Vineyard Blog

Frost watch at Hattingley Valley Wines May 2018

Frost in the vineyard – a narrow escape?

In my last blog post, I talked about why bud burst is so important. Looking back over the three weeks or so since that was written, it looks as though we’ve had a narrow escape from frost damage.

“Frost?” I hear you say, “but the days have been warm and sunny.” Well yes, there has been some very unseasonable warmth, but there were a couple of pretty cold nights, too. At Hattingley Valley there were 2 nights of serious frost watch this year, April 29th / 30th and, as the image above shows, the night of 2nd March / early morning of 3rd March. While not all producers want to talk about this, we know of at least one other vineyard that went through exactly the same process and plenty of others who have been having a nervous time.

So what are those flames?

The flames are from special candles called bougies (simply French for candle). Vineyard managers have temperature monitoring systems which alert them when the temperature drops to a critical level. Typically the bougies, which look like 2 litre paint tins, will have been placed around the vineyard in anticipation. At the sound of the alarm, it’s a rude awakening (unless they have been worrying sleeplessly) and all hands on deck to go out and light them.

The slight increase in temperature caused by the flames and the blanket effect of the smoke offers a measure of protection which may be just enough to protect the buds from damage.

Once they are all lit, it’s a waiting game until the temperature starts to rise again and then, since bougies are expensive, time to go out and extinguish them so that they can be used again another day.

Other ways to protect from frost

Alternative techniques include spraying the vines or using a heater that is driven around the vineyard.

Some producers are in areas that never get frosted, others have such rare occurrences of frost and the cost of protection is so high that they take their chances. As Stephen Skelton says in his 2017 harvest report, “Site selection is everything, especially in a year with frosts.”

Sleepless Nights but Little or No Damage

The general consensus seems to be that while those two nights caused a degree of concern, there was little or no damage to vines this year.

When you think that some producers lost as much as 80% of their crop last year,

So What is Next?

The next big event in the life of the vines is flowering, which we will talk about next time. As a rule of thumb, flowering is usually round about Wimbledon fortnight, although that was also early last year starting in the third week of June and pretty well finished by the time the tennis started in July.

The flowers are very tiny and probably not even recognisable as such if it’s not something you’ve seen before. Even though vines self-pollenate, they do need dry conditions to enable the pollen to be distributed.

Not put you off?

If the thought of sleepless nights and lighting bougies hasn’t put you off, thee are usually a couple of vineyards on the market – at the time of writing these include Kerry Vale Vineyard on the Shropshire / Wales border (on the market at £650,000) and Mill Lane in Sussex, for which the buyers are seeking £1.375 Million.

Alternatively, simply enjoy your next bottle of English or Welsh wine with a bit of added appreciation for all the effort that has gone into its production.

Want to know more?

Ways of learning more about vine growing include reading – see Stephen Skelton’s harvest report from 2017 and Paul Olding’s book The Urban Vineyard is an excellent read too – the title belies both its relevance (what Paul learned from planting his small scale vineyard is surprisingly relevant to all vineyards) and its readability.

You can also become a member of a good number of vineyards and Plumpton College run an excellent course – Principles of Vinegrowing, which starts annually in the Autumn.


With thanks to Stephen Skelton for allowing us to share his report and to quote from it.

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