At last – it has happened. West Sussex vineyards budburst into riotous green. We’re off with the new vintage.
Say it quietly, but the last couple of weeks have been warm and sunny. Unlike last year, when April was obdurately cruel, we’ve had warm, sunny, dry days. Our reward is budburst. The growing season has begun.
To be honest, there were sprinkling of juvenile leaves emerging here and there in our West Sussex vineyards from about a couple of weeks ago. It was the intrepid Chardonnay that rushed its fences. Vines have lots of pent up energy from being dormant throughout the winter months. As soon as the weather warms, Spring springs, sap rises then drips, buds swell, scales crack open and just as the buds become as woolly as newborn lambs then ……. Boom! Budburst.
Its such an utterly joyous thing. The warm Easter sunshine has encouraged an eruption of little buds, and hopeful green leaves poke out at jaunty angles from the disciplined, serried ranks of canes tied down uniformly on the trellis wires. These unruly tips of vibrant green sun themselves in the warmth of Spring. Oddly, in England we call it budburst, whereas in the USA they call it – with uncharacteristic restraint – ‘budbreak’. I think ‘budburst’ better captures the exuberance of their eruption. Ideally you would like all buds to burst at once, so that they will all ripen fruit at the same time. Harvest is easier, and it makes for the best English Sparkling Wine. Usually you have an earlier budburst in the parts of the UK where it is warmer – so the South East is early. Also specific microclimates help so typically West Sussex vineyards budburst earlier.
Watch out for frost!
These little buds are brave souls. From the moment they poke out into the outside world they are vulnerable to the cold. At any moment the weather could turn. Frost means cryosurgery. Emerging buds are full of water. The frost freezes them destroying their tender tissue and they die. Do you remember last year when late frosts devastated vineyards across Europe? You can remind yourself of the horror story here: April 2021 – The Cruelest Month? – Ambriel Sparkling – English Sparkling Wine Even in 2022, Champagne has had –9°C at night. That means brutal bud-icide.
However, it was not as bad as last year when France was forced to compensate its vignerons with billions of Euros for frost damage: Europe’s wine regions seriously affected by frost (vitisphere.com). Night after night, vignerons burnt bougies and smudge pots (neither are environmentally friendly), or dragged fans with heaters to blow around the vineyard, or dropped water onto buds so that the energy released from the water freezing protects the buds. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.
Even here in the UK there were some chillier nights at the start of April, but the buds wisely stayed safe and there was no damage. You have to admire the sheer chutzpah of those little buds braving potential death just to stretch out in the sunshine. The earliest budburst we have ever had at Ambriel HQ was 1st April (and that’s no April fool). So far we’ve been lucky thanks to our two secret weapons.
Our Secret Weapons
First, our South facing slope helps the radiative frost roll off down the hill leaving the vineyard unscathed. That’s why our little sheep grazing is so important during the winter. They nibble the grass short so that there’s nothing to capture the frost. It just rolls on by.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, even in pale Spring sunshine, the solar radiation heats up our greensand rock. The warmed rocks retain some of their daytime heat at night and so warms the vineyard. Just a bit – but enough to make a difference.
So at Ambriel we don’t burn, blow or drip anything for frost. We stay safely, snugly (smugly?) tucked up in bed and trust that our buds known what they’re doing and have got their timing right. So far, so good.
It doesn’t mean we don’t fret though. We wouldn’t be good custodians if we didn’t worry a little. What if Europe’s ‘Ice Saints’ strike in April or May? What if St Pancras’s icy grip kills our baby buds? We could still come a cropper? As I stare at their hopeful bright green sproutings, it is too horrible to contemplate.
Vine evolution – clever buds.
But vines are one of the most successful plants on the planet. Only plants like grasses are more robust. Vines have a very clever survival technique, honed over 66 million years of evolution. Instead of producing a single bud for a ‘death or glory’ charge, it produces three. If the first bud gets burnt by frost, bud Number Two will spring into action and give it a go. If Number Two fails, Number Three will do its best. By the time Number Three bursts, many weeks will have passed and so the weather will be warmer and there will be less risk of frost. Clever, eh?
However, there is a cost. From the moment a bud bursts, it is in a race to make a ripe bunch of grapes. So much to do, so little time. It has a limited window of opportunity because it has to get it done before winter. This is almost impossible if you started weeks late as a Number Three bud. The vine itself is untroubled. It survives, courtesy of bud Number Three producing leaves and photosynthesising. The vine becomes a lovely hedge for the year and can try again to make grapes in the following year. The vine is fine. The vigneron is not. With no grapes to tend, there are no wines to make. Harvest is a non-event. It is a year lost. A wasted opportunity.
A Sparkling future
All of that seems a little unreal at the moment. Whenever West Sussex vineyards budburst I gaze lovingly at their tiny fragile leaves reaching out to explore their new universe. I am overwhelmed with the urge to protect them and brimming with hopefulness of what is to come. I anticipate a sparkling future. These little buds have time on their side. In England, our long growing season thanks to our goldilocks climate – not too hot, not too cold – allows the best flavours in the grapes to evolve. Its great grapes that make the best Sparkling Wines. West Sussex vineyards are crossing fingers (and toes) for a wonderful vintage.