Listening to the grapevine...
Anna Pavord visits a pocket vineyard squeezed behind a terrace in Hammersmith
Three years on, that brew will be rather more dangerous than port, though with the same delicious tendency to light up your innards. There's nothing like damson wine to make you aware of exactly where the gullet and digestive tract are in your body.
We planted a couple of grape vines when we first came to our house, and trained them on wires along one side of a vegetable plot. My husband hoped to be able to produce vintage brews from these, but they've been a failure. I now learn from Jim Page-Roberts that we've got the wrong sort of vines: Reisling Sylvaner (Muller Thurgau). It's one of the most widely planted white wine grapes in the country, but with us it has been very prone to rot and mildew. You can spray, of course, but I want to drink wine, not cocktails of copper and sulphur.
Jim Page-Roberts is now on his third vineyard. That's if you can call a 10ft x 30ft back yard in Hammersmith, west London, a vineyard. I think you can. It's got 14 vines in it, which is 13 more than most of us grow.
Before he came to London, he had vineyards in Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. His star vine is 'Triomphe d'Alsace', but the French, he says, are snobby about it because it's not a "classic" Vitis vinifera variety. After experimenting with most vines that can be cultivated in this country, he now grows only those that will produce a crop without the prop of sprays.
"I was at a vineyard in Cahors in France - that was when I made a living writing about wine - and I saw grapes there being harvested that were absolutely blue with copper. Commercial growers spray at least seven times with copper during the growing season and three times with sulphur. I wanted to grow without spraying."
His vines are trained up and along the brick walls that make boundaries either side of the garden and over four strong steel reinforcing rods that hoop over the yard from one side to the other. You walk down the garden under a canopy of vine leaves and dark bunches of grapes, all of them tantalizingly just out of reach of your mouth.
At the end of the garden is a small octagonal hut, just big enough for two chairs and a table, where Jim Page-Roberts can sample his wines and admire the patterns of leaves and fruit that the sun throws on the paving slabs under the vine tunnel. It's like being in a room done out in William Morris wallpaper.
His 'Triomphe d'Alsace' is a monster, trained on a single stem up the left hand, south facing wall, over one of the hoops, along the top of the right-hand wall, right the way round behind the hut and then back to meet itself again on the left hand wall.
All along the stem, spurs break out, hung with bunches of small black grapes. And there's not a blotch of mildew anywhere.
Any day now he'll be picking the grapes and making his Hammersmith Nouveau. Red wines are very much easier to do in this country than white ones, he says, and his method - now that his wine is for home consumption only - is very simple. He doesn't use a press. He doesn't jump up and down on the grapes in the bath. He has the same method as we have with our damson wine: stripping the fruit into a bucket, adding yeast and sugar and then draining off the resulting brew into a glass demijohn to ferment. But he drinks his wine young. The best way, he says, with English reds. He makes three dozen bottles each year from his 14 vines.
In winter, you have to prune, for in our climate and soil, vines grow vigorously. If you leave it until spring, when the sap is rising, the vine bleeds copiously.
How copiously, I never knew until Mr Page-Roberts told me. He'd experimented, of course, cutting off a large branch of his 'Triomphe d'Alsace' in spring. It produced a pint of sap every nine hours for 13 days before the cut healed over and the flow was staunched. He had tried stopping it himself, with bitumen, with tourniquets, with a red hot iron, but to no avail.
"And did the vine die?" I asked with huge anxiety. "No" he replied briskly. "It made no difference whatsoever. It grew just as well that season as ever before."
Still, I'm not sure the vine would survive repeated attacks of that kind. Best to stick to the dormant season. Pruning is not difficult once you understand why you are doing it. It can be rather like wine drinking though. Some people think it is more fun to baffle newcomers than to enlighten them. And (like drinking wine) you learn fastest about the subject by doing it, rather than reading about it.
You must have some kind of support to train the vine on. Tie the single stem in as it grows and then spur prune it each winter. A spur is the name for the point where a side branch breaks away from the main stem. You need to cut back the side branches leaving just two buds-worth of each branch at each spur. The grapes will be produced on the canes that grow from these spurs in the following season.
In summer, the pruning need not be so calculated. You just chop back leafy growth where it is over-exuberant, so that light and air can get through to the fruit. In commercial vineyards, this is is now done with mechanical hedge cutters. Take heart from that and remember it the next time you open a book and panic at the sight of guyot, double-guyot, Geneva double curtains, Kniffen and multiple cordon pruning systems for vines. Pruning is a game, gardener against plant, and experienced players like finding ever more complicated ways of playing it.
The other great success in Jim Page-Roberts's garden is the strawberry vine, generally listed as Vitis vinifera 'Fragola'. It is better for eating than for wine making, he finds, as the grapes give a slightly foxy taste to wine. "Interesting in blends", he says, "but an acquired taste on its own." His fruit turn rich strawberry pink when they are ripe, but he says there are similar clones that produce green or black fruit. The vine is healthy, never needs spraying, but unlike 'Triomphe d'Alsace' does not produce leaves suitable for stuffing. They are rather thick and felted. As the grapes ripen, the foliage turns yellow, with the veins standing out prominently in green.
He's waiting now for a cutting of a vine grown by a Kent enthusiast with whom he's been corresponding. Called by the Guinness Book of Records the Dartford Wondervine, he thinks it's probably Vitis riparia. It produces for its owner, Leslie Stringer, a staggering harvest of 2,300 kg of grapes a season. Containing that in a garden 30ft x 10ft will tax even Mr Page- Roberts's ingenuity.
Both 'Triomphe d'Alsace' and 'Fragola' are available mail order from B R Edwards at Sunnybank Farm, Llanveynoe, Herefordshire HR2 ONL (01873 860698). Mr Edwards sells the widest selection of vines in the country. Send a stamped, addressed envelope for the full list. For an engaging account of Jim Page-Roberts's experiments with vines read his book "Vines and Wines in a Small Garden" (The Herbert Press pounds 14.99).
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