Horticulture Magazine

How To Grow Your Own Wine Grapes

white grapes in foreground of a vineyard

Grapes Overview

Official Plant NameVitis vinifera
Common Name(s)Grapes
Plant TypeVines
Native AreaMediterranean, Central Europe & South-West Asia
Hardiness RatingH5
ToxicityEdible
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersFlowers followed by fruits
When To SowJanuary, February, March, October, November, December
When To PruneJanuary, February, July
Harvesting MonthsAugust, September, October, November
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
12M+

Spread
2.5 – 4M

Bloom Time
Summer

Soil

Preferred
Chalk, loam, sand

Moisture
Well-drained

pH
Alkaline / Neutral

Did you know that the UK is increasingly recognised as being able to produce high-quality wine?

When you walk down the wine aisle in your local supermarket you probably expect to see names like France, Italy, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and so on.

Exotic places where the weather is warm, and where the stereotype isn’t grey skies and rain for most of the year.

But more and more, English wines are creeping into these displays: regions like Kent, Gloucestershire, and East Sussex nestled up against your Bordeauxs, Mendozas and Cape South Coasts.

a sussex vineyard
An illustrious Sussex vineyard

While the underlying reasons for this gradual shift may be a little disconcerting (climate change, anyone..?), we welcome the UK being able to contribute to and compete with the world’s best wine output.

As this sector of the economy expands so do revenues from exports and inbound tourists. So next time you’re perusing the wine racks for an evening tipple, consider buying local and trying an English bottle.

Local history and economy lesson aside, this shift also means it’s increasingly viable for British gardeners to grow wine grapes in their garden.

As I write this, for example, I can see from my kitchen window the vines winding their way up the back wall of my house, reaching valiantly for a trellis that runs just above the back door.

These vines were here when we moved in, and furnish us with an almost-overwhelming amount of grapes each year – something we did not expect to see!

If you’re interested in growing your own wine grapes – whether you intend to turn them into wine or just enjoy their lovely exotic decorative contribution – then read on.

This guide tells you everything you need to get grapes growing here.

Can I grow wine grapes in my backyard?

Yes! The UK climate is becoming more conducive to growing grapes as the years (and changing climate) progress.

The most popular way to start growing grapes for wine is to use dormant vines, or you could do what we did and move into a house where the previous occupier had already planted a bunch of vines.

Is it hard to grow wine grapes?

There’s quite a lot you need to do when growing grapes, and digging the initial holes requires a bit of elbow grease, but overall it’s most likely to be within reach of even the less experienced gardeners amongst us.

How long does it take to grow grapes for wine?

Growing vines and making wine isn’t for the impatient: it can take up to four years for your first grape harvest, and the winemaking process will add at least another couple of years onto that.

What is needed to grow grapes for wine?

If you’ve read the above and you’re still interested in growing grapes, here’s what you’ll need to do.

Essentially they need somewhere to grow, something to climb up (a trellis, a wall, a wireframe or similar), and a little encouragement to get established.

Setting up a structure for your vines

As mentioned earlier, our grapes grow up our back wall, then attach onto a trellis running across the top of the back door.

In the photo at the beginning of the article though, you’ll see them growing along purpose-built structures with wire running between vertical wooden poles.

Each of these is a viable solution, and the right choice for you depends mainly on the space available and the scale of your growing operation.

For most gardeners, a trellis on a wall or fence is probably the best shout.

We’re writing with this in mind, so if you’re planning a larger scale growing operation you may need to cross-reference with other instructions.

red grapes hanging from an overhead trellis
Wine grapes on a trellis are nice to look at

How to plant wine grapes

Start your grapes off in autumn through spring to give them the best chance to take.

If you’re using a dormant vine, soak the roots in a bucket of water, taking care not to get light on the roots. We recommend covering the bucket with a box, a lid, or something similar to block out the light.

Each vine will have a graft site at one end, which looks a bit like a knuckle. You’ll want to keep this site above the ground, meaning you’ll need to leave between 3-5cm of the vine above the surface.

You’ll need to dig a hole for each vine to go in. These should be deep enough to spread out the roots of the vine, and wide enough for a large amount of loose soil to surround it.

This gives the vine roots an easier time establishing themselves in the soil, and should result in a healthier adult plant.

Make sure the spot you choose for your grapes is reliably warm, sunny, and sheltered. A wall facing south or southwest is your best bet. Any soil type will do as long as the drainage is good.

Place a vine in its hole, then fill the hole with dirt. If you have different layers of soil, we recommend mixing them up: again, this gives the roots an easier time in accessing the various nutrients offered by each soil type.

Once the vine is in its hole, water the soil generously, holding the section of the vine above the ground with your thumb and finger to prevent it from sinking. Add more soil so the surface is flush with the surrounding ground.

If you’re concerned about critters getting at the fledgling vine you can use a plastic tube to shelter the young vine.

This has the combined benefit of protecting from hungry creatures and encouraging vigorous vertical growth towards the trellis.

Watering

Grapes usually get enough water from rainfall, but if you’re going through a dry spell (less than 2-5cm of wine in a week) we recommend watering manually.

Pruning

For the first two years of your grape vine’s life, remove all of the flowers. This lets the plant divert its energy and resources at becoming established, meaning a stronger and healthier vine when the first harvest year rolls around.

In year 3 and 4, you’ll want to limit the amount of bunches growing on each vine. Three in year 3 and five in year 4 is the general rule.

This is another way to shepherd the vine’s resources, leading to healthier and more balanced harvests in subsequent years. From year 5 onwards you can leave all bunches to grow – none need to be removed.

Fertilising

Grapes like high potassium fertilisers, and adding a layer of mulch around the base can help with moisture retention.

Different varieties of grapes have different preferences for light, too, and while it’s not fertiliser, you can add grit to the base of the plant when fertilising to help manage light.

White gravel bounces light back up at the grapes. Black gravel captures the light and warms the soil as a result.

We recommend looking into the preferences of your varieties and deciding from there whether to use grit, and if so which one to use.

Pruning

The act of pruning wine grapes is fairly complex, with different systems favoured in different circumstances and between varieties.

For this reason we’ll direct you to a resource provided by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), whose guide to pruning wine grapes contains a wealth of information to point you in the right direction.

Harvesting your grapes

You’ll be able to tell when harvest time is approaching, because your grapes will be big and bountiful:

Midnight Beauty seedless grapes
“I’ve got a lovely bunch of… grapes”

Telltale signs include dark colouration, soft to the touch, and a sugary taste. Pick a grape and give it a chew, and if they’re at their sweetest, begin harvesting.

Thankfully, harvesting is the easiest part of growing wine grapes.

Simply snip the entire bunch from the vine and into a bucket, and then move on to the winemaking process!

No need to whine when making wine

Hopefully this guide to growing wine grapes has given you enough information to get started with a grapevine of your very own.

This plant can be fairly demanding, but with a little research and the willingness to experiment, you should be fine in getting your vine established.

In the first few years you’ll be rewarded with surprisingly quick and attractive growth, giving way after that to increasingly large grape harvests. And whether you decide to make wine or not, a vine overflowing with plump, juicy grapes is a pleasure to behold.

Also remember to support British wine when you can!

As the UK becomes more established as a winemaking region we stand to benefit, both from the selection of wines available and their reduced prices and from the increase in tourism revenue as people flock to visit our vineyards.

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