Spectator: Fur coats and grape guesswork

The vineyard harvest is dictated by the unpredictable English weather, finds Lucy.

I recently had tea with someone who said she wanted to show me the dressing gown she’d just bought. She returned to the kitchen with a fabulous mink coat she’d purchased at auction for a very low price and with which she was extremely pleased. Rightly so. She didn’t kill the mink and she doesn’t have central heating, so, all in all, it was a very ethical and elegant buy. When we returned home, Zam suggested that we, who do not have mink coats, might turn on our central heating. This, the first of two surprising suggestions by Zam, represented total role reversal, as it is usually I who shiver while he wears nothing but a shirt. I think he’s willing the weather to be cold, because of the vines.

The vineyard planted by Zam and his siblings is now in its fourth year and has flourished under the perfect weather conditions of a long, hot summer continuing into autumn. English wine-makers are cautiously predicting record harvests this year cautious because although the grapes may be beautifully ripe with excellent sugar levels, nothing is certain. With any other crop, one might, at the moment of harvest, be able to stand back, thank the weather and claim it a job well done. Not so with grapes. With grapes you are beholden to the weather, until that crop is firmly in the bottle, or at least the press.

A vineyard is a labour-intensive business: each plant is individually pruned, bud-rubbed (possibly twice), tied in and regularly sprayed. The leaves are thinned, the canopy managed and the rows are weed-killed, strimmed, and mowed until the moment, which has to be the perfect moment (a matter of judgement), arrives and so do your pickers you hope. The sibling vineyard is not on a scale for in-house pickers, depending instead on paid teams and family. The paid team may, if you need to delay or bring forward by a day or two, be in another vineyard in another county. The family, which includes Will, may have other plans.

He abandons these to take part in the first day. The sun is shining and the grapes, judged to have perfect sugar/acid levels, are snipped with razor-sharp secateurs (one sibling has to retire with a nasty wound to the index finger) and tossed into buckets. They grow low down on the vines, which is testing for the tall family frame. I suggest that they should be grown in raised beds in future a larky comment that is not larkily received. These are tense times.

Rain is forecast for the following day, so there’ll be no picking tight bunches can hold water, which would dilute sugars in the press but it should resume the day after. Crucially, the temperature is not set to rise.

Wet and warm are the worst conditions for the dreaded botrytis, the fungus that can decimate a vineyard and a year of work (or three if you’re on your first harvest like my brother) within days. So far, the signs are good.

The pinot meunier and pinot noir grapes are coming cleanly off the vines and the chardonnay is a few days behind. My brother is also watching the weather like a hawk. As his grapes are a little behind ours, he’s waiting another few days before harvesting, keeping fingers crossed that his team will be available. I suggest that I come along with some secateurs, but this sisterly offer is not taken up, because, as he points out, I’m too tall and clumsy and I probably wouldn’t average 350 kilos a day, which is what is needed. I joke that if the B word should appear, he could always start making Sauternes, which needs the ‘noble rot’ for flavour. I should have realised by now that nobody is in the mood for jokes.

After another long and involved telephone discussion second-guessing the Met Office, Zam is pleased to see that I am wearing several jumpers. And then he makes his second weird suggestion of the week: he’s giving up drinking wine for the next month. Which makes him even more unpredictable than the English weather.