An overview of vines and vinegrowing in the UK. This is not intended as a comprehensive guide, rather more as an introduction.
Brief History  

It was probably the Romans that introduced the vine to the UK around 2000 years ago; ever since that time there have been small vineyards of one kind or another. The Venerable Bede (c. 635-735) mentions vines in his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation’. In the Doomsday book thirty-eight vineyards are mentioned, some several acres of size. In 1152 wine from Bordeaux became available following the marriage of Henry 2nd to Eleanor of Aquitaine, this provided an alternative to our produce and certainly spelt the end of commercial growing here. Added to this the vagaries of our weather have meant that we have never been able to compete on an equal commercial footing with our opposite numbers on the continent, given that the varieties of vine tried here were mostly unsuitable for our weather.

It was in 1946 that Ray Barrington Brock, established at his own expense a viticultural research station in Oxted, Surrey. There he began to carry out a systematic study of vine varieties and their suitability for our climate. From this work came a number of likely candidates for further trials, among the most important of these were Mueller Thurgau(M.T) Syval Blanc (S.B.) and Madeleine Angevine (M.A.) all producing white grapes. Of these three only the M T. was a recognised variety for wine making, the other two being French, the M.A. a table grape and the S.B an experimental hybrid. These three varieties were soon planted by enthusiasts to see if the vine and English wine could be successful.

The first contemporary commercial planting was by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury Jones who planted around three acres of vines at Hambledon, Hampshire in 1952, several other large plantings followed. In 1966 the English Vineyards Association was founded, today there are 382 vineyards in the UK producing about 2,500,000 bottles of English wine a year, most of it still white although some red is produced mainly from the Pinot Noir and Dornfelder. 

Syval Blanc in November


For the amateur enthusiast with some spare room in the back garden growing vines is not a problem. There are many varieties available that can be bought from vineyards or obtained from reputable nurseries. The most popular varieties in the UK are the three mentioned above plus Reichansteiner, Huxalrebe, Seigerrebe and Schonburger. All of these vines will ripen grapes in the southern half of England, north of Birmingham a sunny wall or cold frame may be needed. In my own garden I grow M T, M.A, S.B, Schonburger and Seigerrebe, it would be difficult to recommend one above the others although for reliable cropping and ripening I have found M.A. to be the best. For those who prefer red varieties the Triomphe d’Alsace will ripen well outside, Pinot Noir under glass.

Vines need a well-drained sunny spot, a south-facing slope is ideal. The soil quality does not need to be too good, a deep rich loam is generally unsuitable for vines as it will produce too much leaf growth at the expense of the fruit.

For the first year let the vine grow one or two canes, these can grow vertically, support them with a post, pinch out any side shoots. In winter, usually after Christmas or the new year prune back to knee height (~ 24 inches). The second year do the same again, if the growth is strong you can let the vine bear one bunch of grapes. In winter keep the strongest cane and prune the other back to knee height. You will now need to set up the trellis, vertical posts supporting pairs of wires the first pair at knee height then the next 18 inches above and the third 18 inches above that. Take the cane and bend it at right angles so it lies parallel to the first pair of wires ( don't worry it will not break) secure it to the wires, this should give you about four foot of horizontal cane.
The new fruit bearing shoots in spring of the third year will now grow vertically between the wires, again pinch out the side shoots as you would with tomatoes, pinch the tops out at five to six feet. The fourth year in winter you will prune back last years horizontal branch, select two canes from the crown of the trunk, you can now bend these two in opposite directions on to the lower set of wires, follow the same pattern from then on. This method is called double guyot and is common in French vineyards.

The thing to remember is that the vine will fruit on the current years growth so if you have an established vine, prune back in winter leaving six to eight foot of the previous years cane, try not to allow more than twenty bunches per vine.

During the summer a spraying program must be maintained to prevent the three main types of disease that vines are susceptible to these are; Powdery mildew, Downy mildew and Botrytis. The amateur grower can buy products to combat these at most garden shops or nurseries. Alternatively hybrid varieties can be grown which will require little or no treatment, for the organic grower this may be the only satisfactory way as the organic treatment of non hybrid vines still requires sulpher and copper sprays. 

Wine Making  

If you have already had experience in making home made wine then making wine from your grapes is similar only easier! It is important to start off with good quality grapes that are ripe and have as little rot as possible. I use a refractometer to measure the sugar levels, these instruments require the juice from a few grapes only. Another method is to use a hydrometer, this will require the juice from several bunches. Timing and taste can of course also be used, I never pick before the middle of October for M.A, this guarantees a good degree of ripeness, for Seigerrebe the first week in October is usually ok and for M.T end of October - start of November. I find that my grapes accumulate enough sugar to not require any additional being added during fermentation, this being 18% which will give 10% alcohol.

Once picked it is important to process the grapes as quickly as possible, for this I use a small press which can be obtained from most specialist home winemaking shops, this will press a couple of kilos of grapes at a time. All the equipment that will be used to process the grapes must be sterilized, I do this by pouring or submersing in boiling water.
Prior to pressing the grapes must be crushed or milled, this is best done in a large container, preferably by hand although some may rather use feet! Once crushed, feed the grapes into the press to extract the juice, this must then be transfered as quickly as possible into the fermentation vessel, I use 1 gallon demijohns for this purpose. When the fermentation vessel is full seal it and leave over night for the sediment to settle to the bottom. When clear, rack off the juice into another clean container ready for fermentation, keep it at ambient temperature. The yeast can now be added, I find that dry wine yeast may be added directly to the juice although some prefer to prepare a starter beforehand. The fermentation may take a few days to start, once it is well under way transfer the container to a cooler place, I leave my wine to ferment in the garden shed which is unheated, fermentation at a low temperature gives a better quality wine.
When fermentation is complete allow the wine to stand for around six weeks then rack off into a clean container and add 1 camden tablet (sodium metabisulphite) per gallon, this will preserve the wine for up to two years. I never find fining or filtering to be necessary, this may be due to keeping the wine in a cool place which will encourage settling.
Bottling should take place within six months, ensure the bottles are properly sterilized. The bottles should be stored in a cool dark place and will keep for up two years, serve lightly chilled.

Happy Drinking!

Further Information  

These are books that I have read and can recommend although some of them may be out of print now

Vinegrowing in Britain by Gillian Pearkes 1982 ISBN 0-460-04393-5. The Bible! Vine varieties, vinegrowing and winemaking. 

Vineyards in England and Wales by George Ordish ISBN 0-571-10928-4. Rather dated but with some good history and facts of vinegrowing in the UK

Grapes, Indoors and Out ISBN-0-304-31088-3. Small but useful Royal Horticultural Society handbook


United Kingdom Vineyards Association; Tel 0172863080, email


English wine producers website ,The English wine Portal


Mueller Thurgau. Grown for wine in mainly in Germany, this vine was also widely planted in the UK has been superseded by superior varieties. Susceptible to powdery mildew and rather late ripening.

Syval Blanc. French hybrid vine also widely planted in the UK due to its disease resistance. Very late ripening for our climate but an excellent vine to grow in the green house or cold frame.

Madelaine Angevine. A reliable cropper even in poor summers this vine is one of the best for the UK, seems to do very well in the south-west of the UK. Ripens early around mid October. Susceptible to mildew and botrytis.

Seigerrebe. Very early ripening around the end of September. Low cropper in my garden but good disease resistance due to loose bunches. Strong Muscat flavour Grapes.

Schonburger.  Similar to Seigerrebe but later ripening, some disease resistance.

Hybrid. A cross between European and American Varieties, this provides wine quality of the European vine with the disease resistance of the American vine.

Powdery Mildew. As the name suggests this mildew appears as a white powder on the leaves and grapes. If left untreated the leaves die the fruit will crack. Dusting with Sulpher once every 2 to 3 weeks can prevent this disease. If micronised sulpher can be obtained spraying may be more efficient.

Downy Mildew. Again a descriptive name, a white down will appear on the underside of the leaves causing them to wither and die, the fruit can also be attacked. Bordeaux mixture will control this mildew although I have not found this disease to be a problem on my vines.

Botrytis. This will cause fruit to rot and drop off the vine, dark patches will be seen on the canes, usually appears during Autumn when the fruit is ripening. Avoiding overcrowding of the vines, keeping the bunches well ventilated by removing the adjacent leaves will help restrict this disease. Spraying with a fungicide such as Benlate will help.

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