Today was a big day. After three years of planning and building up to it, the very first grape harvest from our own small vineyard.
It has to be said that there is no great tradition of grape harvesting in the Cotswolds. There are no festivals or ceremonies that have been practiced over the years to celebrate the end of the year’s work and the bringing in of the harvest, no Bacchanalian revels sanctioned by long history. Although that’s probably just as true for the apple harvest and that hasn’t stopped modern day orchard owners locally from inventing a few traditions of their own – dancing round the apple trees, warding off evil spirits and wassailing away.
So we can probably be excused for raising a glass tonight to celebrate another successful stage passed in a long process. Not the final stage of course – that will only come when we can raise a glass of our own wine – but an important stage still.
There had been a row of vines in the garden when we first moved in over 20 years ago, but they’d never produced many grapes and we’d eventually pulled them out. I’d never forgotten them, and I must have gone on a bit about how good it would be to put some back in and make our own wine, so in the end Sue decided to call my bluff. For my birthday in early 2013 she bought me a couple of hours of consultancy from local winemakers on how to plant vines and grow grapes.
She was imagining I might plant half a dozen of them, but by the time the consultant left, I’d committed to buying 60 vines, to be planted in 6 neat rows of ten. We’re lucky enough to have a field at the bottom of our garden, so it only needed a small section to be cordoned off and suddenly we had our own vineyard. Although to be honest it wasn’t really sudden at all. It was long hours banging in fence posts, stretching stock fencing between them, digging holes in the turf to plant the vines, later extending them to form long strips, laying membrane and covering it with gravel, tending and watering the young plants, and so on. But after a year we had 60 vines grown long and ready to be cut back to three shoots for the following year.
Another year’s growth, this time in three directions from each plant and again we pruned back ready for year 3. Over the second summer I had built a system of poles and wires to support the fruit and by early 2015 we were ready to go. Two arms stretched out along the wires for the fruit-bearing shoots to climb up from, and a central stem to provide shoots for next year’s fruiting arms.
It’s amazing just how much fruit you can get from a single vine. We had proper-looking bunches and lots of them, although the grapes never reached anything like the size you’d expect from supermarket grapes. They seemed to take for ever to ripen through a long autumn, and two weeks into October the sugar levels were still too low. That wasn’t bothering the various types of wildlife who were starting to feast on them. I stretched out nets to try to keep birds out, but something was clearly still getting in under the net and munching away on the lower bunches. We seem to have had a huge number of pheasants in the garden this year and I suspect they may have a sweet tooth (or a sweet beak).
Finally though we got the green light and so this morning it was time for the ‘vendange’. From just under 60 vines (we lost a few along the way) we got 126.5 kilos of grapes. Now we just need the patience to wait another 6 months for the wine.