Spectator: Lucy Baring on planting a vineyard

I know nothing about wine and even less about vines, but, as my in-laws have planted 52,000 of them, I’m starting to learn. Geneva double curtain, single guyot, double guyot, lyre, Scott Henry… the house resounds to a whole new language, that of vineyards and, specifically, vine-training systems-also known as pruning.

Pruning is familiar, if unwelcome, territory. I’m no good at it I don’t have the stomach for chopping off brave new growth and hate going up ladders. It’s not, however, a topic I’ve associated with heated debate, until now. Zam’s family-this is a sibling co-adventure-has planted a mixture of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes in a 29-acre field.

This year, as the vineyard enters its third summer, is crucial. About eight weeks ago, 15 Romanians came to prune them. They were utterly charming, incredibly hard-working and all from the same family and the same village. They were going to French vineyards after us, but I hope they come back next year their input has been crucial.

Those plants that have done well were pruned to about 3ft and tied to the fruiting wires. Those that have underperformed were cut back to stumpy little things with two buds, their protective tubes left on the stakes beside them. If the tubes are left on the plants, there is a chance of early bud burst, which puts them at risk of the late frosts, especially as many of these are at the bottom of the field, which is almost as steep as our learning curve. This is where the frosts will hit hardest. So far, so good. Until the spraying debate began.

The field is full of weeds and, to keep things simple, I’m now going to refer to Experts 1, 2 and 3. Expert No 1 took one look at the pruning (currently single guyot) and said that spraying would kill all the two-bud plants and that 10,000 tubes must be put back on. Expert No 2 said this was nonsense and that the vines would be fine, spray away. Expert No 3 said opinion was divided.

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Zam spoke to my brother, who, in some weird and unplanned synchronicity, has also put in
a vineyard, but he was too depressed by the pain in his hamstrings after days of tying-in to be much help and the conversation moved onto bud-rubbing. Phrases such as ‘risk management’ are being bandied about, which seems to be a fancy way of saying ‘who knows?’. In the meantime, our garden pruning is also up for debate, albeit less heated.

We’re trying to follow the three words of advice, or perhaps the command, given by my brother-in-law’s mother when she first set eyes on our Edwardian villa: ‘Smother it darling.’ As a result, we have roses and honeysuckle trying to make their way up the concrete walls.

Our local pruning expert Mark has been in to help. He’s ruthless with the secateurs and produces sinewy sillhouettes out of the muddle left by my timid approach. He’s been especially vigorous this year and has now turned his attention to the lime trees we’ve been pleaching for eight years. This is his first go at them and they look a lot balder and knobblier than when we’ve done them in the past. I wonder if he’s gone too far, but he’s reassuringly confident and has decided to experiment with a technique that leaves one row more intact than the other. We’ll have to wait until July to see which fares best, but I doubt the trees will suffer from either treatment.

All this reminds me of when I sought advice on my daughter’s mild but complicated squint. Expert No 1 advised an operation, or perhaps two, as soon as possible (this smacked of the same experimental air Mark is taking with the limes), Expert No 2 said leave it until she’s fully grown and Expert No 3 said he went to conferences round the world where they agreed they had absolutely no idea. Don’t ask three experts unless you want three opinions. Anna has grown out of her squint and I’m hoping the vines have an equally happy outcome.