Our first season of pruning of the vineyard is completed. That sentence is written with a certain element of relief. The daunting prospect hung over us throughout Christmas, for we had committed to start the task with the arrival of the new year. It was intimidating - our first pruning of our precious vines, having moved to Astley only the previous July [has it only been 7 months?] and predicted to take eight weeks. We are a small vineyard but hand pruning approximately 3,000 vines was never going to be a ‘quick job’, especially for novices.
The weather forecast has defined our life over the last seven weeks. We became expert at timing our dash for shelter as the rain clouds rolled over the distant Clent Hills towards us. The cold on certain days has given us a new understanding of the phrase “chilled to the bone”. Thermal underwear, thick gloves and hats became an obsession, a necessity. The mud, clinging stubbornly to boots, followed us everywhere. We were perpetually hungry. But for each day spent pruning in the snow and drizzle, there were also those gloriously crisp, sunny winter days when our little bit of Worcestershire felt like heaven. And, as we entered the final phase, the sun came out and the hats were abandoned.
Astley vines vary widely in age - from the 40+ year old Kerner to the 10 year old vigorous Bacchus. Each row is different and each plant an individual. The diagrams in textbooks don’t always prepare you for the eccentric vine in front of you which has, over many years, asserted its own opinion of how to grow. Most of Astley’s vines are cane pruned, obliging us to choose two canes for fruit for the upcoming season, carefully laying them onto the wires without snapping them, and removing the remaining growth. The alleys between each row are now littered with discarded canes which will be mulched into the ground with our flail mower in the forthcoming days. Occasional accidental snipping of a wire is a hazard we didn’t always manage to avoid. And rotting wooden posts added to the challenge.
But despite this, somewhat surprisingly, pruning has been an enjoyable task. The fresh winter air, the tranquillity in the vineyard, the accompanying soundtrack of birdsong have been good for the soul. There is an element of ‘mindfulness’ to pruning, where concentration on the vine in front of you drives all other worries and thoughts away. The unruly vine necessitates concentration if you are to tame it and bend it to your will. And being so close to nature can always banish the darkest thoughts. A melodious robin was our constant companion, the buzzards joined us on brightest days, silhouetted against blue skies and, as February arrived so did a skylark, soaring over our heads and serenading us with its joyous song.
Walking around the vineyard today, quietly proud of our first year’s pruning, we can see signs of life rapidly returning to the vines after their winter slumber. Tiny buds are appearing on every plant. In a few weeks they will be growing with amazing vigour and we will be in a new phase - managing the vital new canes, looking for signs of disease, spraying, and keeping the grass short, carefully manoeuvring the tractor up and down our exceptionally narrow alleys. Then there are posts to be replaced, new vines to be planted… the seasonal cycle of work continues.
Of course, the unspoken fear remains… that Mother Nature will deliver a wet, cold summer or late spring frost to test our vines. But that is what farming is, and that is what we do now. And we would never go back to our life as it was, before we bought a vineyard.