Establishing a vineyard – Tips for successful grape growing

If you’ve ever thought of ‘growing your own wine’, then now is a good time to start thinking about ordering your vines and laying out the structure of your new vineyard.

Since getting my plot over a decade ago, I’ve gradually expanded the amount and variety of grape vines I’ve grown, from a vine trained around my shed, to six rows of productive red and white grapes at the bottom of the plot – showing just how easy they are to grow when you know how.

Being on free-draining chalk means that our site is ideal for most grape varieties – and indeed, many of the French champagne houses are now expanding their operations into Sussex, as climate change and the similar terroir make our area a lucrative one for commercial wine production.

To set up my more modest ‘vineyard’ I also followed the French in their method of growing and training: establishing a post and wire system to which I tie in two main stems each year from which all new growth sprouts (known as the ‘Double Guyot System’), as well as to hold back all the vigorous lateral growth and support the grape bunches as they develop.

Based on what I’ve read and more importantly, what I’ve experienced of establishing a vineyard on Whitehawk Hill, I’ve created this short guide, which will also hopefully help any of you also considering growing your own grapes for wine:

A simple guide to setting up and managing your own vineyard in Ten Steps

1. Dig in garden compost/manure in the area where you will have your rows (North – South direction with plenty of sunlight throughout the day)
2. Set up 1.5m (5′) posts 1.5m apart along your row, allowing 1.5m between rows. They will last longer if you use metposts or similar to stop the bases rotting.
3. Pin a 2mm galvanized wire between the posts at 60cm above ground level
Plant one vine in between posts
4. Place a 1.8m (6′) cane next to the vine and tie both in to the wire
5. Train and tie one stem up the cane, removing any side shoots as necessary

Year One: Newly planted vines in rows
(note the netting around each to provide wind protection)

6. If the vine had reached the top of the cane by the end of the previous year and most growth is at least pencil-thick, then remove the cane and pull down the stem either to left or right along the wire. Cut off any excess growth beyond the post, then twist the stem along the wire to hold it in place.
(If the vine had not grown sufficiently or is distinctly weedy, then continue to allow it to grow straight up the cane again this year.)
7. Set up a double line of wire (both sides of the posts) at heights of 90cm 120cm and 150cm above ground level.
8. As the laterals grow up from the twisted stem, push them in between the wires. Rub off any growth coming from below the 60cm wire.

Year Two – some vines have had their main stem pulled to the left,
while weaker vines continue to grow straight up the cane

YEAR THREE (and thereafter)
9. In January/February choose two laterals near the centre of the vine to become your new stems. Remove all the other laterals and last year’s twisted stem.
10. Twist one of the laterals along the wire to the left and one to the right to hold them in place. Again, as per Year Two push laterals in between your wires as they grow.

Pre-empting problems

While grape vines are generally pretty easy to grow, don’t usually need feeding and will often fruit within two years of planting, I’ve had a few setbacks that are worth highlighting to make sure you don’t have the same problems!:

1) Ensure your planting site is sheltered or put up some sort of windbreak – The first year I planted young vines on Craven Vale a strong persistant north-easterly wind stripped the plants of all their leaves and many ended up dying.
2) Look out for vines that are struggling – Some grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon in particular) suffer from nutrient deficiencies on our thin chalk soils, evidenced by yellowing or purpling leaves. Either top dress the soil with a layer of seaweed in spring or water with a seaweed and sequestered iron feed through the season
3) Thin all leaves away from developing grape bunches – Without sufficient air circulation, the grapes can easily develop botrytis (mould) or mildew, effectively ruining the crop. Making sure the area underneath the vines is weed free will also help with reducing the incidence of disease.
4) Leave grapes to mature on the vine for as long as you can – Depending on the weather, you should aim to harvest your grapes in late September/early October. Up till that point, pick off any obviously rotting or wasp nibbled grapes to stop disease spreading to the bunch. The longer you leave them to mature on the vine, the more natural sweetness you’ll get.

Recommended varieties

(generally more disease resistant, productive and of good flavour):
Red – Regent
White – Seyval Blanc

Recommended suppliers

Victoriana Nurseries

Published by Nick

A plotholder on Craven Vale Allotment since 2010. I'm particularly proud of my expanding vineyard, which in a good year creates litres and litres of red and white wine! I love our site for the fabulous views over the sea and Downs, as well as the wealth of wildlife that can be found here. It really is a bit of countryside in the heart of the city. I feel very lucky to have my plot.

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