The idea seemed absurd. Like all my best plans, it came to me when lying under the pergola in my Tooting garden with a glass of wine in hand, looking at the grapes growing from two conjoined vines. I realised that as well as providing shade, the grapes might be destined for an altogether higher purpose. I had seen villages around Limoux in southern France diligently preparing for their grape harvests. Was it too ludicrous to imagine that I could create a Tooting wine from not only my own, but my neighbours', grapes?
I decided to start small. Last summer, I collected a bucket of grapes from my own vines and took them to the annual pressing at Bookers Vineyard in Bolney, West Sussex. Bookers sits on a hill that was part of the Butting Hill One Hundred, listed in the Domesday Book. Over the next five years, the vineyard will produce up to 80,000 bottles, and it is one of the few vineyards that offer pressings for those growing grapes in their gardens and smallholdings. Sam Linter, the vineyard's manager, says: "It is a highlight of the harvest to see these small producers bringing their grapes in, full of anticipation for the wine they will receive back, but also it is a slightly frightening responsibility."
My own harvest was modest compared with some of the other Sussex and Kent growers. I decided there and then that 2007 would be the year when I recruited more grape growers in my neighbourhood of Furzedown to make urban wine with.
The idea of England's towns turning to grape-growing is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Pete Falloon, from the Met Office's Hadley Centre, explains: "Urban areas are between two to five degrees hotter than rural areas, as heat is stored within concrete, creating an 'urban island heat affect'. So, urban wine production in areas like Tooting is a distinct possibility as wine production is moving further up the northern hemisphere."
Falloon says that while English producers such as Bookers are benefiting from warmer temperatures, there's a flip side elsewhere in Europe. " Major wine producers operate within fairly narrow climate zones, which are specific to regions and this can put them at risk. In 2003, climate variability led to a glitch in wine quality in some European areas, which had an impact on the style of the wine produced." Indeed, warming has affected Champagne producers to such an extent that they have begun buying land in Kent and Sussex.
The first task in my wine-making mission was the recruitment of sufficiently adventurous neighbours, using a community website that offers daily updates on the best plumbers, dentists and piano tuners in the area. Just a couple of hours after posting an advert, an email arrived from Greg Vincent, who lives two streets away, inviting me to come round and look at his "huge monster" vine.
This sort of open-house invite produced mixed feelings, because instant access to a neighbour's house presumed some level of understanding about vines and wines. In fact, I couldn't tell the difference between a Chablis and a Sancerre. Greg's nearly century-old vine turned out to be a thing of remarkable beauty, which grew Triffid-like along his veranda and was loaded down with black grapes. "When we moved in," Vincent told me, " the vine and the cat were part of the fixtures and fittings. The greenhouse temperatures that are created in the veranda have been perfect for maturing the grapes."
My next-door neighbour, Hugh Marchant, has a vine that climbs up half of our house. Incredibly, it was planted 25 years ago from a seed from a bunch of grapes that he had bought in the local supermarket. Next to Hugh's house, Alan the builder's vine trailed over his fence and he didn't seem at all worried by my daily scrumping of his garden's fruit.
Then a text message tipped me off about the nearby garden centre run by Stuart and Joan Mungell. A beautiful vine trailed over its reception area and Stuart's enthusiasm for the Tooting wine project was toasted with a glass of wine made from the store's grapes a few years ago. The wine wasn't bad, even if it resembled a cross between sherry and a very appealing cough medicine.
Meanwhile, my attention turned to the possibility of a network of urban wine growers across Wandsworth. Julian Abbott, an allotment owner, had four rows of vines: two red and two white. The white was a Seybal Blanc, planted for their reliability and greater mildew resistance; the red was a Triomphe d'Alsace. Abbott has already produced more than 15 bottles of white wine, which he plans to uncork this Christmas.
I set out to find someone who could undertake a quality test on any wine we produced. I decided that nearby Chez Bruce, voted London's best restaurant in this year's Zagat guide, would be a suitable judge. The chef-proprietor Bruce Poole thought that the project sounded like a fun idea and offered his sommelier to give an opinion on the wine. "We would only include it on our wine list if it was good enough, but we look forward to trying it when it's ready." I started to daydream that wine made from grapes grown in gardens, allotments and garden centres across Wandsworth might one day sit alongside the finest Chablis on the wine list in one of London's best restaurants.
Harvest day finally arrived and beneath a clear blue sky, friends and neighbours transported the grapes to Bookers in cars, vans and even by motorbike. From an assortment of wooden troughs, carrier bags and buckets, the grapes were loaded into an aluminum square bath, which Sam Linter had expertly installed within the winery. After rolling up our jeans and throwing aside our shoes and socks, Stuart from the garden centre, our neighbour Tim Edgehill and myself hung on to each others' shoulders for dear life and started to press the grapes underfoot, performing what looked like a cross between a rugby cuddle and a strange folk dance.
Linter had attached a hose to the bath to act as channel for the grape juice, and we also pressed the grapes with our hands. Sam's prediction was a disappointing half-dozen bottles. After an hour of treading and pressing, during which friends stood by and cheered us on, the results were encouraging, and we had enough grape juice to make 30 bottles of Château Tooting.
The day was particularly memorable, because Tooting residents who had not previously met discussed among the luscious Bookers vines how they would meet up with the wine and hold an "uncorking" ceremony. This sense of camaraderie and common purpose drove home to me why collective food production is such an important force in bringing people closer together. On a more practical level, I was mighty relieved that this hare-brained idea had actually come off, and that their involvement and romantic idealism would be rewarded with a great party and memories of a great day out.
South-western French winegrowing regions and their English Home Counties counterparts may not lose too much sleep with regard to the Tooting takeover. However, the small, yet significant process of producing urban wine has started, where networks of urban growers have the potential to collectively produce more wine, gin or jam. After all, why should locally sourced and produced food be the sole preserve of rural areas in Sussex or Kent? With increasing environmental awareness among consumers, and demands for locally sourced food, it should not be too long before Château Tooting and other London urban-produced wines are on offer, albeit on a small scale, at school fêtes, pubs and restaurants. Making best use of our gardens and allotments may lead to vines that could be good for wine – and then we might actually start to see the spread of the Camden Chardonnay or the Merton Merlot. Now where's that corkscrew?
DIY wine-making: the facts
By Miranda Bryant
* The vine and England have had a tempestuous relationship since the Romans, when Julius Caesar allegedly brought it over. Global warming has been beneficial for growers, however, and if you live south of Kings Lynn or in Wales, you have a good chance of successfully growing grapes.
* For a good yield, the right site and grape variety are crucial.
* The official EU-recommended grapes for the UK are: Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Schönburger and Seyval Blanc.
* Most of the wine made in England is white, because the climate is not hot enough to produce the correct concentration of sugar in red grapes. But the production of red wine is on the rise and one variety, Cascade, is making headway.
* When starting out, it is important to plant grapes at the right time of year, between October and March.
*Vines can not only be planted in the ground, they can also be grown in containers.
*When wine-making at home, it is important to take hygiene into account – or else you might get sick or ruin your brew.
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