The Urban Vineyard

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By Paul Olding

 

 

A guide to growing grapes in your

garden or on an allotment and

making your own great tasting wine

 

 

 

 

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Read the Preface and First Chapter for Free

 

 

 

 

 

Preface

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This book is for people who like to dream. Itís both a How To guide and a personal account of how I brought one of my own dreams to life - to have my own urban vineyard. As youíll soon discover, I grow grapevines both in my back garden at home and on a small allotment in southeast London, then convert the annual grape harvest into delicious homemade wine in a temporary winery I set up in my kitchen. Iím not an expert Vigneron or Vintner by any stretch of the imagination, and I donít come from a long family lineage of wine makers, but now in the eighth year of practical experience managing my urban vineyard, plus an additional five years prior to that reading, studying and visiting commercial vineyards (and dabbling in shop-bought home brew wine kits), I feel I have enough knowledge to help any would-be urban wine making enthusiast to grow grapes and make some great tasting urban wine.

 

Iím one of those people that like to write To Do lists, and not just one list, but various categories of list. These lists grow, things get struck off on completion, there are priority lists that need to be attended to TODAY (not sure capital letters make it any more urgent). Whilst I do get things done, to my knowledge Iíve never totally completed everything on any one of my many lists - any leftovers get added to the next list and so on. Quite a while back, a list emerged simply entitled ĎBooksí. This wasnít books I thought I should read, but books I hoped I might write. Along with potential titles on photography and assorted travelogues (both great passions of mine), plus perhaps a treatise on how to be a television Producer (for that is my current day job), I had the idea of writing about my urban vineyard and how it came to be.

 

Iím a scientist by training (a biologist with a doctorate in small, noisy Australian tree frogs) and a planner at heart, and I like to have a rigorously tested plan before I start anything. This can get a little wearing (and possibly quite annoying to my family and work colleagues), as I want to be confident I can see a start, middle and end to an idea before I embark on it. So too with the notion of writing a book about my vineyard (and indeed, with setting up the vineyard itself). The first hurdle was to work out the range and scope of my book and what I might call it.

 

preface2C.jpgAt first I had ĎThe Allotment Vintnerí as the title. It sounded pretty catchy, but a Vintner is someone who just makes wine. I say just in no sense to belittle the glorious and multifaceted art of the master wine maker who employ techniques passed down through the generations to turn grape juice into wine. But my book was to be much more than just about making wine.

 

I intended for the book to have lots of self help information about how to grow the grapes I use to make my wine, so I thought itís title should reflect this. I decided on ĎThe Allotment Vigneroní, after the French word for grape grower. But I felt again this title narrowed the scale and ambition of the book. I wanted my book to be more inclusive and cover the growing of grapevines anywhere in the urban environment, whether that be a couple of vines in your back garden, in a pot on a patio, down on an allotment or indeed on some other urban plot, perhaps as part of a community project. In this vein it even dials into the growing movement of Guerrilla Gardening whose activists bring life to ignored land, curb sides and roundabouts in our concrete jungles (Guerrilla Viticulture perhaps?). So now I was in a right pickle. If the book had Ďallotmentí in the title, it may not appeal to those without an allotment. If I called it ĎAllotment and Gardení it would certainly expand the potential interest base, but it was now getting a bit wordy. Maybe I should spell out the scope of the book in a subtitle?

 

I got thinking about what makes this book different, itís so-called Unique Selling Point or USP. Itís certainly not a guide to establishing and running a vast commercial vineyard, many of which are springing up all over southern England and Wales (and even up to Yorkshire). No, this book is about sharing my experiences of growing grapevines slap bang in the middle of the (sub)urban jungle and how you too could grow grapes to make gorgeous wine anywhere in the urban habitat. So I came to the title ĎThe Urban Vineyardí.

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This book tells the story of how I created my urban vineyard and how each year I harvest the fruits of my labour and make my own delicious homemade wine. It also provides a step by step guide for all would-be urban Vignerons and Vintners (not just in Britain, but anywhere in the world), to show how itís an entirely reasonable prospect to grow grapevines in an urban environment and to transform your home grown grapes into one of the most noble and loveliest drinks known to Humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Published in Paperback, size A5, 260 pages

with over 230 photographs and illustrations

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1. So It Begins

 

 

For many years I wanted a vineyard. It was a dream of mine to plant and nurture my own grapevines, to make and drink my own wine. It all started on honeymoon in Australia. Prior to this, I was never really a fan of wine. At school, alcoholic beverages never interested me, not by some moral choice, but as far as I recall, because I just didnít like the taste of the assorted drinks my school friends managed to consume in vast quantities. But at university, the social side of college rowing introduced me to the delights of Pimms and from Pimms came an assortment of sweet alcoholic beverages. The invention of the alcopop was right up my street, but wine was still never on the agenda.

 

So to the turn of the millennium and the honeymoon in Australia. I was sat with the new Mrs Olding on the balcony of the restaurant at a campsite in Nitmiluk National Park (aka Katherine Gorge) after a fabulous day walking in the bush and swimming in the water. With the sun setting behind the distant gum trees, for some reason, a glass of wine just seemed the right thing to have. So we ordered a bottle and it was good. So began my love affair with wine.

 

Since that turning point in the Australian outback well over a decade ago, Iíve grown not just to love drinking wine, but to love growing grapevines and to enjoy employing the ages-old techniques to ferment the juice of its berries. But this has been more a mťnage ŗ trois as opposed to a straight forward love affair, as there are two loves that have blossomed - wine and English wine.

 

 

English (and Welsh) Wine

 

1-27 grapes.jpgEnglish Wine, for many, still comes as the punchline of a joke or a comedy anecdote passed down from someone who once tasted it some decades ago. For many people, their opinion of English Wine stems from a taste of something their dad may have made at home during the 1970s, possibly not using grapes, but assorted fruits, often picked at the side of the road (creating something called Country Wine). I remember bubbling demijohns sitting on top of the freezer in our brown kitchen circa 1978, where my father (like so many other dads at the time) had purchased all the kit from Boots the Chemist (youíll struggle to find any wine making stuff there now). But English wine is so much more than the hobbyist dabblings of 1970s dads.

 

While still very much in its infancy compared to the rest of the wine-growing world, wine made commercially in England (and Wales) is now a significant and continually ex-panding, multi-award winning enterprise. Admittedly, the scale of production is still quite small - if you try to find English Wine in a world wine almanac, you may be lucky with a single mention if you look hard enough. Yet I truly believe that English wine is a blossoming addition to the New World of wine and should be ignored at your peril.

 

 

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White Castle Vineyard, Monmouthshire, Wales

 

 

Growing grapevines in England and Wales is nothing new, with the first vines brought over by the Romans. These vines were actually smuggled into Britannia illegally as emperor Domitan (AD81 - 96) had banned the growing of vines outside of Italy. Then, with the onset of the Dark Ages, while we lost (or somehow forgot) many of the Roman customs and assorted technologies, growing grapevines and making wine persisted. The Saxons still dabbled, with records made of the Wyn Moneth or month of the wine harvest which took place in October. Vineyards in England have been noted in assorted historical documents throughout the last 2000 years, including the famous Doomsday book of 1088 recording some 30 - 40 vineyards (the Normans kept the vineyards going to supply their monasteries with communion wine). But around the time Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (1152), there appears to have been a distinct drop in wine production. Eleanor was blessed with the dowry of the Garonne district of France and all its wine growing lands, and so most of Englandís wine was imported from France - something that continues to this day, with wine imports from across Europe and the rest of the world only really kicking in within the last few decades.

 

The subsequent dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s by Henry VIII, plus what some believe to be the onset of a cold period called the ĎLittle Ice Ageí helped kill off many of Englandís remaining vineyards. But some hung on. English vineyards pop up in assorted writings from the 1700s, but it wasnít until the twentieth century that oenologically minded pioneers took up the mantle once again. While a few people started to investigate the notion of growing grapes in the 1930s, the modern resurgence in Britain did not really begin until post WW2, with Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones setting up the first modern commercial vineyard at Hambledon in 1952. In 1973, he even exported some of his English wine to France and Germany.

 

 

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Denbies Wine Estate, Dorking, Surrey

 

 

1-23C bookers.jpgWithin the last 20 years or so, English wine has undergone a renaissance, not just in the number of people making it and the number of bottles produced, but in its quality, with bottles finding their way out of the vineyard tasting rooms (or Cellar Doors) into farmers markets, high class restaurants, the cellars of swanky department stores, onto the shelves of supermarkets and shipped abroad. Then there are the international wine awards English wine has started to win, including the likes of Decanter magazine, where English fizz has beaten French Champagne. In the last decade or so, itís actually sparkling wine which has become the newest wave of the new wave of English wine, with some established vineyards grubbing up original vines to plant just the three traditional fizz varietals of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and many brand new vineyards planting nothing but these (some on a huge scale). So why is English and Welsh wine doing so well?

 

 

Terroir

 

Studies by geologists interested in wine discovered that, particularly along the South and North Downs of southern England (and extending as far as Devon and Cornwall), the landscape shares many qualities with the Champagne region of France. Similarities have been noted in the composition of the rocks and soils, the topography, climate (particularly the number of sunshine hours) and even micro-climate, all of which make up the somewhat mystical quality encapsulated by the French in the term Terroir. To recognise that areas of southern England potentially share the same terroir as Champagne was an astonishing revelation, and one that has helped propel the fledgling English wine industry forward at speed. And itís not just fizz. England and Wales produce the full gamut of still wines - red, white and pink and even an occasional late harvest dessert wine. I honestly think there is nothing finer than a drop of English wine, with names like Bacchus, Ortega or Reichensteiner, grape varietals originally developed in Germany but now quintessentially English. But I digress.

 

 

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Bodium Castle Vineyard, East Sussex

 

 

Growing Grapes in Great Britain

 

1-20C chapel.jpgHaving already started to fall in love with wine itself, I also started to fall in love with the way it was created, from the techniques employed to grow vines, to what always appeared to me as the Dark Magics or mystical alchemy involved in transforming grape juice to the wonderfully interesting drink we know as wine. Outside of the bottle, I also loved the aesthetics of the vineyard - the regimented order of the vines, the warmth of the summer sun on my back as I wandered (family in tow) up and down the vines of a vineyard somewhere in Kent or Sussex and even as far afield as Monmouth and the Brecon Beacons in Wales. Then it dawned on me. If people can grow grapes in the UK and these grapes can be turned into gorgeous tasting wine, then why canít I do it? So began a challenge that to this day Iím still enjoying, a challenge and experience that I want to share with you.

 

I bought my first grapevine just after we moved into our marital home in southeast London. This was prior to me gaining any sort of in-depth knowledge about vines and I recall it was bought on a whim from a garden centre as is often the case with my plant purchases from garden centres. The grape varietal was called Ortega which Iíd never heard of before, but I thought I would give it a go. I planted it without much ceremony in our garden next to a fence where we have quite a warm sun trap for the best part of the day and hoped it wouldnít die. It didnít and is still thriving today. My interest in growing grapes then steadily grew.

 

With family still in tow, we would combine our assorted weekend days out to some Kentish medieval castle or Sussex farm with a little detour to a local vineyard. Soon, an excursion to an English vineyard even became the focus of the weekend outing, with the tank museum or petting zoo the thing we went to see after a visit to the vineyard. We would often take ourselves on a self guided tour and by that I mean nosing around the vine lines, seeing how they were trellised and measuring how far apart vines had been planted etc. I started reading books about vine growing, the wheres and whys and hows, and then seeing how the techniques were employed in the vineyards we visited.

 

 

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To develop our palettes, Mrs Olding (wife not mother) and I signed up for a course or two of wine tasting. Here we were introduced to the wines and grapes of the Old and New World, how to taste wine, how to enjoy it, and how to get something more from it than ď...Mmm thatís nice...Ē. Now Iím certainly not a wine buff (or wine bore) - if itís ď...whiff of tomcat...Ē or other such peculiar abstractions youíre interested in, best seek advice elsewhere. I reckon there are many more years needed to refine my palette to extrapolate such intricate (and possibly a tad pompous) detail. However, what I have become is an enjoyer of wine and someone whoís interested in how you create this complex and fascinating beast.

 

 

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The other thing I did was enroll on a course at the brilliant and pioneering agricultural college at Plumpton near Lewes in East Sussex. At the time of writing, this is the only place you can study the art and techniques of the Vintner and Vigneron in Britain, offering everything from evening classes, intensive crash courses (which is what I took), even a smashing Bachelor of Science degree in Oenology and assorted post graduate courses.

 

Along with the college course, over time, I gained a solid foundation knowledge drawn from books and the internet (book titles and internet links listed at the end of this book), plus countless conversations with vineyard owners (in the UK and abroad) at their vineyards or at various farming or wine events. Slowly but surely I felt at last I was able to start thinking about creating my own vineyard. And where better and more convenient to set up my fledgling enterprise/hobby, than in the urban environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All Words and Images © Paul Olding 2015