Growing vines and making wines

As we reap the harvest from our vines, I wonder why more gardeners don’t grow grapes for winemaking, or at least why we don’t hear more about those who do

A bunch of 'Blauer Portugieser' almost ready for harvestingAs the weather turns slowly but surely into autumn, the garden starts to enter its next cycle too.

I recently caught myself gazing out the windows of my parents' kitchen at the four wire-trained vines I helped build the supports for and plant years ago. One of the signs that autumn is here is the vines starting to shed leaves.

It’s also the time Dad likes to spend plenty of time working on them – he grows four selections on the wires (two red and two white including a 'Chardonnay', below, ‘Schönburger’, ‘Triomphe d’Alsace’ and a ‘Blauer Portugieser’, above left) and ‘Müller-Thurgau’ on a pergola. He grows them down a short, south-facing slope on, what he calls, a ‘double-double’ Guyot – he leaves four horizontal stems after each winter prune, so it’s a variant on the double-Guyot system. Given a bountiful crop, he turns the harvest into homemade wine, which always tastes great but is always different with each year and batch. But that’s one of the charms and quirks of making your own wine from home-grown grapes – a bit of unpredictability.

Dad's four vines growing on the slopeAfter the leaves have gone, Dad will be out there again, pruning and training the best stems onto the wires, which made me wonder: are more gardeners growing vines and making their own wine? Or is this as unusual as it seemed when we first planted our mini-vineyard (right) all those years ago?

In fact, growing vines and grapes is popular with RHS members – as the consistency of enquiries to the RHS Gardening Advice team indicates (vines remain in the top 40 asked about topics). There have been popular movements and efforts to get people to take up home brewing of beers and ciders, but fewer regarding grapes and wine, and yet clearly people are interested. Perhaps this has something to do with early (commercial) efforts in the ‘60s and ‘70s that have tarnished the reputation of growing grapes and making wine in this country.

A bunch of 'Chardonnay grapes, provider of some of Dad's nicest wineBut this land has been capable of making good wine since the Romans introduced vines so it must be worth persevering with. Plus, things change: technology advances; new cultivars appear; and climates certainly seem to be changing – some vineyards in the south of England are now producing wines that some think are as good, if not better, than their French counterparts (a trend that may continue if the UK climate continues to warm). Given all this, and the fact that there has been an upsurge in the commercial side of wine making in Britain, it is a shame more home gardeners don’t, seemingly, experiment with grapes.

From what I’ve seen and understand, growing vines for wine is something that keeps giving to the gardener – the relationship between gardener and vine needs constant engagement. Because of this – the regular pruning and training, the harvesting and then the entire process of making wine – it is surely one of the most rewarding and pleasurable garden pastimes. Especially if you get a nice, homemade, tipple out of it at the end!

Have you ever grown vines for wine? I’d be interested to hear how any experimentation went and what gardeners might recommend for the future.

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  • ELEN

    By ELEN on 09/09/2015

    Hi Robin. Apart from grapes,harvesting young leaves when tender to make stuffed vine leaves is a very important moment in the care and gardening process of the vineyard back home in Romania. We have a large vineyard and i helped with all the chores .I remember helping grandma by layering the leaves while sprinkling with rock salt and pressing them in a large jar.Which brings me to the reason I find myself writing to your inspiring words.which vine do you recommend only for the leaves? they must be pretty large. Many thanks.

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