The ups and downs of running a small Devon wine estate

Winter pruning stops the vines returning to the jungle

Winter pruning stops the vines returning to the jungle - Credit: Rosie Parsons

Cutting it vine: our new columnist explains how pruning will stop his lovely vines turning feral

Ben Hulland - headshot for columnist template

Ben Hulland - headshot for columnist template - Credit: Rosie Parsons

Hello, I’m Ben, one half of the husband and wife team behind smallish Devon wine estate, Huxbear. Excitingly – for me at least – Devon Life has agreed to let me have this monthly column to talk to you about making English wine, where I’ll be reporting directly from the vine face.

While consuming English wine is all well and good – not to mention absolutely delicious – for many wine enthusiasts, discovering more about the methods of production of that wine can really add something. In this context, that will be reading about somebody wallowing around in a muddy westcountry field, arguing with the weather. Welcome to my winemaking adventure!

After the chaos of the growing season and harvest is over and the fermentations in the winery are put to bed, things start to calm down a bit and we have the opportunity to draw breath before it is once again time to take on the winter pruning.

If you’ve seen a vine in its natural habitat, you may have noticed that the feral vine bears absolutely no resemblance to its manicured wine-producing relative. The domesticated and well maintained vineyard vine is an absolute pleasure, delighting passers-by with photo opportunities and producing top notch wines for all to enjoy. His feral cousin, however, spends his time swamping entire trees, and looking untidy, yet producing very few grapes. But I’ve learnt not to be fooled by the scheming vineyard vine, he is watching and waiting… for your inattention. Left to his own devices, he’ll go native and turn your field into a jungle – Tarzan, baboons, the lot.

With this in mind, it’s very important that the vines are kept in check.

There are almost as many methods of winter pruning as there are grape varieties; some encourage extra long trunks that help to ward off the frost in the spring, some leave little tiny spurs along an enormous long trunk that reaches along the rows, some are designed to result in shoots that go both up and down in the summer, and some people even swear that they don’t really need to do much pruning at all. With the possible exception of the last method – which strikes me as a bit fantastical – all of these methods of pruning have their place.

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Some allow for most of the pruning to be completed by machine, others allow for larger vines in more prolific locations, but for the most part, English vines are pruned in the traditional Guyot style. This means that a trunk is grown to the fruiting wire of the trellising (about three feet off the ground). At the end of that trunk is a lump that is referred to as a head. Each year a cane from the previous year is selected for either side of the plant, cut to size and ultimately tied down onto the fruiting wire, from whence shoots will emerge in spring.

Everything else that has grown in the previous year? Removed and discarded. Remember before when we were discussing how vigorous vines are? Well, once your correspondent has performed his winter pruning, there is the ticklish problem of what to do with a couple of tonnes of twigs.

Traditional thinking was to set fire to the old wood to ensure that no disease is able to develop in it. Taking this on board, after our first proper bout of pruning we carefully collected everything into one big pile. Know what happens when you set fire to a pile of kindling that is roughly the size of your house? You get into trouble with your wife as piles of ash rain down on everything you own for days like a scene from a disaster film.

Thinking has moved on fairly quickly in terms of disposal of prunings since then. It is now considered good practice not to remove that organic matter from the field and that clean wood should be left in the field and chopped up using a flail mower; which helps to improve the quality of the soil at the same time as not setting fire to your house… u

Next month, I’ll very likely be discussing winter’s other big job, trellis repairs – ah the English winemaking adventure!

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