English wine producers praise skills of vineyard managers in battle against frost

A number of English wine producers battled with frosty weather last week but while a few experienced some vine damage, many have reported that via the expertise of their “amazing” vineyard managers they have successfully managed to protect vines from any extensive damage.

On more than one occasion last week night-time temperatures fell to between -0.5C to -5.5C across the country, which can prove extremely damaging during the critical bud growth months of April and May.

Sam Linter, managing director at Bolney Estate in Sussex, told DRN: “Although we are less susceptible to frost here than in some areas of the county, last week was a nail-biting period. However, we have come through with only one per cent of damage, so we feel like we have dodged a bullet on that. Our amazing vineyard manager has been out a few nights to do frost protection.”

Similarly, Mardi Roberts, Ridgeview Wine Estate’s marketing director, told DRN that the best investment the company has made to protect against frost has been in its vineyard manager, Matt Strugnell, who has worked for the Sussex-based producer for the past 17 years.

She said: “You can invest in all the equipment possible but it all comes down to vineyard knowledge. If it wasn’t for him lighting the candles on a few occasions last week then we would no doubt have experienced a lot of damage to the vines. He knows exactly where the frost will first hit and therefore where he has to light the first candles and he knows which parts of the vineyard are more vulnerable.

“It is down to care and due diligence that we were able to protect the vines by lighting candles and Strugnell and his team have saved all our vines for the year. At the moment the vines all look really great and healthy.

“It is relatively unusual to have frosts this late in May but it reminds us that we are always in a cool climate area for viticulture and we will always be at risk. We never relax as a family until the end of May.”

Ridgeview has a weather station positioned in the middle of the vineyard to help predict whether frost is likely to happen. It sends an alarm via text message and on a frosty night the producer gets around 400 bougies (candles) ready for lighting.

Roberts adds: “The time of the low temperatures also makes a difference because if it looks like frost will occur at 5am we probably won’t need the candles, because the sun will warm the vineyard instead.”

Matt Strugnell, vineyard and estate manager, said: "Within our industry it is well known that at Ridgeview we have always taken the threat of spring frosts very seriously. Whie the frost events that occured last week are late, it is certainly not unusual to have a frost in May. Thankfully though I am happy to say that we have got through the spring so far with no damage recorded. 

"We have two fields here: Chardonnay and Pinots and the Pinot field is more sheltered and frost prine. If we needed to light up in both fields then we would be using around 500 bougies. If temperatures fall below minus three then we have an additional 500 deployed ready to use; we haven't needed to do this since 2010. Bougies aren't the only protection we have here. We have a few rows of electric heating cables which so far have worked very well.

"From the first emergence of green tissue to the potential to lose shoots to frost increases. It seems that in some years damage occurs easier than in others. There is always the temptation to think "We might just get away with this one" but we know from experience, the the one night you drop your guard is the night you'll get a kick up the bum."

Meanwhile, Roberts noted also that off-trade sales for the producer have been good over the lockdown period, which has helped to offset lost revenue from the lack of on-trade business and vineyard visits.

She said: “We are now putting a lot of effort into our online sales and we are currently not charging for delivery, even for single bottles. We are seeing a 2000% year-on-year increase with online sales and so despite a drop in revenues from other parts of the business it is a lovely thing that we have been able to meet the demand from consumers online.”

The company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has been donating £2 for every bottle sold to Hospitality in Action and has raised more than £2000 for hospitality workers in need.

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