VITICULTURE in England has tended to mirror climate fluctuations. The Romans almost certainly introduced it during the so-called Roman warm period, and the 40-odd vineyards recorded in the Domesday book benefited from the medieval warm period. Winter cold is not so much the problem for grapevines as late spring frosts; sunny autumns are also needed to ripen the fruit. It is the length of the growing season which is crucial.
I had a bumper harvest of sweet dessert grapes last year from my Staffordshire garden, and Richard Sharp, of the Urban Wine Company, in Tooting, reports its biggest harvest to date: more than 2.5 tonnes of grapes. This may have less to do with the weather and more with the word spreading about the community venture that he and Paul Miles set up, ten years ago, to use the grapes growing in gardens and allotments in London.
The Urban Wine Company allows the collection of people’s harvests at a convenient location each year, and sends them on to a professional vinery. The random mix of London grapes yields a rosé and a pink fizz, which is shared between members, the surplus being sold. This year’s urban wine harvest will take place at All Saints’, Tooting, on 21 September. The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Mae Christie, says it is an opportunity to open up the church.
“We’re hoping to connect the grape gathering with our Harvest Sunday celebrations, somehow — possibly in the form of a large-scale collection of items for our foodbank and homeless outreach organisation.”
Vines are easy enough to grow. They need a free-draining root-run; so add grit if your soil is heavy. Don’t worry about adding manure or fertilisers; vines like a poor soil. They do need sun, however. Training against a south-facing wall is ideal for northern gardens. They can also be grown over an arch or pergola or in a large container filled with loam-based compost.
If you want a mini-vineyard, you need to install rows of posts supporting three horizontal wires: one 45cm above the ground, one at 120cm, and one in between. The vines should be planted 1.5m apart. Be prepared to spend a bit of time researching the pruning that is needed. For individual specimens grown up a post in a bed or pot, I recommend the Mosel arch system.
It is best to choose a named grape variety recommended for outdoor cultivation in Britain. My success was the seedless “Himrod”. “Lakemont” is another white seedless dessert grape that crops and ripens well in the South. “Gagarin Blue” is a red-seeded grape for dessert use or wine-making; “Solaris” is an early-ripening white wine variety ideally suited to cooler northern gardens; and “Chasselas Rosé Royale” is an old French variety that does well in the UK, yielding sweet fruit for the table or to make rosé wine.