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Evidence suggests the history of wine dates back to the neolithic period, many thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show that priests and pharoahs enjoyed the odd glass. The Romans introduced the grape vine to Britain: one of the main wine-producing areas of Roman Britain seems to have been the Nene Valley, in what is now Northamptonshire.
The Domesday Book records many vineyards in 11th century Britain, but there was no significant wine industry. English wine was of poor quality and fine imported French wines put English vineyards out of business. These days, the British wine industry is doing a bit better!
Vines are hardy but ideally they need a dry warm summer and a cool winter. Avoid planting in a frost pocket as this may damage early flowering and young shoots. Ideally, find a site facing south-east or south west to allow maximum ripening sun. Alternatively the vine will thrive in a conservatory.
Vines will thrive in most soils from chalk to clay. Avoid waterlogged soil as this can cause root rot in winter. To plant dig a hole twice the size of the root pack and refill the bottom of the hole with some rich soil or compost. Spread out the roots of the vine and back fill the hole to the base of the stem.
This needs to be done to ensure a decent crop. Grapes are produced on current years shoots from previous years wood. Allow the vine to grow unrestricted for the first summer. In December/January cut away everything except one of the long shoots that grow from the main stem. Tie this to a horizontal wire or fence about 5 ft from the ground. The spring will see lots of new shoot, which should produce grape bunches at their base. Pinch out some shoots in summer if they start to intrude, but leave at least 2 to continue the same routine next year.
Thick-skinned eating varieties of grape can be picked in November, even if severe frosts have caused leaf fall. Otherwise, cut branches when grapes ripen in late autumn.
Apart from eating your grapes straight from the vine, and, or course, producing your own wine there are numerous possibilities to make the best of the fruits of the vine - as well as their leaves.
Wash 10 pounds of grapes with stalks removed and mash well. Add 1 crushed campden tablet and the juice of 2 lemons. Cover the container and leave for 24 hours. Sieve the liquid into a large bowl and squeeze the remaining pulp in a muslin bag to extract the remaining juice. You should have approximately 1 gallon of juice. Stir in 1 pound of white sugar and one pack of activated Sauternes yeast, following the supplier?s instructions. Siphon liquid into a fermenting jar and ferment under an airlock in a warm place (18 - 24C). Rack and store for at least 3 months. Bottle and lay down for 6 months before drinking.
Apart from wine and the more obvious culinary virtues of the fruits, don?t neglect the leaves, which can be used for making dolmades, or for wrapping quail or red mullet prior to grilling. Finally, when pruning, save the clippings and dry them out. These are useful for adding to a barbecue to produce embers for your grilling.