I get my corkscrew at the ready and discover how to grow your own grape vines…
With more than 500 vineyards in the UK and a raft of award-winning bottles from the harvests, the English wine industry has proved it’s perfectly possible to make wine in the UK – and good wine to boot. But have you ever fancied adding your own bottle of Chateau Localisé to the drinks cabinet?
It seems a garden plot the size of St. Emilion is not obligatory for growing your own vines – in fact, a large pot will give you enough space to make 3-4 bottles – and while the end results might not win you any International Wine Challenges, it’s surely worth the effort just to glug a homegrown glass with guests?
Through the grapevine
It takes around 700 grapes to produce a bottle of wine so it’s quite possible to get a decent harvest from one productive vine – but you’ll need to ensure you get the right vine first.
Don’t mix up dessert grapes with drinking grapes: dessert vines tend to need the protection of a greenhouse to fruit and don’t have the sugar content needed for wine, so you’re best bet is a Champagne grape such as Pinot Meunier or Pinot Noir.
Sarah Vaughan-Roberts, who took the plunge into homegrown wine on a much bigger scale when she founded the 10-acre Forty Hall community vineyard in Enfield, has proved some vines can cope with the urban environment too. With Canary Wharf and the Shard as the backdrop to her 14,500 vines – the first commercial scale vineyard in London since the Middle Ages – Sarah says many people laughed when she proposed the idea of growing vines in London, but now her organic and vegan wines are winning awards. In 2016, Forty Hall released London’s first-ever sparkling wine, the 2015 vintage Forty Hall Vineyard London Sparkling Brut.
“I read about vineyards in the centre of New York and Paris and thought ‘why not London?’” says Sarah, who runs the social enterprise with an army of volunteers who help plant, harvest and maintain the vines. “We planted the Ortega variety in 2010 and it’s done very well, it likes the London clay and ripens early – crucial in the UK summers.”
Whichever grape you choose, planting in the right location is also key to maximizing yield. Wine grapes like a warm and sheltered site outdoors with plenty of sunshine, so a south or southwest facing wall or fence will provide the most nurturing conditions.
You’ll want the soil to be nutrient-rich, so ensure you’ve dug in some compost to the site before planting. You can buy bare root vines in October, and it’s the ideal time to plant when the vines are in their dormancy.
Dig a hole deep enough so the root ball is level with the soil surface, and at least 20cm away from the wall so it doesn’t sit in shadow – vines hate soggy roots – and cut the stem down to one healthy bud, about 30cm from the ground. If you have several plants, plant them around 3ft apart.
If you’re growing in a container, choose one that is at least 45cm in diameter and has plenty of drainage holes. Remember that your vine will completely rely on you for its food and water so you’ll need to keep it topped up.
Train of thought
Your next job is to train. While we’re not talking about a Master of Wine qualification here, you do need a little understanding of how grapevines grow, and how to prune them, to get the best crop.
Grapes are vigorous climbers and will happily scramble over your garden wall and shed roof given half the chance, but because you’re after fruit rather than leaves, you’ll want to keep them trimmed. That said, as you’re growing for home rather than commercial reasons, a good nip and tuck now again is all that’s needed.
In spring, select the two strongest shoots and allow these to grow up a trellis or pergola, and pinch out the rest, and in summer, Sarah recommends cutting back any leafy growth. “Keep the grape vine canopy open, airy and exposed to sunlight,” she says. “It’s in the dark and damp nooks and crannies, that disease grows.”
You might need to wait patiently for your first crop, however. “You shouldn’t harvest at all in the first five years because you want to concentrate your energies on the bottom of the plant rather than the top,” says Sarah. “You want the roots to develop so take off any flowers or fruits in those first few years.”
Fellow English winemaker Ingrid Bates, who runs the Dunleavy Vineyards on the Plumpton Estate in the Chew Valley agrees. “It might seem harsh to prune new vines hard for a couple of years but you’re trying to encourage root growth that results in a strong plant that will produce lots of grapes without exhausting itself in the future,” says Ingrid, who scooped a silver in the UK Wine Awards for her 2016 Pinot Noir Rose 2016, and supplies her vegetarian and vegan wines to restaurants such as Flow in Bristol.
Sadly we don’t all have Bacchus’s nose for grape harvesting either, so it’s best to taste your grapes to ensure you’re picking at the optimum ripeness. Grapes are generally ready when they are soft to touch and change from green to yellow. “Test your grapes to ensure the sugar levels are high – if you leave them too long the acidity will drop, which can lead to a flabby, dull wine,” adds Ingrid.
Of course, the unpredictability of the British climate can also be a factor in whether your get bunches or buttonholes from your homegrown vines!
“Cold weather can lead to damage during key periods like flowering and bud burst in spring, which makes it harder for English producers to always grow huge crops,” says Ingrid. “But I think this unpredictability adds value to what is produced – it’s something very special.”
Quick Guide to Making Wine
- Ensure all bottles and equipment are sterile.
- Mash your grapes with your hands (or feet!) in a bucket – without damaging the seeds (crushed seeds will make it bitter).
- Squeeze the juice through a muslin cloth and add a Campden tablet (to sterlise and inhibit the growth of bacteria) for each gallon. For every 1kg grapes, you’ll make around 1litre of juice.
- Transfer the juice into a demijohn and add yeast and a yeast nutrient. Keep your demijohn somewhere cool while you wine goes through its first fermentation, and check it regularly.
- Once the bubbles have settled (about a week), siphon off any sediment that has formed, and transfer to another sterilized demijohn, add another tablet, and start your second fermentation.
- After three weeks, all fermentation should be complete. There should be no fizzing or bubbles. Transfer your wine to a new demijohn and take a reading to work out the alcohol content.
- Leave for at least six weeks to age and take off any final sediment – the finished wine should be clear – and bottle.
- Bottoms up!
This article was first published in Vegetarian Living