Last Friday was supposed to be just another lovely summer’s evening with old friends who were staying at our farmhouse. It’s what you imagine life to be like when you own a vineyard.
I’d been walking the dogs around the vines, half-inspecting the thousand, neatly presented rows at the end of the season’s labour. We’d completed the manual work just that morning, and now we needed a fine August and September to ripen the grapes.
The skies out west though – towards the Atlantic in the distance – didn’t look right. It was warm and sunny but there was a chill in the air, similar to the lull before the storm in September 2011, when hail narrowly missed us, and in May 2009, when it didn’t.
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The weather forecast for this second Friday running had said there was a risque de grêle. Grêle, or hail, is a Bordeaux vine grower’s deadliest enemy.
“There’s a big storm coming in and it’s coming our way. Smells like hail,” I said as I joined our friends. I even tweeted it. Why, I’m not sure, although it might have been to show that I wasn’t crying wolf.
We were debating if there was still enough time to have dinner outside – it was just after 8.30 – when the wind picked up. Then rain. Hard rain. Within seconds, as the wind moved up a gear, the dreaded hail, hurtling from west to east – small icy white balls, bouncing on the ground, clattering on the tiled roof overhead and pinging loudly on a watering can.
For some of us, this was all quite entertaining. For me, this was bad hail. The hailstones weren’t especially large – gobstoppers, perhaps – but they came in low, from the side, propelled by fierce winds. Not good for young grapes, not good for leaves and branches, not good at all. The minutes passed. Was it five, was it ten?
Hailstones lay all around between pools of water. The younger children came out and paddled briefly before they realised just how freezing the puddles were. Thinking it was all clear, a friend and I went out to survey the damage. This wasn’t entirely sensible as thunder and lightning followed several minutes later, just as we were out in the middle of the vineyard. (We were close to a row of vines that had been taken out by a lightning strike a few years ago. I didn’t mention that to James as he stood there in bare feet.)
We had enough time, before being warned off by the son et lumière all around us, to see what had happened.
The hail had smashed into the grapes on all the west facing rows, splitting and bruising them. Leaves lay all about, with the little icy balls interspersed amongst them. Many leaves still on the vine looked bedraggled, some in tatters. Branches were pockmarked.
The rows that run from east to west were more protected, as the greater mass of foliage protected the grapes from the impact. Unfortunately, we have fewer parcels planted in that way, as we opted to plant vines from north to south, so that both sides of the rows get the sun – one side in the morning, the other in the afternoon. We didn’t think about the right strategy to combat hail, at the time.
We met up with our vineyard manager, Daniel, looking forlorn and talking about changing his métier. We agreed that we’d lost about half the crop. As for the remaining 50%, that would depend on the weather to follow. Sunshine over the weekend would help to dry out the split grapes, which would help stop the spread of rot. In time, they’d dry out like raisins, hopefully. But how would the rest of the grapes in the damaged bunches ripen? Would the leaves recover in time to ripen what was left?
The following day, Saturday, we toured the vineyard early. The bruised grapes were now going grey and brown, and the battered leaves curling up and fading.
The morning after
Timothy, our vineyard consultant who provides us with treatments for the vines, advised us on a course of action but it was really down to nature now. There wasn’t much we could do.
When you’ve been hit by a hailstorm, it feels like it couldn’t have been worse. Then I went to see how our neighbours had got on.
What I saw was truly shocking and made me feel that our glass was, in fact, half full. See Part 2.
We welcome any comments or questions. (Update: this article was also published on jancisrobinson.com.)