Which grapes where

Over the last quarter century I have tried many dozen grapevines. Most of them in trials inside, outdoors and many by the orchard house method in tubs. Without doubt climate warming may affect the future weather but over the last few years I have found the milder springs and longer autumns very conducive to grapes with more varieties of them cropping more often.

I notice there are more vineyards springing up, apparently however these are handicapped by European legislation and cannot plant all the different varieties available to the amateur. Of course for your own use there is no problem, so far, and you can grow any varieties for your own wine. But here I am recommending grapes for their fruit for dessert and for juicing.

You have several choices to make first about how you are going to grow your vines. Certainly in the south and east of the UK there is little problem growing a few varieties in the open with no additional shelter –though obviously they will do better the warmer and more sheltered within reason they are. Further west and north the lack of a hot autumn then a cold winter makes their cultivation harder. However given a warm wall and the range of varieties, or the success further west or north improves. Equally the reliability and quality can improve. Given a cold frame, preferably big, or a cold greenhouse or poly tunnel then even more possibilities open up, again of variety and range. By using walls or cover there is no reason some of the newer varieties cannot be cropped almost anywhere as they are so willing. Sadly though unless you trick them with the orchard house method some of the choicest old varieties really need a heated greenhouse even in the favourable south east if you want crops every year. And amazingly some of these are planted outdoors with great hope but no actual chance of success most years.

Also planting directly into the ground is not always the best option. Certainly for one vine to cover a big wall, tree, to crop heavily or in an actual vineyard then it makes sense to plant it in the ground. However in order to get more varieties into a small greenhouse, or a tiny patio it may be better to grow vines in big tubs. You exchange a lot of pruning for more watering but the control gives better cleaner crops. Especially if you use the orchard house method and bring those tubs under cover in late winter, crop them and return them outdoors in autumn. By this last method you can crop almost any variety, even the choicest, with only some sort of simple and unheated cover. The sudden improvement in their conditions by bringing them under glass or plastic gives earlier growth which gives a longer season and catches better weather for ripening. And you can squeeze a lot more varieties into the same space. Or by having several tubs of the same variety you can bring them in one after the other and extend your cropping over months.

Vines in the open ground, whether on walls or vineyards or even under cover make a lot of growth which then needs pruning- once after the flowers have formed removing all the superfluous shoots leaving just well spaced fruiting shoots, another later taking off the ends of all the shoots other than leaders and then a proper autumn tidy cutting all the new wood back to a few spurs. Put them in pots and the pruning is the same but there is so much less of it and it’s simpler as little permanent framework is built up. In the ground the vigour causes a framework to need to be built to carry the number of shoots for the plant’s heavy cropping. In tub culture the root constriction exchanges growth for reliable cropping without anywhere near the same amount of pruning. Further a huge permanent or semi permanent framework, especially under cover or on a wall, leads to a build up of pests and diseases. The small scale of the winter stumps of the tub method, plus their sojourn outdoors, ensures they remain much cleaner.

Never the less for heavy cropping on a big frame then planting in the ground does make sense. For gardeners in almost the whole of the UK, if you are going to grow just one, and especially if it’s risky, try Boskoop Glory. I have found this to out perform all others in the open ground over the years giving a crop even in adverse conditions and a superb one in good. It does even better on a wall or in a tub and can be very early under the orchard house method. It is black with a sweet juice which squeezes out well and I grow much to freeze for later. In warm gardens not on a chalky soil then Siegerrebe is a must, this does better on a wall and is really superb in a tub as it is then unbelievably early. It is one of the earliest to ripen and can be badly troubled by wasps and flies which usually have gone by the time most grapes ripen. The fantastic flavour makes this a top choice though, the little rosy berries will be cherished every one.

For landscape and just to let ramble then the Strawberry grape from America is vigorous and can crop unbelievably heavily in a good summer. I’ve made eight gallons of juice from one vine! The rosy black grapes have an odd eyeball like texture with a foxy not unstrawberry like flavour liked by children. The best feature though is the aromatic smell these fruits give off in mass in autumn perfuming the garden around. Schuyler is very similar with a blacker grape making better eating but needing a warm spot. The similar varietiess Leon Millot and Marechal Foch and Joffre are also very good outdoor performers with small tight bunches of small black grapes that come very early and rarely get much disease having a red juice that makes a wine colour well. Triomphe d’Alsace is similar but not such good eating as the others. The hybrid Seibel 13053, Cascade and Concord, are all good producers of black red wine type grapes outdoors but again their flavour lets them down for desserts. Regent is another excellent black, good eating though safer under cover, with dark red juice it ripens too late too often outdoors unless on a wall. Another new introduction, the yellow berried Phoenix I find nearly as prone to disaster as Muller Thurgau.

Indeed this is one of the main troubles- varieties that might be fair wine grapes in other parts are grown for eating assuming they will do better or be sweeter. Sadly they are rarely good eating, or more reliable or even sweeter but usually small and seedy with tough skins so although they may be fine for wine really don’t try Muller Thurgau for dessert, nor the classic Pinot Noir nor Sauvignon Blanc. Nor Seyval Blanc also known as Seyve Villard 5276 as I find that similarly disappointing eating though reliable and a good choice for wine. Likewise the very early yellows Madelaine Angevine, and Madelaine Sylvaner which are neither particularly delicious berries though regularly cropping fairly well outdoors. Precoce de Malingre and Perle de Csaba have similar yellowish green berries with equal chance of cropping and more flavour. Indeed I grow these two last in tubs as they are worth their space. But then Foster’s Seedling or Muscat Alexandria might be better still as they are also sweet, greenish yellow and yet more delicious, though trickier and more demanding. These last really must be grown by the orchard house method. I cannot recommend the reddy blacks Pirovano 14 and worse Brandt as outdoor croppers, or for growing under cover or in tubs as their taste is not to mine though I suppose you might like them. Neither to my taste are the Russian varieties Tereshkova and Gagarin with huge crops of oval tough berries with thick skins and pips so hot you could dry them as pepper. On the other hand the yellow Perlette which is seedless and reckoned self fertile is worth trying on a warm wall though I grow it in a tub. Other seedless varieties such as the yellow Himrod and the red Flame are like Perlette better grown in tubs and by the orchard house method or some other cover if good results are reliably desired. They may be seedless but that is not everything and I find none of these anywhere near as tasty as Siegerrebe or some others yet to come.

Of course given tubs and the orchard house method then you may as well grow the very best which I rate as Muscat Hamburgh, not Black Hamburgh. The former is Muscat scented and female only so it cannot be grown on it’s own, I grow it with Chasselas d’or as a pollinator. It is lusciously flavoured and my outright favourite. By comparison the ubiquitous Black Hamburg is merely big and sweet. Madresfield Court is another very good choice with incredibly eatable huge black grapes. For absolute sweetness though try the small berried yellow Buckland Sweetwater, this may even do under a cloche but in a tub under cover it can make berries of pure golden syrup. The gold standard by which all others are judged though is Chasselas d’or or Golden Chasselas which is without doubt my most reliable grape under cover never failing to produce clean tight bunches of golden transparency and hanging under cover till mid winter, and this is even worth a try on a very warm wall.