough going and we are by no means out of the woods yet.  I get telephone alarms when the temperature drops to 1.5C and from then on I’m up all night working out the order of firing everything up according to that night’s temperature pattern, receiving updates on temperatures around the vineyards every 5 minutes and then lighting the bougies and / or ovens, firing up the Frostguards and the frost fan. 

We don’t want to use up supplies so we need to be very strategic in choosing what to use and when.  Some vineyards were already calling out for new bougies after the first few frosts and the price for one candle was reported to have gone up from c. £8-50 to £25-00 – to give you an idea, 400 candles are needed to protect 1 ha against a -4C frost.  The ovens have proved problematic, some bursting into flames, others producing just smoke like a distressed battleship but we are working with the developer to get them working – the big problem is that once you fire them up, you can’t stop them till the pellets have burnt out so if the frost is starting at 5am, lighting one of them with 15kg of pellets will mean it will run till 9am whereas it may only be needed for 2 hrs so lighting a bougie that is easy to put out makes more sense – except you may run out of bougies and wood pellets are easier to get than bougies …  The frost fan was delivered damaged and won’t be repaired till after the frosts so that aint helpful either. 

So we fire all the stuff up and wait till the temperatures are well above zero in the morning then we rush round and stop them all.  Then, remove the burnt out bougies, assess how long partly used bougies will last and replace if necessary, replace propane tanks (a 47kg tank weighs 94kg by the way), clean out the ash from the ovens and replace fire-lighters and wood pellets and refuel anything else that is needed; review the vines and assess damage and bud-burst development to see if the protection needs to be moved around / topped up in areas.  By then, on a good day it’s about 5pm and time to grab a shower (I smell like a steam-train fire-stoker most of the day), some food and then hit the sack by 8pm latest, ready for the alarm calls that will start at any time from 11pm to 2am.

For those of you who don’t know me, I used to be a partner in a US law firm: I think I’ve done more consecutive all-nighters this April than I ever did in my previous life – and it’s a lot colder and more physical.  I’ll report back on how we’ve got on at the end of May.

Let me know if you’d like to see what it’s like fighting frosts in the vineyard – happy to accommodate and we won’t even charge for the experience …