Last Friday I was standing in the vineyards at Ridgeview on a beautiful sunny spring day and it was hard to believe that just the previous week they had been battling severe frosts and had experienced their first ever snowfall. Late spring frost is one of a viticulturist’s biggest fears as it can damage or even completely destroy the tender young buds – meaning a hugely detrimental effect on the harvest that autumn.
This year old Jack Frost caused havoc across many regions in Northern Europe, with reports of widespread damage – including up to 80% crop loss in the Aube region of Champagne. If you haven’t seen the photos of the vineyards in Chablis tackling frost with burners illuminating every row it is well worth a look – see here. Ridgeview also use these burners (or bougies to give them their proper name) to protect their vineyards. This year the viticultural team had to light them on 8 separate nights (far more than usual) in the early hours anytime between 11pm and 3am when the vineyard temperature fell to critical levels. Impressively it takes the team just 40 minutes to light all the burners across 2.5ha of vineyard. The burners are dotted every few vines along each row and act to raise the air temperature around the vines just enough to stop the young buds getting frosted. It obviously works as, aside from some light leaf burn, Ridgeview haven’t had any major frost problems this year and so their potential crop hasn’t been affected.
So why, you may ask, have vineyards elsewhere experienced such devastating crop loss from these frosts? Well firstly the fact that England is so far north is an advantage in this case. For vineyards further south, budburst would have occurred earlier – meaning that by the time the frosts hit there were many more new shoots for the frost to damage. For once here in England we can be happy for the colder weather! Then there are also some legal issues to consider. In Champagne for example bougies are outlawed for environmental reasons. Something I’m sure many vineyard owners are grumbling about this year. Back at Ridgeview they’re also aware of these environmental concerns and so are experimenting with heated cables along some rows instead of the bougies. These run along the fruiting wire of the trellis, are powered by the electricity grid and are thermostatically controlled to turn on as soon as the temperature dips below a programmed level. Meaning the added benefit of the vineyard team not having to get out of bed in the middle of the night. So far the experiment is proving very successful – this year the vines with heated cables showed no frost damage whatsoever, not even any leaf burn.
Of course there are still many months ahead before harvest will begin at Ridgeview and a lot can happen in that time. Indeed, the risk of spring frost doesn’t really pass until the end of May. But for the viticultural team the first major hurdle of their season is almost out of the way and things are looking good for now. Let’s hope that continues as the summer arrives.
I’ll report on Ridgeview’s new 2013 releases in my next post.