NOTES ON VITICULTURE
for aspirant vinegrowers
A cautionary note
A cautionary note
Wine has been grown in England since Roman times and fairly extensively so in mediaeval times, especially by Monastic bodies and those with great houses. The modern revival is post World War II and by the late 80's there were around 400 - 500 English and Welsh vineyards, some very small, plus many amateur garden or allotment vineyards. It is possible to grow grapes and make good wine in England and Wales but it is not easy - the U.K. is at the absolute fringe of the grape growing regions of the world. Too often enthusiasts seem to want to see it as otherwise. In any 10 years only 1 or 2 will be really good, 1 or 2 will be near or total disasters and the rest will be average. The curious thing about the vine is that it actually produces the best wine at the limit of its possibilities. In very hot countries it produces quantity but not quality, in cool countries it can produce quality but not so much quantity. So in England, whilst disappointments will be many and quantities will generally be small, quality can be outstanding and can equal or beat the best of any other wine-producing country in the world.
Growing vines is, of course, a long term project. In these days of "instant results" it can be daunting to realise this, but, from planting it will be 3 or 4 years before you get your first small crop and 5, 6 or 7 before you are at full production.
Amateur viticulturists pursuing their interest in their spare time may, probably will, understandably glean their knowledge from books, from expeience and even from the Internet. If you are intending to make your living from your viticultural activities, either by working in a vineyard owned by someone else, or by investing in a commercial vineyard of your own, you would be very well advised to take appropriate education and training courses and gain qualifications through teaching establishments such as Plumpton College in East Sussex. Not only will the skills and knowledge you acquire equip you to undertake the work successfully, but also you will be much more employable and much better equipped to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that you will inevitably have to endure as a viticulturist and/or winemaker, especially in England and Wales.
The notes which follow are intended for amateur vinegrowers who may have found it difficult to find a brief guide elsewhere. For aspirant professional viticulturists they are intended as no more than a taster. As their author, I would urge you to move on in the ways I've suggested and acquire real knowledge before investing substantial time or money in grape-growing in England. So, if all these cautionary "health warnings" have not put you off, enjoy the notes!
A site for a vineyard, be it big or small, in England or Wales needs as much going for it as possible. It needs to be:
1. Open to the sun - preferably from dawn to dusk.
2. If a sloping site, to face south (i.e. to be angled towards the sun). South-east or south-west may be OK.
3. To be sheltered from the prevailing winds (if necessary by planting trees such as Italian Alder or by man-made wind-breaks).
4. To have well drained soil. A sandy loam is best but vines (and/or suitable root-stocks) can be found to grow on nearly any type of soil (careful selection of varieties and/or root-stocks is needed). However no vine will survive really heavy water-logged clay (or water-logged anything else). Drainage of unsuitable land before planting may be needed.
5. Soil can be anything from slightly acid to fairly alkaline but the pH value of a particular site may be such that some varieties will grow there whilst others won't. With grafted vines it is possible to overcome this to some extent and to grow otherwise unsuitable varieties providing the right root-stock is selected.
The selection of varieties suited to a particular site and climate is crucial to success. Many English vineyards have not been planted with the most suitable varieties and some that have failed have probably done so for this reason. Over the last 50 years a lot has slowly been learnt about varieties suitable for English and Welsh climates and a number of new varieties have been bred. Because of the breeding and identification of varieties most suitable for England & Wales, the varieties being planted now tend not to be those which were planted 30 years, or even 10 or 15 years ago.
The official EU "Recommended Varieties" for the UK are:
There are another 12 "Authorised" varieties and another 18 "Provisionally Authorised", so there are lots to choose from - in addition a non-commercial amateur grower can plant any variety that exists! I list below those which those who know seem to regard as the most promising (at the moment). The 6 "Recommended" varieties plus Bacchus account for over 70% of UK vineyard plantings. The tendency now is to choose varieties which are capable of producing commercially viable yields (Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc) - a lot of the varieties which have been planted have very low yields - though some vineyards argue, logically, that it is better to go for quality than quantity and the per bottle selling price can more than compensate for lower quantities.
MULLER THURGAU *
(Sometimes called Rivaner) Widely planted in England but vulnerable to disease. Probably out-dated now.
Riesling ancestry. Produces very good wines. Fair yields. Ripens just after Madeleine Angevine. Susceptible to powdery mildew but quality may make care worth effort.
MADELEINE ANGEVINE 7672. ***
(Not the French dessert grape of same name) Early ripening, moderate vigour and disease resistance. Rapid loss of acids makes harvesting date critical. Good wines possible and good for blending. One of the better bets.
Highly aromatic, can make delicious wines. Ripens very early and is as a result very vulnerable to wasp attack. Reasonable disease resistance.
Good to excellent wine quality. When fully ripe with acids under control wine has good Sauvignon Blanc style. Medium to high yields. Can have botrytis problems.
Will ripen on poor to moderate sites. Light fruity character. Medium to high yields. Higher natural sugars than most varieties.
SEYVAL BLANC ******
(Also known as Seyve Villard 5/276). An interspecific hybrid which is much planted in England. Most disease resistant variety grown in UK. High yields. Ripens late or very late. Neutral, almost Chardonnay in style, though lighter. Easy to grow.
The big name in world wine just now and probably planted in UK mainly because of that. Needs to be under glass or polythene to be certain of ripening.
TRIOMPHE D'ALSACE: **
Present in quite a few UK vineyards but not fashionable to plant now.
CASCADE (Siebel 13053): Crops well. Acids can be low for a red. Hybrid. Origin - New York State.
LEON MILLOT: **
Crops can be small. Can get high sugars and good colour.
RONDO (GM6494/5) ****
New variety, not much planted yet. Said to be most promising red so far. Interspecific hybrid. Very early ripening and prolific. Tough skins seem not to attract wasps. Good acids and sugars.
PINOT MEUNIER (Often sold in UK as Wrotham Pinot): *
There are several specialist suppliers of vines and they are the best source of supply because they import directly from continental sources. Look at the suppliers' webpages on this website - you need look no further!
Specialist suppliers tend to deal in bulk of course - I am sure they will supply you if you are wanting at least a dozen or two vines, but often, of course, they are dealing with commercial growers wanting hundreds or thousands of vines. If you only want two or three vines and don't already know of a source of supply near home I suggest you look at garden centres or better still, local vineyards - quite a lot sell rooted cuttings or container grown plants. If you buy a well established container grown vine it will probably be in at least its second year or maybe even third whereas a cutting could be in its first. Although the books say you won't I think you might save a year in the maturation process by buying well established container grown plants. They may be dearer, but not necessarily so. Some vineyards seem to charge £4 - £5 per plant. This is too dear if you want a dozen or two. I have paid around £1.75 for ungrafted vines in small quantities in the last couple of years, but some were only £1.50 whilst others were £2.00. Grafted vines are, naturally, more expensive - but see below for the arguments for and against). And see the suppliers' price lists on this website - e.g. Winegrowers Supplies.
For vines on walls or in green-houses some form of spur training is normally used (see reading list). For vines in an outdoor vineyard the most popular trellising system is that named after Dr Guyot. This is said to produce the best and highest quality crop per unit area of land. There are two versions, single Guyot and double Guyot and the double system seems most popular (As the vine grows and mature it may first be trained on the single Guyot and then as it reaches maturity, on the double Guyot system).
Vines need to be planted a minimum of four foot intervals in rows between four feet six inches and up to six or even eight feet apart (the larger distances if a tractor or other machinery is to be used for spraying etc). Five to six feet between rows is a reasonable compromise if no machinery is to be used, whilst six, seven or eight feet (or even more) may be necessary where tractors or other machinery are to be used - depending on the dimensions of the machinery plus allowance for manoeuvring and the depth of the vine-hedge.
The basic conundrum is to have the rows close enough together to create a warm micro-climate but not so close that they shade each other from the sun or encourage the spread of disease due to poor air circulation. A reasonable compromise seems to be four foot six to five feet with north-south rows but more with east west rows or if machinery is to be used. Some experts argue that the height of the vine "hedge" should equal the distance between the rows (so, if height of the vine "hedge" is 7 feet, then the spacing between rows should also be 7 feet.
It is as well to think through the relative arguments about spacing because it is not easy to change your mind later. I have seen a number of vineyards where the grower has obviously decided his rows were too close (at say 5 feet) and his only practical solution has been to take out alternate rows, meaning they are now spaced 10 feet apart, which is probably wider than he would have chosen.
The trellis is a series of galvanised (or stainless steel) wires with the lowest one a single fixed wire and the higher ones twin wires spaced by the width of the posts (which need to be fairly substantial), and these twin wires are best be hooked over nails and fastened in such a way (by short lengths of chain at the row ends so they can be raised or lowered and so the tension can be adjusted. There need to be 2, 3 or even 4 of these twin wires. There needs to be some method of adjusting the tension on the bottom (fixed) wire as well. For short rows this can be done with long "J" bolts inserted through a hole drilled in the end post, but for long rows one of the purpose built tensioning devices is the best answer.
Most of the older books seem to advocate the bottom wire really pretty low (say 12 or 15 inches) and this can advantage the ripening grapes which will in due course hang down below the bottom wire by getting extra heat from the ground. However it also puts them very close to the ground and even more vulnerable than they already are to being eaten by birds, rabbits, badgers, squirrels, foxes or what have you. Some of the vineyards I have seen have the lowest wire at 30 inches or even higher. This then may push up the height of the top wire accordingly. The older books tend to talk about posts with 4 feet or 4 feet six above ground, whilst more recent practice seems to be to go to 6 feet or 6 feet 6 inches above ground (which means posts at least 8 feet or 8 feet 6 inches long) and some vineyards seem to go for trellises as high as 8 feet or so. Clearly, if you adopt a system where the vines grow very high then it may have implications for the spacing between rows to avoid shading. Also if you want to keep the vineyard looking very neat you can do so easily at six or even 6 feet but not so easily at 8 feet high.
I planted my mini-vineyard in Coventry with the bottom wires at between 20 to 24 inches but I have moved them higher (30 - 36 inches).
The detail about pruning and training by the Guyot system is best got from one of the suggested books. It needs carefully thinking about to grasp it but then is like riding a bike. At any rate, starting from scratch, you have 2 or 3 years to get to grips with it. The key thing to remember is that what you do this year will fundamentally affect the actual crop next year because the fruiting spurs grow from the previous year's wood. The Guyot system (and indeed other systems of cane-pruning) continually renew the wood from which the fruiting spurs will grow and this, allegedly, produces the best productivity and quality. Some growers argue strongly in favour of spur pruning, in which the same spurs are kept from year to year. It is not clear to me which system is best, but I am experimenting with both.
A pest called Phylloxera (the vine louse) nearly wiped out European vines last century when it was accidentally imported from America. The solution was found to be to graft European vines on to root-stocks from native American vines which were tolerant of Phylloxera. England has been fairly free of Phylloxera, though outbreaks do happen (some currently). Probably most vines grown in England are on their own roots. They are cheaper (a bit) if bought, or obviously they can be grown from cuttings (the easiest and cheapest way of propagating vines. Vines on their own roots last much longer (100 years+ compared with 30 to 40 years if grafted) and, some say, produce better wines. Some vines are only available grafted and some only ungrafted. Basically, in England, you are taking a risk, but probably a small one, by planting un-grafted vines. Quite a few English vineyards are on their own roots. It is arguable that a commercial venture is unwise to risk it but a small scale amateur has not so much to lose by doing so.
Hybrid vines are a cross between European and American vines and so can have built in tolerance. Some of them are also very resistant to disease. However they are frowned on by the purists and cannot be used in "quality wines". This is almost entirely a combination of snobbishness and a restrictive trade practice and some would say that the best vines to plant in England are hybrid vines, mainly because of their yield and in-built disease resistance. I think I am one such!
Like any plants, vines can suffer from various pests and diseases etc. Some are more vulnerable than others and it seems sensible to try and plant those which have some built-in resistance. Mildews and botrytis are real hazards in grape-growing in the British climate which is often damp. By the time there are visible signs it may well be too late to do anything about it so most vineyards adopt a programme of preventitive spraying which lasts most of the growing season against mildew, rot and pests and even the few organic vineyards have to spray using sulphur and copper solutions which are permitted to organic growers. It seems desirable to follow the organic growing principles and to avoid using chemical sprays and pesticides if possible but there is a real likelihood of the entire crop being destroyed if some preventive spraying is not done - by the time you realise you have, say, downy mildew, it is probably too late.
The planting of rose bushes at row ends was a traditional indicator for the presence of mildews - roses, supposedly being more sensitive than vines (I'm not sure whether the traditionalists got this the wrong way round!). Seyval blanc has excellent resistance and if you want to avoid spraying it is one of the very few able to survive such a regime. Some problems can be avoided by preventive measures which are easier in a mini-vineyard than a big one - such as netting against birds.
Vineyards seem to vary greatly in the extent to which they have a problem from birds or other animals. Whilst typically the problem with grapes in England is that many varieties don't ripen soon enough, a few actually ripen too early and are vulnerable to being eaten by wasps. In a small vineyard this can be countered by putting cut-up tights or stockings over individual bunches but clearly on a large scale this isn't feasible. Black grapes seem to be more easily noticed by birds and other animals and will almost certainly need to be netted. Birds or squirrels, or even rabbits, foxes and pheasants (if the crop is low) can demolish your entire crop at an alarming speed. If you don't net, you may well need some form of scaring device (audible or visual) in the weeks before harvest. Some English vineyards seem to have no problems at all with birds, but they are, I think, the exceptions.
Winter (December to March) - pruning/tidying/taking cuttings
Spring (April to May) - manuring/feeding soil/bud burst/spraying starts
Early summer (May to early July) - flowering/spraying
Summer - the grapes growing, the vines putting on considerable length/trellis management
Grapes ripen (if they ripen at all) fairly late in England - mid-September at the earliest out of doors and mid - November for the later ones. In a normal years most ripen between mid-October and early November. The wine making must start as soon as the grapes are picked - see the reading list, all of these books cover wine making well. It may be 6 months or a year before the wine is ready to drink. Many English white wines are fairly high in acids and so keep and mature quite well, up to 4 or 5 years or even longer.
In order of simplicity - simplest first.
"Vines and Wines in a Small Garden" by James Page-Roberts (A good read, straightforward, debunks the myths)
"The Art of Making Wine" by Betty Sampson (Mainly about country wines, but a good short section on growing grapes and making wine from them- Mrs Sampson of Loddiswell Vineyard, Devon is very experienced)
"Vinegrowing in Britain" by Gillian Pearkes
These notes are gleaned from personal experience and reading - no responsibility is taken by the author for the safety or efficacy of following them in any way. I acknowledge, with thanks, all themany sources to which I am indebted for the modest knowledge I have of vinegrowing in England. My interest in the subject has, nearly, lead me to enter the commercial vinegrowing field, but not quite (at least, so far!). As compensation for this deprivation I have established a garden vineyard in the Midlands of England, an experimental vineyard overlooking an ancient churchyard in south-east Cornwall and am currently planting a (very) small field which has an excellent south-facing slope towards the sun, but is too close to the sea and not sheltered enough to be called ideal.
Finally, I would encourage aspirant vinegrowers, amateur or professional, to join the UKVA (United Kingdom Vineyards Association). This actually works on the basis of joining your nearest regional association (there is one for each part of the country, nearly all of which are affiliated to the UKVA natuonally). membership of the regional body, in most cases, also gives one membership of the national body. The opportunity to meet and discuss things with other growers, most of whom will have much more knowledge and experience, is very valuable and it is also a good way to see how others do things as well as a way of getting to know other growers and winemakers socially. The cost is quite reasonable (something like £25 per year if you don't have a commercial vineyard)and worth it just for the Association's quarterly journal - "The Grape Press". Hopefully, over time, this website will bring growers together, at least over the Internet, but it is not intended in any way to supercede the benefits of meeting folk face to face as you can at UKVA and Regional Winegrowers Associations.
This page established 11 December 1997, updated 2 December 1998 and revised and extended for this website on 11 December 1999.