April is a month of avidly watching the weather forecasts and sleepless nights for award-winning wine producer Alison Nightingale, as the first buds start appearing on the vines at her vineyard, Albourne Estate, near Hurstpierpoint.
The beautiful warm sunny April days have been a mixed blessing for us.
On the one hand, it is bringing on bud burst in the vines – the first stage in their annual growth cycle. The dormant winter buds first swell, then a fluffy brown covering appears and then finally the buds burst with the first leaf tips appearing.
On the other hand, bud burst heralds a month of anxious weather forecast watching and sleepless nights as a frost now can be hugely damaging to the young buds as they emerge. The worse case scenario is that the frost completely kills them. The vine will usually then go onto produce a secondary bud and shoot – but these rarely have much fruit on them. So a whole year’s crop could be lost in one bad frosty night!
The main defence we have is site selection. That means choosing a vineyard site on a slope, at low altitude and near the south coast. Frosts are very rare near to the sea and cold air that can cause frosts tends to drain down slopes so leaving the vines on the slope unharmed. However, no site is completely immune. And there are many different options out there ranging from the very basic to the hugely expensive to help prevent frost. At the high end, as practised in parts of New Zealand, you can fly helicopters over the vineyard to disturb the air and prevent frost settling – a bit out of our budget range. We operate at the lower end by buying frost ‘bougies’ (candles) from Champagne in France. These are large white metal cans full of wax that can burn for up to 10 hours. These are put out amongst the vines – main photo shows my children helping to do this (somewhat reluctantly) during the Easter holidays.
Now I have to watch the forecast every night and get up during the night to check the temperature on my weather station… if I think a frost is coming then I’ll be out in the vineyard at about 3am lighting over 750 ‘bougies’! Can’t wait… at least I’ll be up in plenty of time for the school run!