With 2015 now well underway the hangover from the turn-of-the-year celebrations has finally dissipated! Raising a toast to the start of another year got me thinking – wouldn’t it be great if I could do so with a glass of home-grown fizz? Even in my leaden-skied part of the world it’s perfectly possible to grow a few grapevines that would be more than capable of producing a bottle or two of Chateau Vanheems. The end results may not win any prizes, but it will be a labour of love that will taste all the better for it.
Grapevines are remarkably prolific, at least in leaf growth. The secret to coaxing bunches of grapes from them lies in selecting a growing position that enjoys plenty of sunshine. Those living in temperate climates are safest selecting a sun-trap south or west-facing wall or fence (north or west-facing if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). The heat absorbed by the wall will be reflected back into the vine, creating a cosy microclimate perfect for ripening the fruits. Gardeners in warmer climates will have sure-fire success growing free-standing vines and won’t need to rely so much on luck or trickery.
Choosing the Best Wine Grapes to Grow
Traditionally winemaking varieties of grape are grown outdoors while dessert grapes are housed within a greenhouse. Modern varieties have blurred this distinction – and anyway, you won’t be requiring a greenhouse if your summers are more of the scorching type than the insipid type.
At this point I must declare that I’m no wine buff, so I am aiming for reliability over exquisite balance of flavours. Besides, my choice of grape varieties is somewhat limited by the changeable weather we often endure here. I definitely want to pick a crop no matter what the summer’s been like, so I’ve plumped for the German variety ‘Siegerrebe’ (translation: ‘Victory vine’).
‘Siegerrebe’ is an early-to-crop variety, which means that if there’s been a late start to spring it should, in theory at least, still have enough time to ripen before winter. It’s a heavy cropper too (I’m hoping for more than just a token bottle – my mind’s eye is picturing a crate!). An added bonus is that this variety is dual purpose, which means the grapes can be eaten as well as pressed for wine. Reliable ‘Siegerrebe’ can be found in vineyards as far north as British Columbia and Nova Scotia. If the hardy Canadians can grow it, then hopefully so can I!
If you live in a warmer region then you will have plenty of choice; you may even need to select a variety that’s drought tolerant. Local plant nurseries really are the best places to seek advice on grapevines suited to where you grow.
Grapevines are planted just like any other fruit. Prepare the ground by digging it over and removing any weeds, then fork in some well-rotted organic matter. Vines cope with most soil types, including pretty poor ones, but they won’t tolerate very wet conditions – these are sun lovers after all!
It’s best to plant a grapevine when it’s dormant so that it’s raring to go by the time the growing season gets underway. If your winters are very cold delay planting until early spring. Set the root ball into position so that the top lies at the same level as the soil surface. The root ball will need to be set about 22cm (9in) away from the base of the wall so that it doesn’t sit within a rain shadow. Cut the stem down to a healthy bud about 30cm (12in) above the ground then tie the stump to an upright cane which is in turn tied to your horizontal wires. If you are planting more than one vine set them between 1m (3ft) and 2m (6ft) apart, depending on how you intend to train them.
Grapevines can be encouraged to grow up any vertical support and look particularly stunning sprawling luxuriantly over a pergola or arch. If you want to concentrate on grape production, however, it’s best to train your vines against a series of horizontal wire supports.
To grow them against a wall secure strong, galvanised wires so that the first wire is 40cm (16in) from the ground with the remaining wires spaced 30cm (12in) apart. Feed the wire through vine eyes or screw eyes sunk into the fence posts or wall, and tighten the wires to remove any slack.
Gardeners in warmer climates can grow free-standing vines in vineyard-like rows. To do this you’ll need to attach your horizontal wires to sturdy uprights driven into the ground to a couple of feet depth so that they are securely anchored. Orientate your rows so they run north-south (this will stop them shading each other). The plants are self-fertile, which means fruit set shouldn’t be a problem.
Grapevines in vineyards are usually trained using the ‘double guyot’ system, which sees two stems trained horizontally along the bottom supporting wire. Vertical, grape bunch-bearing shoots are then allowed to grow off these. The verticals are pinched out once they reach the top supporting wire and all sideshoots coming off them are also removed. In late autumn the horizontal stems and all their associated vertical shoots are cut right back to the central trunk. Two replacement shoots are then bent down to the bottom wire ready for next year’s fruit-bearing shoots.
Aside from training, routine care involves watering newly planted vines in dry weather, feeding with a general organic fertiliser in early spring, mulching during the growing season to lock in soil moisture/suppress weeds and, if necessary, netting against birds.
The really exciting bit, of course, is picking the grapes. However, just because the grapes are the right size and colour it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are fully ripe, so you may need to taste a few to check that they are indeed ready. Dry grapes will store for a few days after picking, though like any home-grown produce, ultra-fresh is always best.
I need to do some swotting up on home winemaking. Once I’ve had a try I’ll be sure to report back and let you know how I got on. I’d love to hear from any winemaking enthusiasts on the secret to a tasty drop – please share your comments below. In the meantime, I’m raising a glass to another successful growing season!
Photo at top of page courtesy of Pomona Fruits