Thursday, 16 December 2010

Inaugural UK Organic Vineyards Meeting

The first meeting of UK organic and biodynamic vineyards was held at Laverstoke Park Farm, near Basingstoke today.

Speakers included Ben Raskin from the Soil Association, Will Davenport from Davenport Vineyards, Vinodh Krishnamurthy from Laverstoke Park and Jane Awty from the UKVA sustainability group. Representatives from nine vineyards, as well as the Soil Association and WineSkills attended the meeting.

The main topic of the day was spray programmes for organic vineyards and much debate took place about the use of sulphur, copper, seranade, compost teas and other treatments used for disease control.

It was agreed that a second meeting should take place next year towards the end of June with a focus on Biodynamics and the practical issues associated with using compost teas.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Mycorrhizal Fungi still appear to be working well

Mycorrhizal Fungi

When we planted the vines we dipped the roots in a product called Rootgrow, which is a mycorrhizal fungi from a company called PlantWorks. Mycorrhizal fungi normally occurs naturally in soil. It breaks down organic matter releasing nutrients particularly phosphates and can significantly increase root capacity. Unfortunately herbicides and modern farming techniques have significantly reduced the naturally occurring fungi. The idea with Rootgrow is to give new plant roots a kick start.

Last year we measured weight of the prunings from 100 vines that had been treated compared to 100 untreated vines for each variety which indicated that the product had resulted in nearly 10% additional growth. This year the results were similar overall but showed a significant variation between varieties:

Pinot Meunier  33% increase
Pinot Noir        11% decrease
Chardonnay     16% increase

The results for the Pinot Noir are probably misleading as most of the untreated block were very weak and therefore had to be pruned quite hard which artificially increased the weight of the prunings from the untreated vines.

Next years results should be more definitive. We will also try and measure the comparative quantity of fruit from the vines.

Never Mind the Weather

Nick Seymour and Alex with the Weather Station

We are now proud owners of a weather station which was delivered and installed at the vineyard yesterday by Nick Seymour.

The weather is of course a major factor in our ability to produce quality fruit. By building up weather patterns over a period of time it will help us to predict, and therefore manage, the risks of pests and disease. It will also allow us to understand how the timing of flowering, berry setting and ripening effects the quality of the grapes.

The data that is collected includes temperature (ground and air), relative humidity, wind speed and solar radiation. It is updated on the web every 30 minutes so we can see from the comfort of our homes exactly what the weather is doing at any given time. The station can also send text messages to warn us of falling temperatures and the risk of frost. When this happens we'll have to get up in the middle of the night and put in place frost protection measures, which will probably include lighting bougies (oil lamps) and driving the tractor up and down the rows with a frostbuster which is like a giant warm air convection heater!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Albury Vineyard features on BBC Radio Surrey

Much to my suprise I was contacted by BBC Radio Surrey last week who were keen to interview me about the vineyard. Having overcome my nerves, my vanity got the better of me and I agreed to be interviewed on a programme called "Dig It", BBC Surrey's anwer to Gardeners' Question Time.

For those of you who are desperate to hear the interview you can get to it by clicking on the following link. It's about 35 mins from the start and only lasts for about 5 minutes.

No major cock-ups but I think that I was right not to pursue a career as a radio presenter!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Preparing the Vineyard for Winter

Autumn Frost in the Vineyard

The first frosts have already arrived and we are now preparing the vineyard for winter.

November is normally a quiet time on the vineyard as the main job in the winter is pruning, which doesn't start until December or January when the leaves have all fallen and the wood has ripened.

Having said that, Alex has been busy sowing grass seed between the rows of the newly planted vines and she is now tackling the weeds that have beaten the mulch. Chickory is a real problem some of which has survived from a ground cover the year before the vines were planted (please note JB!!). Unfortunately the woodchip we used this year was too fine and is not as good as the batch we used on the first block which is still working well.  On top of that the pheasant seem to enjoy spreading the woodchip about the place which has left the mulch very sparse on some rows. We will probably have to spread another 800 cubic metres of woodchip next Spring to win the battle of the weeds next year.

David Seyall with the grass seeder

In the next few weeks we are expecting delivery of a weather station which will monitor temperature, relative humidity, radiation and rainfall all of which will be viewable on an internet site. One of it's primary purposes will be to give us early warning of a frost in April/May after bud burst. Threshold values for temperature can be set which when triggered send a text message to a mobile phone - probably in the middle of the night!

Other tasks this winter will be to replace broken bamboo canes, complete the trellising and assess how many vines we will need to order to replace any that have died. Most importantly we also need to complete our strategy for minimising the risk of frost damage next Spring.

Pheasant in the Vineyard

In spite of there being nearly 2000 pheasant living at the top of our vineyard they haven't caused too much trouble this year.

The deer fencing keeps most of them out of the vineyard as they don't fly unless they are frightened. However those that do get in are too stupid to fly out and tend to walk up and down the fence boundary trying to find an exit. Steve, the local gamekeeper chases them out now and again with his dog, and when its dry we round them up using the Landrover. The shooting season is now well underway so we won't see much more of them soon!

The only damage this year has been to some of the newly planted vines at the top of the vineyard where they have eaten most of the green foliage. They also seem to enjoy scrabbling around in the woodchip mulch which has caused quite a mess in places.

Next year we will hopefully get our first harvest and I have heard stories of pheasant eating the grapes. We will probably have to net some of the rows next summer to protect the grapes from the pheasant and other birds.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Vineyard in Autumn

The growing season is pretty well at an end and we are now busy getting the vineyard in good shape for the winter. At this time next year we will hopefully be preparing for our first harvest (volunteers welcome!) but there is no fruit this year as vines don't produce any real fruit until their 3rd year. What fruit there was has either been eaten by the birds or cut off so that the available carbohydrates have been used for growth of the canes and the root system. Next year we hope to get around 40% of the total possible yield from the first 5 acres of vines which could be as much as 6 tonnes.

The vines we planted last year have recovered well from the severe frost in May. The woodchip has worked well as a mulch and there are very few weeds. The grass between the rows will need cutting before the winter. The newly planted vineyard is being cleared of weeds and will be seeded with grass between the rows next week. The whole vineyard has been given a final spray of compost tea and various nutrients will be added in November to try to address Boron, Magnesium and Iron deficiencies.

Over the winter the main job will be to prune the vines. This will probably start in January and be completed during February and March. The new vines planted this May are doing quite well but because of the dry summer haven't grown as much as we would have liked. This will mean that they will pruned to just two buds to encourage root growth and a strong new cane next year.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Weeds are Back!

In May we planted around 13,000 new vines. The dry summer meant that they haven't grown as much as we might have hoped, but there has been some catching up as a result of the much needed rain during the last couple of weeks.

The rain has also resulted in copious amounts of weeds and rape returning to the vineyard. The initial 5 acres we planted last year are substantially weed free thanks to the woodchip mulch and the grass between the rows. However we haven't grassed the new blocks yet and we need to get rid of the weeds before seeding the grass. To solve this problem we have borrowed a stone burier which not only buries stones but shreds and buries the weeds. The task should be finished by Alex this week with the help of Mihaela and her team who are doing some back breaking work pulling out the remaining weeds from the woodchip.

If the weather is ok we will seed the grass between the rows next week.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Science of Viticulture

Peter Hayes lecturing at Brightwell Vineyard, Wallingford

On Monday I attended a Wine Skills Masterclass given by Peter Hayes. Peter is an expert in grape growing and vineyard management having spent more than 30 years in the Australian wine industry, including Director of Viticulture at Rosemount Estates.

We spent the day learning about numerous vine management techniques including canopy configuration, pruning influences, nutritional treatments and pest management; all with the aim of balancing vine development, crop load, quality and longevity.

Of particular note for our vineyard were various ways of reducing the risk of frost damage, including keeping an extra vertical cane until after the risk of frost damage and late pruning which can delay bud burst.

The more I learn about viticulture the less I realise I know!

PS The following is a link to an excellent paper titled "Practical Considerations for Reducing Frost Damage in Vineyards"

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Vineyard Agronomy

Chardonnay with Iron deficiency

Pinot Noir with Magnesium deficiency

It is essential to analyse the soil and vine tissue to understand the availability of nutrients in the soil. Even though we are organic, and never use herbicides or pesticides, it is sometimes necessary to apply nutrients to the soil and the vines to address any significant deficiencies.

Agronomy is the application of various soil and plant sciences to soil management and crop production. To advise us on such matters we employ the services of John Buchan, an excellent agronomist who specialises in organic viticulture.

John has just analysed the results of some recent soil and tissue samples and it seems that generally the overall results are encouraging. Whilst pH levels, at around 7.8, are still high, they are slightly lower than when we first analysed the soil. pH is a measure of the acidity of the soil and is important as a high pH can "lock up" nutrients restricting their availability to the vines. 

It's important to recognise that plant nutrition is a balancing act, as over application of any single nutrient can cause antagonism with other nutrients. Our priorities for this autumn and next spring will be improve the levels of Magnesium, Manganese and Iron, which are still very low.

As can be seen on the examples above, the leaves on some of the vines are already showing signs of these deficiencies.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

ITV arrive at the Vineyard

ITV filming at the Silent Pool

Earlier this week an ITV film crew arrived at the vineyard but sadly only to use it as a car park! They were there to film a new drama series called The Oakes which will appear on our screens early next year. The plot involves a girl who drowns in a lake. The Silent Pool is a local beauty spot adjacent to the vineyard where they filmed the drowning.

Filming started at 8.00am and didn't finish until late into the evening, which I'm told will result in only 10 minutes screen time. It's apparently a low budget film but there were at least 25 cars parked in the vineyard, a huge amount of technical equipment and excellent catering to keep everyone well fed!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Powdery Mildew Flag Shoots

A flag shoot infected with Powdery Mildew

Powdery Mildew is one of the most widespread fungal diseases of grapevines in the world. It is characterised by ash-grey to white powdery growth on green tissue of the vine. If uncontrolled it can cause serious crop losses and impair wine quality. One spore of Powdery Mildew can multiply to 50 million spores in just 3 weeks!

Dormant buds can be infected and survive over winter. When these buds shoot they are deformed and covered with the powdery mildew spores. These shoots need to be removed and destroyed. We have come across several shoots this year but hopefully it isn't widespread.

Sulphur and Copper are traditionally used to control mildews on the vineyard. We are trying to avoid these treatments by using compost teas which populate the vines with friendly bacteria and fungi.

Friday, 2 July 2010

English bubbly beats Champagne in IWC trophy

Camel Valley in Cornwall have won a prestigious IWC trophy for best in class in the Sparkling Rose category, beating off 450 other entries including many champagne houses.

This is great news for English bubbly. Hopefully Albury Organic Vineyard will win an award soon after our first vintage becomes available in 2014!

For the full article in the Daily Telegraph follow the following link:

Daily Telegraph Camel Valley Article

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Vineyard in Summer

Now that summer has arrived the vineyard is looking a real picture. The vines are recovering from the severe frost in May and the whole area is covered with poppies. Whilst pretty, the poppies will have to be cut soon before they seed and invade the woodchip mulch.

It looks like the cold winter and May frost will have killed around 150 vines. Nearly 100 are Pinot Meunier which have already been replaced. During the last couple of weeks we have been taking off the lower shoots that are not needed and bud rubbing to stop unwanted shoots from forming. We have also been tying up the shoots we want to keep so that they aren't mutilated by the tractor!

More spraying of compost teas this week in the hope that they will suppress mildew which we have already detected under the microscope.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Battling Weeds with Fungi and Woodchip

Weeds are one of the biggest challenges for an organic vineyard. Without the use of herbicides weeds can quickly take over and compete with the vines, which is especially bad news for new vines trying to get established.

Agricultural soils which have been ploughed for many years often end up being dominated by bacteria rather than fungi. There is a correlation between plants and their preference for soils that are dominated by bacteria versus those that are fungal dominated or neutral. Since the path from bacterial to fungal domination in soils follows the general course of plant succession (see earlier blog on the Soil Food Web), it is possible to predict what type of soil particular plants prefer. In general, perennials, trees, and shrubs prefer fungal dominated soils, while grasses and weeds prefer soils dominated by bacteria. Vines generally do best in soils that have an F:B (fungal/bacteria) ratio of between 2:1 and 5:1.

At the moment the vineyard is heavily dominated by bacteria which means that weeds will quickly dominate if nothing is done to control them. Longer term the fungal content of the land will naturally increase and we will try and help this process by using compost teas with a high fungal content. In the short term however we are just about winning the battle by using huge amounts of woodchip as a mulch and have just finished spreading over 1000 m3 of the stuff on the 12,600 newly planted vines.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Couch Grass - an Organic Nightmare

The dreaded couch grass has appeared on the perimeter of the vineyard. Couch grass is a noxious weed whose spiked flowers somewhat resemble an ear of wheat in structure. It is a perennial grass and the rhizome spreads rapidly in all directions in light soil, sending up leafy stems from the nodes.

Couch can be a nightmare for organic growers as we can't use herbicides and the only real way of removing it is a lot of hard work on your hands and knees pulling out the roots.

Fortunately it's not too bad at the moment and Alex has been able to pull out most of it. Fingers crossed it won't spread into the vineyard.

Frost attacks the Vineyard

For the second night running the vineyard has suffered a fairly severe frost causing damage to buds and leaves on the vines. Were not sure how much damage has been done but it will become apparent during the next few days as leaves will appear burnt and buds will shrivel and fall off where the frost has attacked them.

New shoots will appear in a few weeks time but they won't be as vigerous or fruitful as the first ones. This doesn't matter too much this year but next year (our first cropping year) it could significantly reduce yield and leave less time for the fruit to ripen.

Severe frost this late in the year is unusual in Surrey but we will have to make sure that from next year onwards we are well prepared to minimise any damage. This may involve using bougies (french for candle - a sort of oil lamp) which are placed in the rows every 12 metres. By my calculation we would need over 3000! Alternatively there are machines called frostbusters but they are expensive. Spraying the vines with water in the early hours so that a protective layer of ice forms around the buds can also be effective but it requires an enormous volume of water and is therefore not very environmentally friendly.

So that we know how low the temperature is getting we will be installing a simple weather centre with a mobile phone connection which will send a warning alarm to me and Alex when the temperature is getting too low. This will inevitably mean a few early mornings in years to come as we will have to be up at about 3.00am to light the bougies or spray the fines!

Experiments are taking place with electrical and microwave heaters which we will investigate further.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

No time to vote - 12,600 more Vines Planted!

Oblivious to the election results, we were up at 5am yesterday morning to complete the planting of the vineyard. Thanks to Volker Scheu and his satellite guided planting machine, we managed to finish the planting of another 12,600 vines on about 7.5 acres in little more than 24 hours.

The new vines are mainly the traditional champagne varieties including:

   Varietal                     Rootstock     No.
   Pinot Meunier 865      41B             1,250
   Pinot Meunier 925      41B             1,250
   Pinot Noir 115            Fercal         1,100
   Pinot Noir 459            Fercal         1,100
   Pinot Noir 870            Fercal         1,100
   Pinot Noir 872            41B            1,100
   Chardonnay 95           Fercal         1,450
   Chardonnay 124         41B            1,450
   Chardonnay 277         41B            1,450
   Syval Blanc                SO4           1,175

We've also planted 175 Pinot Gris as a bit of an experiment.

Before planting, the roots of the vines were soaked in compost tea and then dipped in a solution of mycorrhizal fungi which breaks down organic matter releasing nutrients (particularly phosphates) and can also significantly increases root capacity.

The planting nearly didn't happen as Volker's machine got a puncture on the way to the vineyard. However, thanks to Philip and Gary, we were able to replace the wheel with one from Gary's tractor which allowed us to complete the planting while a new tyre was being sourced and fitted.
Thanks to all the team (including Volker and his planters, Alex, Stephen, JB, Philip and Gary) for a huge amount of effort and an excellent result.

Volker and the team with Philip (left) and Stephen and Alex (right)
In total we now have some 21,000 vines planted on nearly 13 acres. During the next couple of weeks we will be spreading 90 tonnes of organic compost on the vines, together with a huge amounts of woodchip mulch which will hopefully keep the weeds at bay!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Bud Burst and Jack Frost

Bud Burst - Pinot Noir

Spring sees the vines awake from their dormant period over winter. As sunshine increases, the buds begin to burst. The majority of our vines at now at the stage of "full swell". Some are at "bud burst" and a few are showing "first leaf".

This is a risky time in the vineyard as a severe frost can burn the buds. At worse this can result in the entire season's crop being lost. Whilst global warming is generally assisting viticulture in the UK, too much sunshine to early in spring means that the vines will be vulnerable to frost for longer.
Various attempts are often made to protect against frost including lighting oil heaters in the rows, spraying the vines with a chemical solution to form a seal around the buds, or even using helicopters to get air circulation. We can't use the chemicals or the helicopter as were organic so I guess I might be up tonight lighting oil lamps!

Let's hope that Jack Frost won't catch us out!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Something from Dr Who? No - Our New Sprayer!

Looking like something from Dr Who, the sprayer for the vineyard arrived last week.

We decided to go for a second hand model (supplied by Nick Seymour) to get some experience of spraying compost teas before investing in a new one. Already we have had some difficulties, with the larger particles in the tea blocking the nozzles but Alex is confident that we will be able to overcome this little problem by straining the tea before putting it in the tank.

The sprayer has to be kept spotlessly clean so that the organisms in the tea don't die, which means thoroughly washing it (as well as the brewer) after each application. We'll be giving it another go next Saturday.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Best Brew in Surrey!

Vino and Joel from Laverstoke with the Compost Tea Brewer

Last week we took delivery of our very own compost tea brewer, courtesy of the team at Laverstoke Park.

Compost tea is a water based extract of compost that is "brewed" aerobically to extract organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes). This is done by filling the tank with de-chlorinated water and submerging some woody compost into it (contained in a fine mash bag). Air is then pumped into the tank from the bottom (a bit like a bubble bath) for 24-36 hours.

Feed stimulants can be added to the brew to promote growth of specific organisims. In our case we're using fish and seaweed extracts to encourage the growth of fungi. When the tea is sprayed on the vines these organisms dominate the surfaces of the leaves which hopefully prevents disease-causing organisms from establishing, particularly mildews. Compost tea also provides plant food which aids healthy plant growth, strengthens the plant's defence systems and, with the addition of beneficial organisms to the soil, will help the recycling of organic matter, improving soil structure.

The tank has a capacity of 1000 litres which should be enough to spray the vineyard when we have planted the full 13 acres and the canopy is fully developed. We are planning to make a brew about every two weeks.

During the growing season Laverstoke will be analysing our compost tea every month to ensure that it has the right level and type of organisms for our soil.

We have no intention of competing with the local excellent hop brewery near Shere, or indeed Philip's magnificent brew of "English Breakfast", but hopefully our compost tea will be just the right brew for the vines.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Thanks to the team at DNX (an award winning marketing agency also based in Albury) we now have a new corporate logo and website

As well as providing information about the vineyard and the wines we hope to produce, the web site also gives some background to organic viticulture and wine making in the UK. There is also a link to this blog.

Please let me have any comments you feel would be useful in improving the site.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Alex joins the team as Vineyard Manager

I'm delighted that Alex Valsecchi has joined the team as Vineyard Manager.

Until recently Alex was at at RHS Wisley responsible for the Orchard, Nursery, Model Fruit Area and the Vineyard. Alex has extensive experience in Vineyard Management having created the vineyard at Wisley following several years practical experience working on vineyards in New Zealand.

Alex will be responsible for all aspects of managing the vineyard and will work closely with me to ensure that we produce top quality English quality wines using premium organic grapes from the vineyard.

Alex was born in Italy and has the initials "AV", the same as Albury Vineyard. It was obviously meant to be!