21st April, 2007
Growing vines is becoming a popular option for a lot of people who live in what are becoming increasingly sunnier climes, particularly for those of you who are living on the coast – you’re very often lucky enough to have a south- or south-west-facing slope, which is an ideal situation for growing vines. But if you haven’t got a slope, don’t panic, you haven’t got immediately to get a JCB in and make yourself one. A wall will do equally well, and indeed pergolas and fences will do quite nicely and provide what you need. Interestingly enough, I was only reading an article today in a local magazine which referred to the Camel Valley Vineyard, where Bob Lindow and his family have, since the late 1980s, been working on their vine production and have now in fact become one of the best medal-winning wine producers in Europe. All this has been from very humble beginnings in the Camel Valley, which is not where you’d consider to be the warmest and sunniest spot in Cornwall – it’s not even directly on to the coast although it’s not that far from the north coast rather than the south coast. If a viable vineyard can be produced somewhere like that, then it’s well worth considering what you could produce with perhaps just one or two vines, maybe, in your own garden and see if that’s going to be enough for you, both in terms of decorative ability and – more importantly – plonk production ability. After all, what most people are looking at when it comes to growing white vine is the end product of wine. But you’ve got to bear in mind it’s rare that you get a good vintage.
Now for the practicalities of growing a vine. First of all, you need to make sure that you choose a variety that’s going to be suitable for your climate, your area and the actual position that you’re going to grow them in. Some people will still try to grow them indoors in a greenbouse or a conservatory – which is fine, but you must make sure that you get an indoor variety for that. Equally, if you’re going to be growing them outdoors, either on wires as you would traditionally grow vines for food production or if you’re going to grow them on a wall or a pergola, similarly you need to choose an outdoor variety. Then, of course, you’ve got to make the decision: are you aiming to make plonk from it, or are you aiming to have it as a dessert grape? I would say, on the whole, unless you are dedicated (and you would need to be dedicated!) then I wouldn’t worry too much about making wine from it because you need to get very hot summers to get the sugar levels right in the vine to get good wine.
With dessert varieties you’d be hard put to beat “Black Hamburg” which is a very good black grape. It produces oodles and oodles of grapes which generally ripen very well. You’ll quite often see them in local village shows and people winning prizes for them in the novelty fruit class. They do in fact produce big, handsome black grapes with a beautiful bloom on them in masses and masses of clusters on the vine, in fact very often you actually have to thin them out. "Black Hamburg" is a very good one but there are quite a lot of more modern varieties around. It’s rather like medicine – don’t always stick to the same old one that you have because you’ve always used that one – there are always advances happening. So have a look at the newer varieties and see if there is one that might suit your position better. And again, speak to nurserymen who know what they’re talking about and avoid buying a vine one off the shelf at cheap chain store! They’ll use varieties that are best known and which they can buy cheapest and they can sell out the door. If you’re serious about growing a grape for its fruit production, whether for dessert or for wine, personally I would suggest that you go either to your local nursery where you know you’ll get good advice, or go to a fruit specialist. Ring around. Use the Internet: if you’re looking at this website then you’re used to doing that! Have a look at the different varieties that are out there. There are some very good new varieties like “Rondo”, or older ones like “ Muscat Alexandra”. You can consider the Chardonnay ones for wine – there’s a whole raft of them. But do a bit of research before you get going.
When it comes to growing your vine, it’s rather like planting a tree. You’ve got one chance to get your soil preparation right. So I would suggest that you get an area prepared, preferably a square metre (39 inches) on the surface and certainly down a minimum of 30cm (12 inches). Get some well-rotted manure, or some garden compost if you’ve got it, and dig it in. If you haven’t got access to either of those, you can buy that from your local nursery or garden centre. Mix it into the soil with blood fish & bone as well so that you’ve got a nice mix in there. But don’t go overboard with the fertiliser – it’s more important to get organic matter into the soil than a high level particularly of nitrate-based fertiliser. If you think about where vines would normally grow, it’s Mediterranean country, very sunny, fairly poor and very well-drained soil. So use anything that’s going to help keep the nutrients in the soil, but vines don’t necessarily want a high-nitrate soil because all that does is to encourage growth whereas what you’re looking at doing is encouraging plump, firm fruit. So you want to encourage moisture retention during the second half of the summer. If you’re going to try growing them in a greenhouse or conservatory, the best bet is to plant them outdoors, then knock a hole in your conservatory wall – a lot of people actually build them in. If you look at some of the old vineries, they have pipes fed through the wall: the vine roots live outside and its stem is fed into the conservatory. The plant can have as much root run as it wants outside and get the rainfall, whilst the actual vine itself grows indoors and does best there, getting maximum heat and light in there, which is what these varieties need.On the other hand, if you plant outside, usually against a wall, it’s a very hot and dry situation. So try to give it the best possible start: by working in that organic matter you hope to retain the moisture and then you need to make sure you keep it well mulched. Water if you need to, in the summer, particularly when the plants are young.
Pruning is always treated as a bit of a mystery with grapes. There is no great mystery! In the winter they are hacked right back within an inch of their lives, and in the summer once the fruit has set, they are pruned again to within two pairs of leaves above where the fruit has set on the current year’s growth. This is so that the sun can get in there and ripen the fruit because, unfortunately, grapes are their own worst enemy. They put on masses and masses of growth. Now, if you think about where they would normally be growing, in a very hot Mediterranean climate, that’s fine because the leaves provide quite a shady canopy and the fruit will still benefit from reflected light and will ripen. In this country, we can’t get away with that and we need to give the fruit every assistance it can possibly have. So you need to make sure that you reduce that canopy in summer and get the light on to the fruit. Leave enough leaf cover on there so that the plant is still taking up the goodness from the sun. It’s even more important to do that in a conservatory or greenhouse because the poor little beggars will go like nineteen-to-the-dozen in there and, if you don't prune them, you’re going to end up not being able to fight your way in through the door to pick your bunch of grapes! You really do need to be aware of what you’re doing with those ones. To sum up,, it’s twice a year: serious haircut in the winter for structure and in the summer you prune back again to allow light to get to the grapes that have set.
If you are lucky/unlucky enough to inherit a grape – and they do get passed down from generation to generation in some cases! – how do you go about tackling it? You may have bought an old property and you’ve got some massive vine in there which is completely and utterly overgrown, and you think to yourself, how on earth are you going to cope with this, what should you do? You might be interested to know that you can buy pretty chunky, mature grape vines now in a lot of centres. We certainly have them at ours. If you imagine a trunk as thick as my thigh ( you can’t see my thigh and I’m not going to post a picture of it!), or imagine something that’s two hands’ span, finger to thumb as a trunk, that would be quite a small one, with a six-foot stem and then a head above that. These are actually vines that have been taken from old vineyards that have become unproductive. What happens is that the grapes grow so intensively that they do reach a point of diminishing returns so that the fruit production is not as good, and they grub them out. Now, rather than just being wasted, they pot these ones up, pruning them right back to within four to six inches of the main stem where smaller branches have started coming out, but those ones are as thick as your wrist. They chop those ones right back, and then from there new shoots have come out again. They’ve been growing them almost like a standard by pollarding them hard back every spring and getting a lovely flush of growth on them and they’ll produce fruit on them, doing really well. So even if you don’t have a convenient wall, or a convenient valley to grow your vines in, there’s nothing to stop you growing a grape as a pot subject on a patio, on a verandah, or on a deck area – anywhere like that.
Give yourself a taste of the Mediterranean, make yourself feel a little more exotic, create somewhere where you can be lying there in the shade having somebody feed you olives while you drink a glass of your own wine! It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds and is attainable for everybody.
© 2007 Tracy Wilson