Country and Garden: Grow your own vineyard

You'll need a south-facing slope and a good grape. The rest is hard work and a bit of luck. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Culture
Last week I was sitting on the terrace of a hotel on Luxembourg's border with Germany, toasting the eclipse, whose path had crossed the country earlier in the day. In the valley below was the Moselle river, which flows through one of Germany's most famous wine regions, the Mosel- Saar-Ruwer. At this time of year, the grapes in the Moselle vineyards still look more like currants than grapes, but in a couple of months' time there will be an impressive harvest.

In part of my garden I have what I like to think of as a vineyard of my own. It is less spectacular, certainly, than those in the Moselle valley, but then, it contains only one vine. It was one of the first plants I put into my new garden, and I was unsure about its chances of success. But this summer, three years on, the first grapes have formed, and I have high hopes of a few bottles of home-produced wine to share with my friends. The sight of row upon row of vines in the German vineyards has inspired me to think about how much I more I could do, even in a much smaller space.

Although there are a number of successful commercial vineyards in the UK, the British have traditionally been more enthusiastic about drinking wine than growing it. But there is no particularly good reason why more vines could not be cultivated, at least for domestic use. They will grow easily enough out of doors anywhere south of the line between the mouth of the river Severn and the Wash; in areas further north, a conservatory or large greenhouse is needed if they are to fruit prolifically.

In countries where the summer sun is intense, vines need a certain amount of protection, which is why in areas such as Portugal's Douro you will see them planted on north-facing slopes. In the northern extremes of the wine-growing world - which includes Britain, as well as the German vineyards - a south-facing aspect will guarantee maximum exposure to whatever sun there is.

So if you are planning to grow a vine up a garden wall, make sure you pick one that faces the right way. Don't worry about winter frosts: although harsh ones can be devastating, a touch of frost can be beneficial in hardening wood and killing off unwanted bugs.

Vines have a six-month growing period, and need an average temperature of about 15C. If the grapes are to develop and swell properly, they need plenty of water, but no vine will flourish if its roots are waterlogged, so good drainage is vital.

The most common problems associated with vines in this country are those caused by damp; botrytis, or grey mould, and various types of mildew. It is essential to spray the plants with a preventive fungicide, or the vines will become weaker and the crop will suffer.

If you have just returned from a holiday somewhere hot, don't imagine that the vines you have seen on your travels will be suitable in our climate. Two of the most successful white grape varieties in Britain are Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine, both of which are good croppers; if you want a black grape, try Leon Millot, which is particularly resistant to mildew. All three are suitable as dessert grapes, as well as for wine-making.

Cultivating vines is labour-intensive, although most of the work is concentrated in a few months of the year. Planting should take place in either October or March; but don't be tempted into thinking that if you plant this autumn, you will be contemplating your first vintage by next year. Growing grapes is a long-term project; vines do not usually produce fruit until at least three years after planting.

The most time-consuming activities are training and pruning the vines, essential if you want to harvest a good crop. In the first year a single main stem should be trained up a vertical cane; horizontal wires should then be put in place to support the laterals, or side shoots, in subsequent years. These laterals should not be allowed to produce more than half a dozen leaves, or they will become weak. Cut them back hard in late autumn each year to just beyond the previous year's growth. Don't worry that you are being too brutal; it is amazing how they respond to firm treatment.

My own vine, when it is fully mature, should produce enough fruit to make about a gallon of wine. I am under no illusions about turning my small garden into a productive vineyard; but after seeing the rows of vines in the Moselle valley, I am inspired to do better. So this autumn I shall be planting enough vines to keep me in wine - eventually - throughout the year.